Coming into the 2015 season, the Minnesota Vikings were a team that was viewed as being a team on the rise, but not quite there yet.
With the 2015 season coming to an end in eight days, the NFL is taking a completely different approach to the Vikings. As the defending NFC North champions, having successfully knocked Green Bay off the throne of longstanding division champs, the Vikings are being viewed markedly different heading into the 2016 season.
On Friday, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman was interviewed on SiriusXM NFL Radio and fielded several questions about the perception of the up-and-coming Vikings under head coach Mike Zimmer.
No conversation about the Vikings is complete without asking for the obligatory assessment of the maturation of Teddy Bridgewater and Spielman said that, despite the pedestrian numbers Teddy produced in 2015, he was a force on the offense.
“Teddy, he’s just so calm,” Spielman said. “Through the ups and downs and as he’s growing as a young quarterback, his demeanor never changes. The one thing that I know: He’s always the first one in the building and the last one to leave the building, and that resonates down through that locker room. And all those guys see that.”
Spielman acknowledged that Bridgewater had to adjust to being a starting QB with a Hall of Fame running back behind him, something he never had when thrust into the starting lineup as a rookie.
The general manager believes that the Vikings of 2016 will be different. Bridgewater was asked to win games with the passing game late in his rookie season and took an offensive back seat to Adrian Peterson in 2015. There is the plan to incorporate the two next season.
“I think the key to that position is showing your teammates that you’re willing to do everything you can to give them the best chance to win,” Spielman said. “I know our team and our coaches and myself believe that this kid is going to be something special down the road here.”
The Vikings have no shortage of pride in Bridgewater, who is currently in Hawaii preparing to play in the Pro Bowl, but Spielman is more proud of his draft class from last spring. The team made a leap in the standings at a time when they had a lot of young players carving out their roles.
Typically the reverse is the case. Teams that turn over playing time to rookies and second-year players tend to struggle. The Vikings have been the exception to the rule and thrived with a second-year coach and more first-year players than playoff teams should have in key roles.
“We got a lot out of our (2015 draft) class this year,” Spielman said. “I think one game we had seven rookies starting. I give a lot of the credit to this coaching staff. We can go out there and try to pick the best athletes and the best football players available, but they still have to be developed. I know Coach Zimmer and his staff take pride in that.”
First-round pick Trae Waynes was brought along slowly by design. Second-rounder Eric Kendricks was pushed into a starting job by trading the starter in September and clearing the decks. He more than lived up to the confidence Spielman and Zimmer put in him.
The player that Spielman hoped would produce – due in no small part to Zimmer’s belief that, in his system, you couldn’t pass on him in the third round – was defensive end Danielle Hunter.
“I think the biggest surprise was Hunter from LSU,” Spielman said. “He ended up with six sacks as a rookie. Our defensive line coach, Andre Patterson, and George Edwards, our defensive coordinator, and Zim – just to take a kid like that who is so athletic, but didn’t have a lot of production at LSU and turn him into a pretty good player, there’s a lot of positives. But now we have just got to get prepared and what can we add to get us to the next level?”
With an obvious leg up as the division champions, the Vikings are still basking in the achievement. At the same time, they have gone from the hunters to the hunted.
Spielman acknowledged that the Vikings took a big first step in their long-term game plan for success. But the mission is far from accomplished; 2016 is going to be the next step. The team reached the foundation of its group goals, but being the new champ donning the crown isn’t something they’re taking lightly.
The 2015 season ends next Sunday. The Vikings are generally disinterested in the result. They’re looking farther ahead to what they need to do to get the global attention the Panthers and Broncos are in for.
“The biggest game at the end, where we were able to go up and finally beat Green Bay up in Green Bay to win the division, it’s just one of the boxes Coach Zimmer set as a goal, but it’s not the ultimate goal,” Spielman said. “After losing that playoff game, we went right back into personnel meetings that same week and starting over. We’re looking at the needs we have to fill and we’re starting to put that plan in place.”
- The Vikings will kick off their salute to Black History Month with an event Monday night at the Winter Park Fieldhouse. The team will host high school and middle school students from the Twin Cities for an interactive presentation with current and former players and African-American community leaders. The event will include former Vikings Alan Page and Carl Eller, and offensive tackle Phil Loadholt will be among those speaking to the students.
- This week ESPN has been naming award winners from their beat writers for the best players and coaches from each division. The four NFC North beat writers unanimously voted Zimmer as the Coach of the Year for the division.
- The NFL released documents Friday stating that there were 271 confirmed concussions during the 2015 season – the most in the last four seasons, a significant increase that is being attributed to an increase in the recognition of concussions and their symptoms. It included 29 concussions from preseason practices, 52 in preseason games, eight in regular season practices and 182 in regular season games. Of the 192 regular season concussions, 92 were deemed the result of helmet-to-helmet hits.
- Seattle safety Kam Chancellor posted photos on Instagram Friday of his hands, which still appear to be damaged from frostbite he sustained in the frigid playoff game against the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. As time goes by, we may continue to hear about skin damage done during that game, because Chancellor isn’t the first to report lingering effects from that game.