Vikings' Super Bowl dreams end with missing playoffs, plenty of questions

Year 1 of the Kirk Cousins experience did not go as planned for Minnesota. Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings ended the season a with a 24-10 loss to the Chicago Bears to finish 8-7-1. Here's a recap of the season and what's next:

Season grade: Average. The Super Bowl-or-bust expectation was set the moment quarterback Kirk Cousins signed his three-year, $84 million contract with the Vikings in free agency. A commitment of that magnitude put pressure on a team coming off a deep postseason run in 2017 with one of the most talented rosters in the NFC. The Vikings believed with their stout defense, an upgrade at quarterback would help propel them into uncharted territory. While Minnesota finished above .500, there was no marquee victory. The Vikings struggled against superior opponents and weren’t able to pull everything together until late in the season.

Season in review: The Vikings' splash in free agency, landing Cousins and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, is just one part of the 2018 story. The season started out with tragedy when offensive-line coach Tony Sparano died suddenly at age 56 two days before rookies and quarterbacks reported to training camp. Minnesota scrambled to fill the void left by the loss of Sparano, a deeply trusted confidant of coach Mike Zimmer. The offensive line became the team’s weakest link. Down three starters to begin the season following Joe Berger's retirement, Mike Remmers moving from right tackle to right guard and Nick Easton's season-ending injury, the line battled ups and downs. Former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo orchestrated an effective passing attack with Cousins, but his unit ranked in the bottom half in scoring and efficiency. A difference in offensive philosophy between DeFilippo and Zimmer over the run game -- particularly involving the usage of Dalvin Cook once healthy -- reached a breaking point after losses at Chicago, New England and Seattle. DeFilippo was fired ahead of Week 15. Minnesota’s vaunted defense struggled early on, hitting rock bottom in a 38-31 loss to the Rams in Week 4 before finding its identity again. The modifications to the scheme put in place after the Vikings got bounced from last season's NFC title game had to be simplified. For as much talent as Minnesota has across the board, this team wasn’t able to string together many complete games when all three phases were playing at the same level.

He said it: "I do think that we can point to some times throughout the year where we’ve underachieved, not because we weren’t giving effort or preparation, but we just haven’t been able to sustain the level of potential in this locker room, play in and play out." -- Cousins

Offseason questions

What happens to the coaching staff and front office? The Wilf family might have some important decisions to make this offseason. Will blame be placed on the coaches or front office for the Vikings underachieving in 2018? Zimmer’s defense, despite a rough start, held up its end for the better portion of the season, but ownership needs to determine how much of the blame should fall on the head coach. Zimmer’s contract is up in 2019, so he would likely enter next season on the hot seat. General manager Rick Spielman might also come under fire due to the signing of Cousins not yielding quicker results and the state of the offensive line, which didn’t receive the upgrade it needed via free agency or the draft. Beyond Zimmer and Spielman, the Vikings need to decide about removing the interim tag from the title of offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski. Sources confirmed to ESPN that Stefanski did not sign the rollover in his contract after the 2017 season, meaning he’s not under contract in 2019. If Stefanski chooses to leave, the Vikings will be in the market for yet another offensive coordinator.

Will the Vikings upgrade their offensive line? The offensive line is going to receive a bulk of the blame, which means the pressure is on Spielman and the scouting department to address the weak link. Minnesota has not spent a first-round pick on an offensive lineman since 2012, when it selected Matt Kalil fourth overall. While Kalil didn’t pan out here, most offensive linemen drafted in the higher rounds have a better shot at becoming long-term starters. The Vikings would be wise to spend their draft capital on the offensive line after seeing how beneficial it was to take tackle Brian O'Neill 62nd overall in April. The easiest way to yield a strong return on investment in Cousins is by bringing in the right personnel to protect him. This offseason, it starts with addressing the interior and finding upgrades for Tom Compton and possibly Remmers.

What happens to Anthony Barr and other pending free agents? Barr was the odd man out after the Vikings signed Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs to extensions in the offseason. The linebacker was an effective pass-rusher at times, and he might want to get paid like one and be a part of a defense that regularly plays to his strengths (i.e., as a 3-4 outside linebacker who rushes the passer). The Vikings don’t have a lot of salary-cap space in 2019, and placing the franchise tag on Barr would make it tough to make any significant moves. Remember, Minnesota also has to decide whether to work out a long-term deal with Richardson while accounting for possible contract restructures with Kyle Rudolph, Everson Griffen, Andrew Sendejo and others.