Players Wrap Up, Ship Out

Vikings players headed out of their Winter Park training complex and were primed for time away from football while trying to forget a season of disappointment.

The Vikings put a wrap on their 2006 season with a team meeting at 10 a.m. Monday before players were dismissed for more than two months.

Some players won't be back even when the offseason program is scheduled to start on March 19.

Safety Darren Sharper, who said after Sunday's game that he wasn't sure he'd be asked back, sounded more optimistic with at least 18 hours to digest the season finale.

"Some guys will be up with contracts and things of that nature. There's always going to be a little bit of change because of that. But, as a nucleus, I think most guys will be returning," said Sharper, who was then asked if he was confident he'd be back. "I don't know. I'm under contract, so I think I'll be back."

Cornerback Antoine Winfield said the season-ending meeting with coaches centered around being safe, staying in shape and getting ready for next season.

"We all have to figure out a way to get better – players, coaches, personnel upstairs making the right decisions. It will all work. We'll definitely be a lot better next year," Winfield said. "We're not that far away. We just couldn't catch that many breaks during the season. We lost a few games real close – Chicago and San Fran, if we would have won those games we would have been in the playoffs."

For fans, the Vikings' 6-10 record left them with a season of discontent. The fans and players both expressed high hopes heading into the season after a 9-7 record in 2005 and a number of free agents added.

Ultimately, though, linebacker Ben Leber said the fans and players were both disappointed.

"We can't put a finger at one exact thing that went wrong. There were multiple things that went wrong and it just didn't seem like we really jelled together, I think," Leber said. "We sensed that the fans were disappointed. We were very disappointed. We felt like we had a very high-caliber team and we let ourselves down, so we're ultimately our worst critics (and) it makes it even worse when you're in public."

By the time players had come to grips with the fact that they weren't part of a playoff team this season, the tone seemed to change from one of frustration with how things were going to a credo that the changes implemented would take time to bear fruit.

Besides adding free-agent and draft-pick personnel into the equation, the entire coaching staff was turned over. Schemes on offense and defense were scrapped and replaced with Brad Childress' West Coast version on offense and Mike Tomin's Tampa-2 variations on defense.

"This was a lot of people's first year playing with each other and I believe we had a lot of chemistry. I saw a lot of positives and some negatives, but I saw more positives than negatives so I think we've got a bright future ahead of us," said running back Chester Taylor, who was one of the free-agent acquisitions and the workhorse on offense.

Said Winfield: "It's always kind of difficult to get used to change. Most of the guys were here with (Mike) Tice. Then Coach comes in this year totally different personality, everything, so we had a year with him. I think the relationship will just grow with time."

Safety Dwight Smith said that everything being new was a big factor. Brad Childress was in his first year as a head coach, Darrell Bevell his first as an offensive coordinator, and Mike Tomlin his first as a defensive coordinator.

With that change can come some resistance.

"Just being a year more, another season, I think is going to help a lot – guys just being in this system for a year," Smith said. "A lot of guys don't buy in. A lot of guys feel like, 'Well, we've done it this way somewhere else before, and I'm going to try to do it this way.' Once you've been around coaches for a while, you tend to buy in and understand that they're not out to get you. You and them need to work together for y'all's both well-being. So hopefully next year that happens."

The players' time away can produce emotional and physical healing – saltwater treatment, as Sharper likes to say – after a season of disappointment … and shock.

"It was tough," Winfield said. "There's no way at the beginning of the year if you had told me would finish the way we finished – 6-10, out of the playoffs – coming into the training camp or whatever we had high hopes of making it to the playoffs, getting to the Super Bowl. But that's all ended and (there's) nothing you can do right now. Just get away, get away from football."


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