Trae Waynes settled into his window seat in the exit row near the back of the plane. He was headed to Detroit to watch his alma mater, Michigan State, play Penn State the following day.
Waynes was technically on vacation with the Vikings on their bye week. They had nine days until they played at Washington. Coach Mike Zimmer gave his players the weekend to relax and unwind away from football.
Waynes could have slept on the plane. Or watched a movie. Or listened to music. Instead, the Vikings cornerback got out his team-issued iPad and watched video of the Washington offense, taking mental notes on receivers that he would be covering.
“This is your job,” Waynes said. “You’ve got to prepare. I just wanted to get a jump-start. Yeah, we had a lot of time off, but I wanted to come back prepared.”
That snapshot of Waynes studying on a plane at the start of his mini-vacation is symbolic of the entire Vikings locker room. Want to know why the 10-2 Vikings look so well-prepared and in-tune with their game plans? They are diligent workers Monday through Saturday, in the film room and on the practice field.
“Our guys right now have a lot of want-to,” receiver Jarius Wright said. “A lot of guys want to be great.”
Being great — individually and collectively — requires more than just talent. Even for a supremely gifted athlete such as Everson Griffen, who probably could give offensive tackles night terrors without studying a second of video.
But Griffen apparently examines his opponents with a magnifying glass beforehand. In rather, um, unique settings.
“I study film when I eat dinner,” Griffen said. “When I get in my hyperbaric chamber, I’m watching film. If I’m in the big-boy bathroom handling my business, I’m studying film. When my wife was having a baby, I’m studying film.”
Well, that about covers everything.
Zimmer pulled aside one of his players last week and encouraged him to study specific video clips of the Atlanta Falcons to glean tendencies.
“I did that last night,” the player responded.
“Me too,” said a teammate standing beside him.
Ah, sweet music to a coach’s ear.
“I think it’s important to them that they play good for each other,” Zimmer said.
This isn’t revolutionary discovery, of course. Studying opponents has been standard procedure across the NFL and in college football for years. The Vikings just seem really dialed-in to their preparation and gaining any edge possible right now.
Zimmer often lauds his team’s work ethic behind the scenes. He estimates that maybe once a month he needs to prod his players to raise their intensity in practice. Otherwise, they are generally in the mood to work hard, which is commendable because practice during the grind of a season can be as enjoyable as fingernails clawing a chalkboard.
Zimmer and his staff keep players on their toes by asking questions in team meetings about their next opponent. They might inquire about a certain offensive formation, or defensive tendency, or something related to special teams. Coaches expect correct answers.
Waynes got called on a few times as a rookie. He learned a lesson.
“Ever since then,” he said, “I came prepared pretty well.”
Players credit Zimmer for creating an environment that demands accountability. Details matter. Being prepared matters. Knowing their assignments front-to-back matters.
Whether it is Zimmer’s intricate blitz packages, Pat Shurmur’s creative offensive scheme or a new wrinkle that allows receivers to line up in different spots in the formation, the Vikings never seem predictable.
“There’s a lot that goes into it that you don’t see just on Sundays,” receiver Stefon Diggs said.
We only see the results, not the process. Winning eight consecutive games and being viewed as a legitimate Super Bowl contender incentivizes their extra work and time spent on preparation.
“You’ve got to know your opponent better than yourself,” Griffen said. “That’s how you win games. You get tendencies. You get tips. You get that edge.”
That edge can be found in many places. On an airplane. In a hyperbaric chamber. Even in the big-boy bathroom.