For most, 2016 is a distant memory, but the NFL cultivates a longer period to stew over missed opportunities than most occupations.
The Minnesota Vikings started 2016 5-0, then went 3-8 in their final 11 games and missed the playoffs. They went from the last undefeated team to one of 20 teams left to wait until next year before the playoffs even started.
Next year has already arrived, even if the next season hasn’t. While most of the veterans have been working out in Minnesota as part of the offseason conditioning program for a month, the full-team practices finally start next week with the first of three weeks of organized team activities.
OTAs will provide a chance to begin full implementation of changes for the 2017 season and put 2016 well behind them.
“Everybody is different. Of course you want to put it in the back of your mind because it’s in the past, but it left a sour taste in my mouth,” receiver Stefon Diggs said. “I don’t want it to happen again and I refuse to let it happen again from my point of view. You kind of move past it; new things, new day.”
The team conditioning that has been going on in the first two phases of the offseason program were a start and the Vikings had a strong turnout.
“That’s the real reason why we’re here today,” cornerback Xavier Rhodes said last month after one workout. “You go over in the team meetings figuring out how we can correct the mistakes we made last year and not do the same this year. We feel like sometimes, defense-wise toward the end of the season, we gave up a little and we’ve got to finish strong toward the end. We played good in the beginning. We played awesome in the beginning and some in the middle, but in the end … we gave up a lot to the Colts, the Packers.”
The Vikings of late have relied heavily on their defense. For much of the past two years, that unit has carried the team. Yet, at times late last season, the defense looked worn down.
Following a 5-0 start and their mid-October bye, the Vikings lost six of their next eight games but still had a shot at the playoffs. Then they gave up 34 points to the Colts in a 34-6 loss. That was followed by surrendering 38 points to the Packers in a 38-25 Christmas Eve loss to seal their fate of being a non-playoff team.
For some, the late slide was still lingering last month.
“A little bit, but it’s a learning experience for all of us. I think it’s only going to benefit us going forward,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “Anytime you go through a trying time as a team, as an individual, you usually have a decision to make from it – are you going to be better or are you going to let it keep you down? I think we’re all players with great pride.”
The defense should look similar to 2016 with one exception at each level.
Uncertainty remains surrounding Sharrif Floyd’s availability after a nerve was damaged last fall during what was considered a minor surgery. At linebacker, veteran Chad Greenway retired, leaving a void on the weak side and leaving a variety of players to vie for it. In the secondary, nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn signed with the Carolina Panthers in free agency and his spot will likely be open for competition between Terence Newman and Mackensie Alexander.
Offensively, there were plenty of changes. Adrian Peterson is out and Latavius Murray and rookie Dalvin Cook are in. Matt Kalil left and Riley Reiff arrived, along with Mike Remmers, as the latter two are expected to man the left and right tackle spots, respectively. Rookie Pat Elflein will vie for the starting center job while Brandon Fusco’s release leaves an open competition at right guard.
Diggs said he will “congratulate [the departing veterans] on their new journey” but sees it as a turning of the page. For tight end Kyle Rudolph, some of the names and faces may be changing around him, but he doesn’t believe the offensive philosophy will change.
“I think we do have a good nucleus of guys that have been – yeah, new system, new offensive coordinator – but we’re doing the things we’re good at and that’s not going to change,” Rudolph said. “You have guys that are familiar with each other at the core. For Sam [Bradford], he doesn’t have to come here 13 days before his first start. He gets to spend an offseason with us. We get to go and throw around the ball a little bit. And then you add a couple new guys and we’re trying to bring them along as quick as possible. We’re just trying to lay this foundation for 2017 as an offense to help our team win more football games.”
On offense, the changes might have been necessary after finishing last in the NFL in rushing yards and average yards per carry, and with the 28th overall offense.
Defensively, the Vikings were still third based on yards surrendered, but defenders have been instructed that they must be better in critical situations.
“I feel, for the defense we’ve got to get to the ball better. We’ve got to execute better and when it comes down to the close situations we can’t be selfish,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “If you’re tired, you’ve got to come off the field. You’ve got to give another guy a shot. It’s all about the rotation and I feel like we’ve just got to go out there and execute each and every play.”
The 2016 season is in the past, but the lessons from it are what the Vikings hope to implement when OTAs start on Tuesday.
“We just didn’t play Vikings football at that moment, at that time,” Rhodes said. “I don’t know the reason for it at that time. We just need to finish how we started.”