When you’re one of the 20 NFL teams that doesn’t make the playoffs, the final game of a season can be a difficult pill to swallow because, when organizations don’t play well enough to get the postseason, change is always in the air.
Following the Minnesota Vikings’ 38-10 drubbing of the Chicago Bears to close out their 2016 season, there was a lot of discussion about players looking around the room and perhaps seeing teammates for the last time.
In a season that started with so much promise and ended with a record of 8-8 after the team lost eight of 10 games, it leaves players wondering where the front office will look to make changes.
“You’re always going to look at the end of a season and say ‘what if? What if this happened? What if that happened?’ But, at the end of the day, it didn’t happen,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “You’ve just got to move forward and take it in stride.”
The Vikings admittedly had to play through a ton of adversity, especially the unprecedented injury situation on the offensive line. Sunday marked the eighth different starting line combination that team has had to play with and got even thinner on the depth chart when T.J. Clemmings got hurt and was replaced by Rashod Hill.
There were some good things that happened for the Vikings, but, when asked how does a team justify such a strong start combined with such an epic collapse, tight end Kyle Rudolph said it isn’t easy.
“There is no justifying it,” Rudolph said. “When we look back on this season, it’s going to be one that we look back on missed opportunities, not winning some close games there in the middle of the year – Detroit twice, Dallas – opportunities where this team has shown in the past that we win those close games. We’ll have to deal with that this offseason, but I also think there are a lot of positives to take out of this season – dealing with adversity. But I think sticking together and persevering in the end are things that will help this young team in the future.”
In the end, the Vikings came out in their finale with the pressure off of running the table for a chance to make the playoffs and played loose and with momentum built by the offense and maintained by the defense.
They played with precision not seen since the Houston game.
“We wanted to play well together because this is our last game as a group,” guard Brandon Fusco said. “We don’t know who’s going to be back next year and who won’t, so we wanted to end the season on a positive note.”
The question facing the organization now is that they have a lot of key players who are free agents and others, like running back Adrian Peterson, who won’t be back at his current salary – if he’s back at all.
This was a team primed to make a run and that is what makes it so unfortunate for players like safety Harrison Smith, who knows missed opportunities are likely going to break up the band with some key members not being around next season.
“We have great chemistry on this team,” Smith said. “It is a business, so guys come and go. That’s just how it goes. But, when you’re together, you have to take advantage of it and play for each other and play for the team.”
Both of them had their own sides to their free agent story and both made it sound like they hope to return, but understand the financial implications the Vikings are facing.
“I don’t make those decisions, but I’ve enjoyed my time here and the guys here are family,” Patterson said. “That won’t change if I’m not back. They’ll always be family to me. I just hope things can work that we stay together because we can do some good things.”
Munnerlyn, who said earlier in the week that if he had his way, he would return, said he’s preparing in case he doesn’t. That process included drinking in all the sights and sounds of his final game of the season and the last game under his current contract.
“I’ve been taking in a lot of things today,” Munnerlyn said. “From driving up to the stadium to coming into the locker room to going out there with the fans in the stadium. You never know when it’s going to be your last time coming in here. I’ve already said that I hope I stay here because I love this team and I think we can do some great things here, but it’s a business. If this was my last game here, it was a good way to go out.”
By just about any measure, the 2016 season was a disappointment, especially in light of the strong start the team got off to. The only certainty about how it ended is that there are going to be changes in 2017. How significant those changes will be will unfold in the coming months, but, for a lot of the players that beat Chicago and those teammates who were injured and couldn’t play, Sunday’s game marked the end of an era for the Vikings’ band of brothers.
“I think it always does at the end of a season,” Robison said. “You understand that, at the end a season, the team is not going to be same next year. We’ve been pretty blessed that we’ve had the same core group of guys here the last two or three years. That doesn’t happen very often. I think going into today that everybody understood that this is probably going to be the last time we’re all together and we need to make the best of it.”