The Minnesota Vikings figured to be as vulnerable to the effects of the NFL lockout as any other team, with a first-year head coach, a rookie quarterback and a new offense to install.
They had a lot to lose during the four-month-plus work stoppage, and lose is exactly what they did once the season started—13 times, matching the most in the franchise's 51-year history.
The roster needs significant upgrades. Coach Leslie Frazier's staff could turn over. Big changes on offense and defense will be considered. For the players, who exchanged hugs, handshakes and cellphone numbers on Monday morning in parting for a while, the focus is on working harder and getting better together.
"It's an exciting day. It really is," defensive end Jared Allen said as he packed up his belongings.
Several key players spoke of an urgency to use the next several months as the head start on 2012 they didn't have in 2011.
"We're going to grind this offseason," said wide receiver Percy Harvin, who finished with a career-high 967 yards receiving, 345 yards rushing and nine total touchdowns, one of the true bright spots on another dark year for the Vikings along with Allen's 22 sacks.
"I think we'll be a different ballclub next year," Harvin said.
Harvin is one of several important players who in the past have done much of their winter, spring and summer training away from Minnesota. Then came the lockout last year, and none of the Vikings were allowed to even enter the facilities at Winter Park.
But Harvin said he's encouraged as many players as possible to show up for the offseason practices, known around the league as organized team activities. Only the annual weekend minicamp is contractually required, and it's not unusual for veterans and higher-profile players to work out on their own the rest of the time until training camp begins, but there's an obvious drive here to improve on the embarrassment and the frustration of the third-worst record in the NFL.
"There should be no excuse why nobody should be there, except for emergencies and stuff like that," Harvin said.
Quarterback Christian Ponder expressed the same attitude.
The first-round draft pick took over as the starter for an ineffective Donovan McNabb late in the sixth game of the season and showed plenty of poise, confidence and potential over his first few weeks on the job. But the turnovers piled up down the stretch, he didn't stay healthy and backup Joe Webb played better than Ponder in each of the three games he relieved him for injury or performance reasons.
"We have to spend a lot of time this offseason, especially on the offensive side of the ball, learning this offense and growing comfortable with it," Ponder said. He added: "Getting that rookie experience under the belt is huge. It will be good to get a full offseason with the team and understand that part of it."
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's play calls and game plans drew plenty of criticism, but the absence of offseason workouts and the midseason switch to a rookie quarterback prevented him from rolling out the whole scheme and maximizing the opportunities for creativity.
Frazier tried after Sunday's season-ending loss to Chicago to quell any uncertainty about Ponder's status as the starter, but his hip pointer, his concussion and his interceptions at least complicated the situation because of how well Webb played in relief. Granted, defenses didn't prepare their game plans to stop him, but the Vikings have an exceptional athlete who they've otherwise struggled to use effectively.
Time after time when Musgrave tried to put Webb in for special running plays — they called it the "Blazer" package—he was stopped for no gain or lost yardage. More action at wide receiver is a possibility, but he hasn't proven yet he can be a reliable route runner and pass catcher despite his speed.
"Once we get the full offseason and get things together and see what we need to do to be successful in 2012, it's going to be dangerous," Webb said.
The healing ability and recuperative power of running back Adrian Peterson, who had reconstructive surgery on his left knee last week, will be another critical factor toward improvement.
So will the draft, when the Vikings will pick third in each round. But the defense might be the most vital area.
Defensive coordinator Fred Pagac's status is tenuous. The Vikings must decide whether to bring back middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who is a free agent and will be 33 years old before next season. Then there is the secondary, in dire need of an upgrade. The Vikings had only eight interceptions and gave up 34 touchdowns passing.
Allen said he'd "fight" to keep Pagac.
"What decisions are going to be made are going to be made. I just know I appreciate our coaching staff and I appreciate everything they've put into this season, especially with the injuries and the way things panned out. It's easy to disconnect, and no one did," Allen said.
Indeed, there was a palpable sense from the players down the stretch despite all the losing that they genuinely enjoyed each other and were willing to keep working hard even when the playoffs became impossible.
"It was tied for our worst season in our organization's history, but you look around the locker room and you've got a lot of friends and teammates you played with and played hard with. You can't look at somebody and say, `You quit on us,"' linebacker Chad Greenway said, adding: "You've got to save that at least."
Vikings confident in future, ready to ‘grind'
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