Remember when the third preseason game used to be called the “dress rehearsal?”
Oh, how young and foolish we were.
Wait, never mind, that was still happening in Minnesota up until last year.
How about last year though? Sometimes in sports — and life — we don’t realize how wild something was until we have enough time to look back and think, what the heck was that?
That’s how it feels as we calmly approach the Vikings’ third preseason game. One year ago, when the Vikings traveled to Kansas City to play their final preseason game of the year they had a few what-the-heck-was-that moments that were signs of the turbulence that was about to hit the 2021 season.
Some of you might have blocked all of this out, so I’ll hit the refresh button. Because Kirk Cousins missed time during training camp due to a COVID close contact the offense was having a tough time getting it together in practice and Mike Zimmer decided to play his starters against the Chiefs. Right off the bat the starting right guard — who is now the Vikings’ backup right tackle and might not even make the roster — had a miscommunication on a Chiefs blitz and got Cousins smacked in the face for a sack.
Now we don’t know for sure that Kevin O’Connell isn’t going to play Cousins on Saturday against the Denver Broncos but it seems unlikely considering Cousins sat out the only home preseason game. In hindsight playing the starting QB to get him a handful more vanilla reps and then nearly getting his head taken off seems kind of bad.
Cousins did survive his hit in Kansas City but Irv Smith Jr. did not make it out of last year’s “all-important” third preseason game. He suffered a season-ending knee injury. His teammates were as upset about that after watching Smith Jr.’s tremendous training camp as any injury since Teddy Bridgewater. Presumably part of their frustration was the senseless nature of having him playing that night.
Everson Griffen looked great in that matchup with Kansas City. The Vikings signed Griffen late in camp because their hopes of having developed any other defensive ends were dashed early in camp — and there was that whole Yannick Ngakoue thing — so they desperately needed Griffen to be great again. He blew the doors off some poor backup Chiefs lineup and you saw his lightning quick burst off the line of scrimmage so there was no question he was going to be the old Everson but the fact that the Vikings allowed themselves to get to the point where they were hoping and praying they’d have anyone to play across from Danielle Hunter was not a great sign. It spoke to the mismanagement of the roster as a whole around Cousins’ expensive contract and the failed draft picks who they always seemed to claim would be the next Everson or Danielle on draft day.
After the game against the Chiefs, Zimmer admitted that the team was in a lot of trouble if anyone got hurt. Well, Zimmer was absolutely right about that but what a thing to say after a preseason game. Get your tickets now folks!
That was all pretty nuts, right?
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A year later the Vikings very likely won’t put their most important players in harm’s way. They aren’t desperate for a last-minute signing to be the lynchpin to the entire defense and the head coach won’t tell everyone how screwed they are if something goes wrong.
Instead there is going to be a punt-off. No, seriously. Special teams coordinator Matt Daniels said they still haven’t decided whether Jordan Berry or Ryan Wright is going to be the punter so there is actually going to be a competition in the final preseason game for which guy can punt better. Though he also admitted that kicker Greg Joseph will have a say on which guy is the better holder. That is a snoozy storyline but anything to do with kicking is a big deal around here.
The other storyline we’ll be watching is whether Kellen Mond plays. He didn’t take any practice reps on Tuesday and it seems like they might be more apt to keep Sean Mannion on the practice squad. Or do we have ourselves a good old fashioned showcasing? We haven’t had a showcase since the Vikings were trying to sell Laquon Treadwell on the open market and got no offers.
There’s some other things to keep an eye on. The punt returning situation has been a rollercoaster. Depth receivers get to make their last case for a roster spot. The TY McGill story has taken Minneapolis and parts of St. Paul by storm. Will first-round pick Lewis Cine play after missing some practice this week? Will anybody from the draft class give the team reason to believe they can be the future? Maybe Ty Chandler or Brian Asamoah? Can anyone from the 2021 draft class make a final push?
So there’s stuff to watch. If you Google “things to watch in the Vikings’ final preseason game,” there will be some results. But you probably won’t remember this Saturday night’s game about 10 minutes after it’s over, unlike last year when the final preseason game was only a dress rehearsal for upcoming madness.
Does that mean that the 2022 season will be better? Who knows. ESPN doesn’t think so, they ranked the Vikings 23rd in their power rankings. Draft Kings has the over-under at 9 wins, weighted slightly toward the under. So that’s not a lot different.
Yet it does feel different. It doesn’t seem like things are crashing down. There is some intrigue about a new offense and defense. There’s a schedule of teams that haven’t had the best training camps i.e. Chicago, New Orleans, Jets/Giants and so forth. There hasn’t been calamity before we even made it to Week 1. Maybe that’s a sign, maybe not. But it can’t be a bad omen, especially after last year when we saw what bad omens in camp look like.
So Saturday night will mark your last chance to have a relaxing Vikings experience before the regular season. Just enjoy the punt-off and the last shades of summer. And maybe take a second to reflect on how we used to make a big deal of this preseason game for only the football gods know why.
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