Zygi Wilf entered the Winter Park locker room Monday before most players began cleaning out their stalls, offering the one word that will follow this 2016 season for eternity.
“Disappointing,” said the Vikings owner.
Sentiments from Vikings starters matched ownership the day after Sunday’s 38-10 victory over the lowly Bears, officially marking the end of a 3-8 skid nearly three months after they were the NFL’s last unbeaten team.
Talk of regret, crippling losses and injuries overcame mentions of moving forward. Many watched Sunday night as the Packers, whom the Vikings defeated in Week 2, claimed the NFC North title with a victory over the Lions.
“To watch another team play for the division last night, it was like, ‘Wow, we should’ve been one of those teams that probably already clinched,’ ” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We should’ve been fighting for our lives yesterday for a playoff spot, and we didn’t put ourselves in that position.”
Instead, players traded phone numbers, swapped autographs on memorabilia and gifted photos while loading up their belongings in mesh bags.
This locker room clean-out came at the same time as four of the previous six seasons, in which the Vikings also missed the postseason, but Monday’s carried the weight of failed expectations, which had soared to championship levels after last year’s 11-5 record and NFC North title.
Eight losses provided plenty of “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” guard Alex Boone said, but the Nov. 6 overtime defeat at home to the Lions hit hardest for a defender like Munnerlyn, who was injured early and watched as the defense surrendered the tying field goal in less than 30 seconds and then the losing touchdown in overtime.
Perhaps the most inexplicably bad performance came Oct. 31 at Chicago, when the Vikings lost 20-10 to the three-win Bears, the team they dismantled in Sunday’s season finale.
“When you go out and play the Bears like we did yesterday,” Boone said, “why couldn’t we have done that all year? It’s frustrating and maddening at the same time.
“I’ll dwell on it until April.”
The final nail in the coffin came in the Week 16 loss at Lambeau Field, when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers reasserted his control of the rivalry against an exhausted defense with a 136.6 passer rating.
“The Packers game, that was kind of like the icing on the cake for us. When we lost that one, it was tough,” running back Jerick McKinnon said.
While little is guaranteed for most players year to year, the thud hit harder for select Vikings veterans who may have cleaned out their Winter Park lockers for the last time. Those 30-somethings such as running back Adrian Peterson, linebacker Chad Greenway, defensive end Brian Robison and cornerback Terence Newman embark into an offseason that could feature pay cuts, retirements or outright releases.
“You understand the team is not going to be the same next year,” Robison said. “We’ve been blessed to have the same core group of guys here the last two or three years. It doesn’t happen very often.”
McKinnon, the Vikings’ leading rusher this season with just 539 yards, wasn’t saying his goodbye to Peterson on Monday. McKinnon said he will train with Peterson this offseason after needed recovery from playing 15 games this season, some while “a little banged up.”
Other contributors could be on the move as they are set to be free agents in March, including Munnerlyn, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and left tackle Matt Kalil.
“You look back and think, ‘God, we had so much talent. We had so much going into this season,’ ” Boone said. “Injuries kind of plagued this team and then a lot of it was just playing catch-up.”
The Vikings started eight offensive line combinations a year after trotting out the same five players in every single game. Boone, the team’s most consistent lineman, recalled a block he wanted back in the six-point loss at Washington.
While a few players couldn’t reach the parking lot fast enough, select veterans lingered knowing they might not be back in the building, trying to squeeze the last moments from a season that once appeared destined for a January playoff run.
“We just left a lot of things out there,” Munnerlyn said. “We showed flashes of what we were capable of doing yesterday, but we left a lot of things out there. Like our goals. We got the 5-0 start and couldn’t make the playoffs.”