There is always a sense of anticipation heading into any training camp. It doesn’t matter if you’re the defending Super Bowl champion or the team that earned the dubious distinction of drafting the first player in April’s draft. The arrival of the rabid hard-core fans at training camp is always the ego boost that hits in 32 locations throughout the country.
A year ago, there was a whiff in the wind that smelled like a barbeque you considered party-crashing to get a plate. The Minnesota Vikings were talking kind of tough – sending out the vibe that Green Bay four-year butt print on the NFC North throne was going to have be reupholstered.
A year later, it would appear that the Vikings backed up the tough talk with action.
They were the hunters back then.
Now, they are the hunted.
Despite clear 2016 NFL MVP Jordy Nelson – if you believe the NFL talking heads, the Packers can be no worse than 12-4 with the return of a 31-year old wide receiver with balky knees – the Vikings are expected to be a playoff team. More often, that is crystal-balled as a wild card team, but a playoff team nonetheless.
However, even with the most recent show of job security in the NFL, the once-bombastic Mike Zimmer is putting it out there that most people aren’t as high on the Vikings as every indication would point to.
“Obviously, the expectation level is much higher,” Zimmer said. “I get that. But the expectation isn’t any higher for me than what it was the first year, second year or what it is this year. I think this team understands hard work. I think they understand the things we have to do to get there, and there are so many good teams in this league. People are saying we’re not even in the top half of the NFC. So we just need to go out and play and perform well on Sundays and work together and play as a team. The one thing about football, when you’ve got 22 guys on the field, there are a lot of mistakes being made, and the team that usually makes the least mistakes usually wins. So that’s really what we want to try to accomplish.”
To players, it would seem to be riding the crest of the wave, but it is not something that can be taken as a full-on changing of the guard.
“Yeah it’s different,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “We’ve been with Coach Zim and his staff going on three years now and he brought in a whole new philosophy and a whole new way of Vikings football and you’ve been seeing it each year how we are getting better. There’s a lot of excitement, I’m excited and we’ve got the new U.S. Bank Stadium, state of the art, and it’s a blessing to have that. So, yeah, it’s different, but in order to make it different we have to go out there and win games and that’s what we are here for. It’s all fun and games doing all this, but I’m here to win games and win games only. If we can do that and excel on the field, that’s what I’m all about.”
Having the defensive-minded precincts heard from, it was time for the offense to weigh in.
Why not start with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
“We welcome pressure,” Bridgewater said. “That’s one thing about us here, that the guys don’t back down from challenges. We have a great group of guys here who want to be great, and that’s what you want to have on a football team. I see it in all the guys, and we want to continue to just build and perfect our crafts while we’re here in Mankato.”
The training camp walk-through red carpet included headliner Adrian Peterson. He was around in 2009 when Brett Favre was the old man on the team that lit a fire under his much younger teammates.
Now Peterson is that guy.
Much like Favre, he’s paying it forward and looking to lead by example.
“The expectation is definitely at the highest level,” Peterson said. “You play not only to win games, but to win championships. I feel like with the coaching staff and tools that we have, there’s no reason we shouldn’t accomplish that. I would say that’s how it’s different. The pieces that we have out at receiver, I’m expecting a lot from (Laquon) Treadwell. I’ve been following him this summer and he’s been working extremely hard, and then we have some other key players out wide that are going to contribute. Up front we are looking sharp and crisp, bringing in some new guys to help us offensively. Defense pretty much speaks for itself. Guys coming back healthy, I’m expecting some even bigger performances from some of our key role players. I feel like the sky is the limit.”
For linebacker Chad Greenway, 2016 would, by all accounts, be his last rodeo. In his view, there isn’t a “wait ‘til next year” outlook. It’s all or nothing for him.
Greenway’s legacy is already written. He may as well be fitted now for one of those gaudy purple sport coats that come along with Ring of Honor inductions.
When you start to see the NFL light at the end of the tunnel, you have the experience of seeing the little things that have won or lost games past. For those who didn’t go through the previous wars, Greenway is going to make sure there isn’t a sense of complacency.
“I think you just need to have a second layer of focus,” Greenway said. “We’ve got to go out and just really be focused on our jobs day-to-day. Not get too far – there’s every cliché in the book – for us not looking ahead, not getting too far over your skis. Your mentality, it’s really about a one-day, one-step approach. One snap at a time and just hone in on what we need to improve. Whether it be from last year or OTAs, just to get better. As many things as we are good at, we can improve in so many ways. There’s so much parity in this league that if you just let up for one instance, pretty soon there’s five or six teams that jump up in front of you. You just can’t have that. It’s on us players but it’s on the staff and everybody to just keep your foot on the gas pedal and working.”
What the Vikings, to varying degrees, are saying is that they are fully aware that they’re a good team and the buzz phrase “expectation” is being tossed into the mix.
How do they react to being viewed by outsiders as underdogs, but to the locals as the favorite?
That will be the storyline that resonates from now until the end of 2016 – for better or worse.