The night before they would take the field in front of their own fans for the first time in nearly 19 months, Vikings players gathered for a team meeting to begin training camp. The message, from coach Mike Zimmer, was an imperative not to miss the opportunity in front of them.
"Act professional, work really hard and work together and maybe the biggest thing, is let's not fall short of what we can do," Zimmer said Tuesday morning. "Whatever our level of ability is and intelligence and hard work, whatever that is, let's make sure we at least fulfill that part, if not do more."
More than two-thirds of the players who heard Zimmer's remarks were not on any of the three playoff teams he has coached in Minnesota. And yet, as the Vikings begin the 2021 season, their charge is effectively this: Return, as quickly as possible, to the way things used to be.
Much of their 2020 season — their silent home stadium, their porous defense — felt like anathema to the brand of football the Vikings have played under Zimmer. The lasting image of the 7-9 season might have been that of Alvin Kamara making snow angels in the Superdome end zone with his linemen after his NFL single-game record-tying sixth touchdown against the Vikings on Christmas Day, in a game that led the coach to admit the 29th-ranked defense was the "worst one I've ever had."
If their offseason overhaul of the defense worked, the Vikings hope things could feel like 2019 again pretty quickly. They began training camp on Wednesday afternoon, serenaded by fans who introduced the Vikings' newcomers to the "Skol" chant and oohed at the spin move Danielle Hunter put on Brian O'Neill. It all felt strangely normal, and the Vikings hope it won't be the last thing that does.
"I know the defense these guys had over the last few years," said safety Xavier Woods, who signed a one-year deal with the team this offseason. "Last year, they had a down year, but years before, it's been a top-five defense. ... When I talked to Coach Zim, I could tell in the tone of his voice that he didn't like that last year at all. He's hungry to improve, and so am I. I can help him win ballgames, and he can help me become a better player."
Woods lined up next to Harrison Smith on Wednesday, in a secondary that could also lean on newcomers Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland (though the former Chiefs corner was limited after offseason shoulder surgery). Up front, Hunter played on both sides of the line of scrimmage, with Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson in the middle and Michael Pierce — who'd injured his left calf in recent weeks — still taking part in most of the Vikings' individual drills.
"I got some meaty boys in front of me as everybody knows," linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "They're excited to play. I'm excited to play behind them and we'll make things correct this year.''
For the Vikings to return to the playoffs, in a year that could be pivotal for the futures of their decisionmakers, their bets on new defensive players will have to pay off. They are hoping Peterson can be better on a one-year deal in Minnesota than he was his past two years in Arizona, while Tomlinson and Pierce can solve the run defense issues that ultimately cost them a playoff spot last year.
The investments they made in 2020 also are a ways from paying off. Zimmer said Tuesday that cornerback Cameron Dantzler has "a bunch of ability," but needs to "get a little more belief in himself," and 2020 first-round pick Jeff Gladney was not at practice Wednesday, as he awaits a Thursday grand jury hearing in Dallas County over felony domestic assault allegations from April.
But on Wednesday, at least, the Vikings could see their fans again. They could marvel at the stature of their reconfigured defensive line, and hope the events of last year were nothing more than an aberration.
"It's not about dwelling on the mistakes," Kendricks said. "Mistakes will be made. That's just the game of football. But it's about how we correct those mistakes and how we go moving forward as we communicate with veterans. We got a lot of leaders on this team. Just taking a little bit of ownership ourselves and going to the next level with it, wherever that may be.''