Long-suffering fans know how precious playoff opportunities can be, but they have nothing on the players who endured the rigors of 16 or more games a season year after year, or a long-toiling coach that worked as an assistant or a coordinator for decades before getting his first opportunity as a head coach.
Those are the primary champions of trying to lead the Minnesota Vikings to a championship.
Perhaps head coach Mike Zimmer has leaned on no players more than Chad Greenway and Brian Robison when Zimmer took the reins as head coach in January 2014. Almost two years later, Zimmer, Greenway and Robison are relishing the opportunity in front of them.
“It’s a huge deal,” Robison said. “When you’ve been in the league this long, normally when you’re young and you start out with a winning program or something like that you think it’s going to be an opportunity that always arises. Unfortunately, that’s just not the way it is, so as you get older you realize how special it is to make the playoffs. You try to make the best out of it every single season.”
The Vikings are in prime position to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Before that it was another drought that ticked back to the 2009 NFC Championship game when Brett Favre still has visions of vengeance dancing through his head.
The team is far different these days, but Robison and Greenway remain as hungry as ever for a shot at the Super Bowl.
“Every year is so important to make the playoffs. That’s the whole goal in the NFL is to win the Super Bowl and get a ring, so every year that’s what it’s about,” Greenway said. “Years are fleeting. I’ve been to the playoff three times in nine years and hoping to make it four this year. It’s frustrating when you don’t make it to watch everybody else play, especially when you have a good opportunity like we do this year so we’re hopefully in the fight and then learn if we can be a champion or not.”
Greenway and Robison nearly got there in the 2009, but the Vikings were upended by their own mistakes – Adrian Peterson’s fumbles and Favre’s final interception – and a bounty-filled opponent that wasn’t so Saintly.
The makeup of the 2015 Vikings is far different, even though Peterson, Robison and Greenway remain. In general, however, this is a much younger team. The running prowess still exists with Peterson, but the quarterback is more cautious and still progressing. The defense is younger and more aggressive.
Besides the elder trio of stalwarts on the ship, in general this team is also younger than the 2009 version of veterans getting ready to ride into the sunset.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean it gives us less of a chance,” Greenway said. “Hopefully we’re getting healthy at the right time. Hopefully we’re going to be able to play our best football, but we don’t know until we put a couple together. We played good in the loss to Arizona, but they’re a team that we would possibly have to see in the playoffs so a loss isn’t good enough obviously. We know we’re capable if we focus on what we have to do, but we also know we can play some pretty bad football when we don’t concentrate.”
There have been some unsteady moments this year. There was the miserable fail in San Francisco to open the season and bad losses to Seattle and Green Bay. But even in some of their losses, like two away games in Denver and Arizona, the Vikings proved they can go toe-to-toe with some of the NFC’s best.
It might be just a matter of putting it all together with strong outings from Peterson, Teddy Bridgewater and the defense game after game.
If that happens, there could be an extended run, and with some fortunate breaks along the way, who knows? It would be a fitting way to close out the career of Greenway, even if he isn’t even saying which way he is leaning on a possible retirement.
He says his decision isn’t predicated on playoff success.
“No. It’s just kind of predicated how this season goes and really now I’m just so focused on what we’re doing at this time that I haven’t really given it any thought,” he said. “Obviously it’s something I’ll have to think about at some point.”
For now, the focus is getting to the playoffs with the hope of making it happen by dethroning the Evil Empire to the East. Then it’s about doing some damage in the playoffs. And then … well, let’s not get carried away. We’d hate to raise hopes too high for a fan base that feels snake bitten.
Robison said the 2009 NFC Championship loss makes him more resolute for another shot at the Super Bowl. Greenway disagrees, but admits the six-year absence of so much as a singular playoff win has made that NFC Championship loss hard to swallow.
“I think you’re always so driven to get there. That’s your No. 1 goal,” he said. “To be so close and have it kind of fall through your fingers is certainly harder to handle. I guess in some ways it makes you want to get back because you had that feeling of being so close. Just getting so close to it and not making it probably makes it harder to deal with, the fact that you haven’t made it back there and you want to get back there again.”
Robison said Greenway has addressed the preciousness of the playoffs with some on the team.
“I always knew it was going to be hard, but I think as you get older you realize just how hard it can be,” Robison said. “I think it’s one of those deals that as a young guy you don’t understand how hard it is to make the playoffs in this league until you’ve been through it for a few years.”
The fans see a young and building team, but there’s no telling if there will be another opportunity for veterans like Robison and Greenway. For them, the future is now and it’s partly up to them to impart that urgency on the young players who likely believe the playoffs are an annual possibility.
The Vikings need look no further than their leader to realize just how hard it is to get to the Super Bowl.
“People don’t understand,” Zimmer said. “I’ve been in the league 21 years now. I went to the NFC Championship my first year, won the Super Bowl my second year and haven’t been back to the Super Bowl in 20 years. That’s how hard this thing is – to win 11 games or to win the division, these things, they’re hard to do. It’s a heck of an accomplishment for a football team if you can get those things done.”
He preaching to Greenway’s grizzly choir.
“It takes a special group and a special bond,” the linebacker said. “It takes a different level of communication and trust and big-time players in big-time games. All those things go into it.”