The Minnesota Vikings broke minicamp Thursday, heading their separate ways until the start of training camp in about five weeks. The players are going to start the process of playing a game that starts in the heat of August and, for the chosen few, doesn’t end until late-January or early-February.
Veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph is no stranger to these periods in between the final minicamp and the start of the coming season. For him, the goal of getting back to work is ridding himself of the sour taste of how the 2016 season ended – losing eight of their last 11 games.
Those lessons, Rudolph said, can’t be ignored or erased from the memories of those who went through it.
“We can’t just put last season to bed,” Rudolph said. “We have to learn from it and I think that is one of the strides that we have made since we got back here in April. Putting ourselves into situations, knowing things differently to execute. We had four or five ballgames that, if we could have gotten to fall the other way, we are looking at 12 to 13 wins and a first-round bye. That is how close this league is. One of the things Coach [Mike] Zimmer constantly does through practice and one of his big sayings is, ‘You have got to learn how to play the game.’ We can go out and run plays and that’s great, but if you do not know how those plays fit into situations, one play here and there could cost us a game. It did last year.”
One of the bigger differences the Vikings offense has in its preparation is that Sam Bradford is the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback. While the signs are looking positive toward the recovery of Teddy Bridgewater, Bradford has been installed – not in pencil, but in Sharpie – as the starting QB.
Rudolph became a target of choice last year as a security blanket, shattering all of his personal career bests for receptions and yards last year.
That all came with no preparation with Bradford as an emergency signing. Rudolph sees a lot of change this time around.
“I definitely think that there was not only a higher comfort level with the offense, but a higher comfort level with us as players,” Rudolph said. “Amongst the tight ends, the receiver room, we have played 15 games together and now we have had almost a whole offseason program together so we are starting to get to that point where you put in all these extra reps and you start to see that paying off in team period.”
Bradford isn’t the only important component to the offense entering his first offseason as the big baller and shot-caller. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was the tight ends coach until Norv Turner resigned and now he is large and in charge of the Vikings offense.
Rudolph spent all of the past offseason under the direct supervision of Shurmur in the tight end room and knows better than most what Shurmur does best.
“I think one of the things that Pat Shurmur does well, and is what we have got to as he took over last year, was recognizing what we do well and trying to make things simpler for us, yet more complex to the defense,” Rudolph said. “If we can do things that we do well, let’s just do those things more often, and I think that is one of the things that we got to last year and we were able to see our offense kind of kicking up strides there to the end and culminating that last game against the Bears.”
While the earliest portion of the preparation stage of the season doesn’t get a lot of outside attention, a lot of impressions are being made on those who determine the final 53-man roster.
The 2016 collapse isn’t forgotten and now is the time to address what went wrong and focus on those flaws to avoid making them when wins and losses become part of franchise history in the regular season.
“Now is the time,” Rudolph said. “I mentioned this earlier in the offseason when we all met, but the luck of everything, the ball bouncing our way in September, October, November, December is made right now. We put ourselves in situations and we were able to rely on our technique and fundamentals and when that play comes up during the season, we have already been there a few times. We know what we have to do and we just go out there and let our abilities take over. We drill these things so many times throughout the offseason that you do see improvements and you do see where we still have room to grow as well.”