When a row of zinc panels detached from the west prow at U.S. Bank Stadium last Monday, it was reminiscent of the Metrodome’s collapse in 2010, one of the final events in a season fraught with stress and losing – you know, kind of similar to what the current version of the Minnesota Vikings have endured.
Just as the Metrodome roof tore apart and caved in during the final month of the 2010 season, the 2016 team has followed the lead and collapsed after an impressive but long-ago start that had the Vikings as the last undefeated team in the NFL at 5-0. After the bye week, the good times quickly went bye-bye.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn called it the strangest, weirdest season in which he’s been a first-hand witness.
“Definitely strange. I can’t put my finger on what went wrong with this team, what went wrong with us,” he said. “We’ve just got one game left. We’ve got to go out there and play hard.”
They certainly do if they want to avoid being known as the team with the absolute worst collapse after starting a season 5-0. They have already taken themselves out of playoff contention, but a loss Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium against the hapless Chicago Bears would make the Vikings the worst team in NFL history to start a season 5-0.
Since the NFL expanded to a 12-team playoff format, five teams have missed the playoffs after starting 5-0 – the 1993 New Orleans Saints, the 2003 Vikings, the 2009 Denver Broncos, the 2009 New York Giants and the 2015 Atlanta Falcons. Yet, if the Vikings lose on Sunday, they would be the first team to start 5-0 and finish with a sub-.500 record, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. All five of those other teams finished the season either 8-8 or 9-7. If the Vikings lose, it would only add embarrassment to their 7-9 record, with two of their losses providing half of the Bears’ wins.
The first meeting with the Bears helped push their terrible last 10 games in overdrive. Chicago provided the Vikings their second loss following the bye, but head coach Mike Zimmer said he didn’t think things would be turning that sour, even as his team dropped a game to Jay Cutler and returned home to have offensive coordinator Norv Turner resign.
“There’s always going to be, during the season, highs and lows and things like that. Did I think we’d be 2-8 or whatever it is after the Chicago game? No. I really don’t think the team lost confidence; I didn’t lose confidence,” Zimmer said. “Our penalties were up this year, our pre-snap penalties were up especially. Offensive penalties were up this year. There’s a lot of things to evaluate and try and figure out why. Home penalties were up this year, although we had more penalties at home the last two years than we did on the road. So, I don’t know. Those are all things after the season that I’ll evaluate.”
Zimmer has plenty of evaluations and soul-searching to perform in the coming weeks. When he started the season, his vision for the team was on point and pointing upward; these days, the vision in his right eye is blurred and he wasn’t supposed to look up after having four surgeries in a little over a month with another offseason procedure planned to hopefully correct the issues experienced with his detached retina.
His full-time offensive coordinator will be one of the decisions needed, and the interim guy, Pat Shurmur, is likely to become that full-time guy. Despite all the losing experienced since he took over the play-calling and game-planning duties, Shurmur says a short-term focus is all that is on his mind.
“We set a short-time horizon, and I think I’ve said that before in here, but that Sunday against the Chicago Bears and playing football is what we do, coaching football is what we do and we get one more opportunity to do it this year and next year is not guaranteed for anyone,” Shurmur said. “So, I think what we try to do is put them in the moment, focus on the preparation that it takes to go out and play winning football and then go out on Sunday and try to do what we can to put a winning performance together.”
If they get that winning performance, it would take some of the embarrassment of the season away like a smooth drink taking the stress off a hard day. But neither is a long-term fix.
Decisions will need to be made often in the offseason, from the coaching staff to the veteran players to the schemes to the players that will be added between their last game of the 2016 season and their first of 2017.
Roster churn is an annual and unavoidable part of the NFL, but the coaches’ task this week was to keep the players engaged on Sunday’s game facing the reality that a .500 record is the best they can now hope for after a distressing season.
“I think for the true professional, the true pros … they know the importance of playing well. They know that next week we’re going to have evaluations on all the guys,” special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. “We write reports on all the guys. I think the ones that are smart enough to understand, which most of them are, they realize that this is their job and they have a job to do on Sunday. And finishing strong is, if not all, a part of that job, so that’s been part of my message this week as well.”
Some players will be fighting for a starting job in 2017. Other will be fighting for a roster spot or a new contract.
For every player on Sunday, something will be on the line.
“Everybody evaluates them. All 32 teams, including the Minnesota Vikings, are evaluating everybody on our roster,” Priefer said. “Whether you’re a rookie, second-, third-, fourth-(year player), free agent, older veteran, it doesn’t matter. I think you’re being evaluated by everybody.”
Players should have some individual pride, but collectively they are trying to avoid the shame of a losing season after a 5-0 start.
“Nobody’s in a happy place right now on this football team,” Munnerlyn said. “We’re out the playoff hunt now and we started 5-0 and we didn’t get to our ultimate goal.”