That the Vikings could have become the first team to play a Super Bowl at home became the dominant theme of their season. That story line obscured a more important truth.
This wasn’t just the year they could have played for a title in U.S. Bank Stadium. This was the year their path to a championship would be cleared as if by an industrial-sized snowplow on Interstate 35W.
Two MVP-caliber quarterbacks in the NFC went down — first Aaron Rodgers, then Carson Wentz.
The Seattle Seahawks’ once-great defense was shredded by injuries and age.
Ezekiel Elliott’s suspensions ruined the Cowboys’ season, and Odell Beckham’s injury helped ruin the Giants’.
You can lament the arrival of another NFC team in Minneapolis for the Super Bowl, but the Vikings’ lasting regret from this season should be that their future routes to the Super Bowl are certain to be more difficult.
Late Sunday, there was a level of disgust and self-recrimination in the Vikings’ locker room that you rarely hear in the NFL.
Xavier Rhodes said the Vikings played like “trash.”
Terence Newman questioned the team’s “energy.”
Brian Robison uttered an expletive when describing what the Eagles did to the Vikings in a 38-7 victory in the NFC Championship Game.
The Vikings became the second team in franchise history to win at least 13 games in a regular season. They did so with two franchise quarterbacks recovering from knee injuries, and a talented running back, Dalvin Cook, being injured in Week 4.
They became beloved overachievers who, on Sunday, provided a reminder that overachievers don’t always fare well on the big stage. They were outscored 62-19 over their last six quarters, calling into question the ability of their head coach, quarterback, defense and, yes, franchise to win a title.
Here’s what we learned about this team this season, and what should happen next:
• Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was a wizard this season, and will leave to coach the New York Giants.
National reporters have thrown out names like Ben McAdoo and Mike McCoy as possible replacements. The Vikings should ignore the usual suspects and promote quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski to replace Shurmur. He’s gifted, has the respect of players and has learned under Shurmur.
• The Vikings won 13 games, earning home-field advantage in every possible postseason game … unless they played the Eagles.
Then they played the Eagles, and lost by 31 points on a soft grass field, in front of a wild crowd.
You can bend the statistics to suggest that the Vikings historically fare poorly on grass fields, or you can bend them to suggest that they’ve improved under those circumstances in recent years.
This is a time when recency bias is justified. In their past four games on grass, the Vikings gave up 30 points at Washington, lost to Carolina, played sloppily on offense at Green Bay, and were embarrassed at Philadelphia.
Home-field advantage isn’t always vital in the NFL playoffs, but it might be for the Vikings, whose defense relies on speed. Whether by winning the right to host playoff games or by the luck of the draw, the Vikings need to avoid grass in future Januarys.
• Mike Zimmer needs to prove he can coach in the playoffs. His playoff record is 1-2, and his defense collapsed after holding a 17-0 lead late in the third quarter in the divisional playoffs.
He became too passive against the Saints, and his defense looked confused and desperate against the Eagles. Zimmer has to prove he can do more than beat up on a mediocre, Aaron Rodgers-free division.
• After building a powerhouse defense, the Vikings addressed the offense last year, drafting Cook and center Pat Elflein, two excellent young players. With guard Joe Berger considering retirement, the offensive line will need help, and with former first-round pick Laquon Treadwell looking like a bust, the receiving corps needs size and depth.
• Rarely does a team advance to a championship game without having or finding clarity at the quarterback position.
The simplest approach for the team would be to apply the franchise tag to Case Keenum, keeping him for at least one more year, and persuading Teddy Bridgewater to sign on as a backup/starter in waiting.
If all three quarterbacks were completely healthy and cap space was unlimited, I’d try to sign Bradford as the starter, keep Keenum as the backup, and hope that Bridgewater could continue his comeback behind the scenes.
But Bradford’s knee can’t be trusted, and Bridgewater’s remains a mystery. The Vikings have little choice but to ride Keenum for another season.
• After the bye week, the Vikings conducted “self-scouting,” analyzing their own tendencies and weaknesses. Then they won four consecutive games against quality opponents.
They need to self-scout themselves all winter. Zimmer has built a team strong enough to win a flawed division and weak enough to get exposed in the playoffs. He projected arrogance this year as his team surged. He will need to embrace humility to fix this team’s flaws.