Perhaps a week of knowing the Minnesota Vikings weren’t going to be in the playoffs helped ease the transition from in-season to off-season.
As players packed six months of accumulations from their lockers into duffle bags, suitcases, boxes and even trash bags, the reality of the off-season set in on the second calendar day of the year.
“It’s never easy. This is a tough business. We didn’t get it done this year and I think everyone is kind of frustrated and upset about it,” guard Alex Boone said. “When you get off to a good start like we did, it gets out of control. You think, what was the problem? You can never really put your finger on the problem, so it kind of drives you nuts. You have to evaluate a lot of things. You have to start with yourself, come back in April ready to roll.”
The Vikings entered training camp with raised expectations and unafraid to embrace Super Bowl aspirations. Although those sentiments seem like a haunting nightmare now, they appeared to be within reach when the team was 5-0 and full of confidence.
Three months later, it’s a far different tale.
“It definitely didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. It was a lot of ups and a lot of downs,” receiver Stefon Diggs said. “Overall, we did get a lot done. A lot of good things did take place with the adversity that we had. You can’t make any excuses, but just plan for next year.”
Last year at this time, the Vikings weren’t planning for anything but their wild card game against the Seattle Seahawks. In the last year, however, they have experienced the stinging loss of Blair Walsh’s missed 27-yard field goal to boot them from the playoffs, free-agent changes, season-ending injuries to their starting quarterback, the star running back and three starting offensive tackles, the resignation of offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the four eye surgeries of Mike Zimmer, a plane stuck in the grass after landing in Appleton, Wis. on Christmas Eve Eve and protesters hanging from a truss at U.S. Bank Stadium for the majority of their season finale on Sunday.
Among other things.
But the loss to the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Eve sealed their fate of a January without them in the playoffs.
“The Packers game, that was kind of like the icing on the cake for us. When we lost that one it was tough,” running back Jerick McKinnon said. “It was tough the week before losing that one seeing that everyone that we needed to (lose) won, so you know it’s tough anytime the season ends. … It’s always tough, but I think we have a lot to look forward to next year as well, so I’m excited to see what happens this offseason and I’m excited to be ready to come back.”
Last year’s locker-room cleanout day was a more sudden, crushing ending. The Vikings went from what is usually considered an easy make for the game-winning field goal to – seconds later – realizing a one-point loss and a quick exit from the playoffs was their fate.
This year unraveled more slowly as the team lost eight of their final 11 games and injuries depleted the talent pool on the roster.
“Every year is different. Last year was actually a really hard year for me,” veteran defensive lineman Brian Robison said. “It took a little while. Even when I started training it was one of those where I really didn’t feel like training and I fought through it and was able to get through it. As you see, it paid off for me. Every year is a little bit different, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Uncertainty over the future surrounds every player, but no one more than the pending free agents.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn has been through that process once before and it involved him leaving the Carolina Panthers and signing with the Vikings. On Monday, he was more reflective than some, hugging staffers and chatting up the media.
“It’s really setting in as I walked through those doors. It could be my last time in the locker room with a great group of guys,” Munnerlyn said. “We didn’t make the playoffs. We didn’t get to our ultimate goal. So I was trying to contemplate and think about things I could’ve done better throughout the season to help this team win. We didn’t make it to the playoffs, we fell short.”
He, like many of the players, views the team as an “up-and-coming” collection of talent, but, for the 2016 season anyway, that didn’t translate into a playoff team.
Some just want to get away from the stress of the season. Others have football running through their beat-up bodies nearly every day and will watch those teams that did make the playoffs.
“It’s one of those constantly wondering what went wrong. Such a great start. You could never really put your finger on what the problem was,” Boone said. “When you go out and play the Bears like we did (on Sunday), why couldn’t we have done that all year? It’s frustrating and maddening at the same time. It’s the way this game is.”