Players feel the bruises, strains and sometimes even the tears in muscles and ligament. What doesn't show up on MRIs is the mental toll a losing season takes on some of the players.
Linebacker Chad Greenway felt that weighing heavily at the end of the season. He said the 2011 season was as much about absorbing the mental blows as the physical toll of a 16-game season.
"When you're one of the guys that is putting everything into it and not one of the guys out there talking about it, you're beating up your body and going through the mental drain of the struggle," Greenway said. "It's been tough mentally going through the losses, traveling back from road games, all the hours. Going through, we in this room are the only ones who truly can justify what we're going through. Fans might think they can, but they can't. Even the coaches can't – they go through a lot of what we do, but it's different when you're not out on the field.
"When you're putting your body on the line and you're still having negative consequences and not getting the wins, it's mentally draining on you that you're in that rut. That's what we've been going through this season and for the last two seasons for that matter."
One of the ways the players have been able to maintain their sanity is that, in many instances, they don't believe it was their opponents that beat them from week to week to week. More times that not, they were their own worst enemy. History will say the 2011 Vikings were a 3-13 team that had a lot more bad days than good. Greenway believes that the manner in which they lost too often wasn't due to a lack of effort or talent.
"I think you have to try to maintain the positives that we can take away from this season," Greenway said. "There weren't a lot of them, but there were some. We were close in so many games – I think we lost eight or nine by less than a touchdown. If you win half of those games, we're a .500 club and things could have been much different. This is a game of momentum and, when you start getting on the roll, it builds confidence and you play better. We just never got on one of those runs."
The struggles the Vikings have had the last two seasons were accentuated after getting so close to the mountaintop in 2009. A bar graph of the Vikings' record over the last 10 years might look like the stock market crash of 1929.
Greenway believes his legacy and those of many of his teammates at or nearing the peak of their careers will be measured from how they respond to the hard times they've experienced. Many of them know the swagger they had in 2009 when the entire NFL world was taking notice and were impressed with what they saw. Next year, the Vikings may be flying under the radar and not be on many, if any, primetime games unless it is intended to promote a division rivalry like Green Bay, Chicago and (now) Detroit. There won't be much attention paid to the Vikings, and Greenway said the Vikings are going to come into 2012 with an attitude for those who don't believe they can bounce back.
The 2011 season is forgettable and regrettable, but any NFL situation can serve as a learning experience and expand on the repertoire and expertise of a player moving forward in his career.
"I think you can learn more from adversity than you do when things are going great for you," Greenway said. "We had our share of problems finishing out games and our share of injuries, but the guys never quit. We were fighting up until the final whistle, which doesn't always happen when teams are struggling or when they know they can't make the playoffs. You hear about it all the time – people saying that a team quit. There was no quit in these guys no matter how bad things got during the season."
The adversity the Vikings went through this season couldn't be explained away as easily as the down year in 2010. That season there were more available excuses than the team needed to have. Fans actually felt more pity for them than anger that the Super Bowl dream would get crushed so profoundly. There were so many distractions that could be explained in one or two words – Stergergate, Enter Randy, Exit Randy, Bye Chilly, Dome Collapse.
This time around, there was no such crutch. The Vikings played the season largely distraction-free. They didn't have the distraction excuse. Greenway and his teammates had to accept their fate. They couldn't escape it, so becoming mentally tough was as much a factor as staying physically strong.
"You have to find a way to clear your head and move on to the next game," Greenway said. "Everybody says that winning is contagious, but it works both ways. Losing can become a habit, so, just as you have to not get hung up on the success you've had previously, you have to move forward and put the past behind you. You can't just be depressed all season, because that doesn't do you or the team any good."
Just as the team tried to stay focused on the team in front of them, Greenway believes the offseason will be a process of looking back, determining what went wrong, realizing that failure has roster consequences and move forward. Their bar graph has nowhere to go but up given the talent in place. Living up to their ability will be the goal, as reflection turns into resolve.
"Now that we're through and the season is over, it's more about figuring out who you are and what you want to be next year and what you have to do to get there," Greenway said. "You should look back at what you did wrong, learn from those mistakes and move forward. Those guys that can't do that or don't learn from the hard times won't be here next year. That's how the NFL works. I don't think anyone in this locker room will forget what happened this season, but we have to learn from it and commit ourselves to working harder, getting better and do whatever it takes to get to back to where we know we should be. Anything less is unacceptable."
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.
Greenway felt the mental toll of losing
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