As Vikings players cleaned out their lockers Monday, turning in their tablets with their electronic playbooks and tossing their personal belongings into silver plastic bags, they bid a brief farewell to a building that, only 24 hours earlier, seemed destined for a grander sendoff.
Had the Vikings beaten the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, they planned to prepare for the Super Bowl, use their own locker rooms and conduct news conferences at their facility in Eden Prairie. The NFL had planned for the Vikings to stay at Winter Park if they’d won the NFC. In what would have been its final act before the team moved to Eagan, the 37-year-old facility, which had staged preparations for four NFC title game losses, would have held practices for the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium.
Instead, as players departed a day after the Vikings’ 38-7 loss at Philadelphia, the cold finality of a playoff loss had an extra layer of resonance.
The Vikings team that reassembles in Eagan for offseason workouts this spring will still have a promising future, thanks to a top-ranked defense that has 10 starters under contract and the potential return of running back Dalvin Cook from a torn ACL. But plenty of questions will also have to be answered: about the identity of the Vikings’ starting quarterback and offensive coordinator, about why the defense lost its bite at the worst possible time, about their place in the NFC when competitors such as the Eagles, Packers and Seahawks get star players back from injury.
And so as they departed, a group of players that spent the past week talking about the need to take care of their current opportunity was left with no assurances another one would come along.
“You don’t really think about the entire year as a whole,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “I think I spent the entire plane ride home, and probably a couple hours in bed, thinking about the plays I could have made or routes I could have ran differently. That’s just how it always is. It doesn’t really matter what happens throughout the season; you only really remember the last play that you ran. It will be a good learning experience, and we’ll have to use this to our advantage moving forward.”
With offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur becoming the New York Giants head coach Monday, the Vikings’ offseason changes could again be weighted on the offensive side of the ball. Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater are all slated to become free agents. So is running back Jerick McKinnon, who finished second on the team to Thielen in yards from scrimmage.
Veteran Latavius Murray is under contract for 2018, but the Vikings will have to determine whether they want to keep his $5.75 million salary. Cook, who said Monday he has been able to resume jogging, should be ready by training camp, and could become the Vikings’ featured back once again.
There will be some changes on the defensive side of the ball, too. Cornerback Terence Newman, who turns 40 in September, is a free agent. So is defensive tackle Tom Johnson, who turns 34 in August. Defensive end Brian Robison, who only talked briefly with reporters Monday, will be 35 in April and has $1.25 million of his $3.2 million base salary guaranteed for injury only until the start of the league year.
“In the NFL, a lot of stuff happens all the time,” safety Harrison Smith said. “We’ll see where we’re at. We didn’t play at a high level last night, so that’s all that matters right now.”
It’s probably all they will think about for a while, as another former Bill Parcells assistant (Bill Belichick) moves his New England Patriots into the Vikings’ locker room and uses their practice facility to prepare for a game that Mike Zimmer hoped to be coaching.
Optimism figures to return by the spring, when players are greeted by a gleaming new complex and fresh resolve at the beginning of offseason workouts. But Monday, as players packed up their cars in driving snow, it was hard to see a brighter day in the future.
“I think you just take some time to get over what happened, get over the loss from last night,” Murray said. “I think this is going to hurt for a while. Once you do that, you can look back at this season and some of the things that we’ve done, some of the things we accomplished. But I think what’s the most disappointing is how close we were, how much we believed that we could go all the way.”