The Vikings haven't made personal plans for January the last three years. Why? The last two they were still working, including a deep playoff run that extended to the end of January in 2010.
Nobody in the Vikings locker room could have anticipated that they would be cleaning out their lockers and heading home before many of them had even taken down their Christmas decorations. When asked how long it would be until he was back on the links, avid golfer (and NFL kicker) Ryan Longwell didn't hesitate.
"24 hours," he said. "If you had asked me that last summer, I would have said February, but a lot of things changed since then."
As the Vikings head off in 53 different directions, they do so knowing that the time they spent together Monday will likely be the last time they see many of their 2010 teammates for the rest of their lives. There are going to be a lot of changes coming and who stays and who goes is something Vikings like Kevin Williams, who isn't one of the 18-plus Vikings that will become free agents, said nobody knows how the locker room will be constituted next year when, barring a strike, they return to Mankato to start the process all over again.
"That's not for me to decide," Williams said. "I know I need to play better. That's all I can work with right now. We've still got good talent, whoever comes back next year. We have to mold that talent and try to go at it next year."
For some players, the time off will be a welcome relief from the nightmarish 2010 season. For others, the work will continue. Every player is different in his own approach to the end of one of the most frustrating seasons since the 2001 disappointment the led to Denny Green's firing and the 1984 debacle in which the Less Steckel-led Vikings became a laughingstock and set the franchise back to unprecedented mediocrity.
Some players will use the time to travel and clear their heads. One of those is Heath Farwell, who hopes to find some peace on the other side of the world.
"I'm one of those guys that kind of gets away for two months," Farwell said. "It freshens the body up and kind of gets out of shape. That's what motivates me and keeps me going when I get back. This year, I'm going to New Zealand and Australia. I'm going to do some Outback stuff, some camping, some hiking. It will be fun to have a chance to get away from it a little bit and recharge my batteries."
Not everybody will be enjoying shrimp on the barbie down under. There won't be as much rest or relaxation for offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie if lives up to his goal. He has already set a goal for himself of losing 20 pounds and getting down to his playing weight at the University of Miami. He admitted that, as he has gotten older, the need to work out intensely in the offseason has grown just to maintain his Vikings playing weight. He said he will return to Miami to work out – "I need some warm weather" – and has hired a personal trainer to meet his goal for 2011, which will make for a long, grueling offseason that he compared to Celebrity Fit Club.
"Normally, I take a little (time off), but this year I'm not going to take that long," McKinnie said. "I'm only going to take a day (off) and get back and starting training. I want to drop some pounds and get back to my college size and come back and be even better for this next season. In the past, I've had injuries that I've kind of kept to myself and had to chill for like three weeks. But that turned into a month-and-a-half. This year, I'm not going to do that."
Given the grueling in-season schedules NFL players endure – physically demanding six-day work weeks in which many do volunteer work on their rare off days – the need to wind down is a necessity for most. While playing takes a physical toll – a player mantra says "nobody is healthy by the time you get to the end of the season" – the mental toll is just as telling. As a result, as some players chill out for a decompression period, they do so just as much to heal their minds as their bodies. In fact, their bodies come back faster in most cases.
"It's going to be a few weeks for me," Leber said. "But, after a while, I get that itch and need to get a sweat working. It's nothing too serious. I'm not going to be trying to set any records in the squat or the bench press, but I will be active. More than anything else, it's more the emotional and the mental part of it that you need to decompress from. You're going from 100 miles per hour to zero in a day. That's a lot to take in, so most of the guys will take at least a couple of weeks off to get their minds right."
For some players, the time away is going to be similar to looking into the Men in Black's blue light and, when the flash goes off, their memories are erased. It won't be easy to dismiss the disappointment they suffered during the season, but center John Sullivan said it's all part of the game – 31 of 32 teams end their seasons unfulfilled. Their attention will be on what could have been for a while, but, once they return to their offseason workout routines, their minds will be looking forward, not backward.
"It's over and the focus now shifts to 2011," Sullivan said. "Obviously, the first part of that is going home and resting and getting back to a good state physically and mentally and, when the time comes, you go back and start to work once again. I don't think there is any time that I do nothing, because that's counterproductive. I do some light workouts and conditioning so I don't get out of shape, while allowing myself to recover. It's a fine line."
For 18 Vikings players with four or more years of experience, the offseason will be focused on where their future will be in 2011. Players like Chad Greenway, Pat Williams, Ray Edwards, Sidney Rice, Leber and other key Vikings contributors are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents that will spend their offseasons not only looking to stay in condition, but wondering where their futures will take them. With the NFL expected to lock out players March 4, there may be a free-for-all to sign the free-agent crop once the labor dispute gets resolved, leaving players like Greenway wondering where they will be playing next season, adding a dramatic element to their offseasons.
"I have a family – I have kids and a wife that wants to know where she's going to live next year," Greenway said. "That's all part of it. For me, of course, you're anxious because you want to know what's going to happen. But, at the same, it's so early yet – it's the postseason right now – but you're trying to let it sink in that the season is over. The anxiety, I'm sure, will heighten as things go, but what you can do? You can't let it bother you. You have to stay patient."
For others, the pain of 2010 will fade as their resolve gets focused on the 2011 season. But, for some, there is a lingering feeling that the bad dream of a season didn't have to happen and shouldn't have happened. For those guys, the pain will linger for a while and watching division rivals like the Bears and Packers in the playoffs, much less a team like the Eagles that got manhandled by the Vikings, is going to be a hard pill to swallow. In time, they will get over it and start the process of moving forward. But that process will take some time as the book closes on the 2010 season.
"It's hard to feel good about a break when you feel like there's more to do," Lorenzo Booker said. "It would be different if we lost those games because we just weren't good enough. But when you know you're good enough and you're watching people play (in the postseason) that you know you're better than, it's hard to feel good about that vacation – sitting back with a drink and feeling relaxed. I can't watch those games in the postseason because it hurts too much knowing that we should have been out there with a chance to play in the Super Bowl, because we had the team that could have done it."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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