As their Vikings teammates shoved their belongings into garbage bags Monday morning, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and defensive Everson Griffen lingered in the locker room. They sat side by side on tiny stools and shared a few laughs as they engaged in a quiet conversation.
They were not ready to go home.
A day earlier, after Bridgewater had moved the Vikings into field-goal range late in the fourth quarter, they figured they would spend Monday morning breaking down film of a victory over the Seattle Seahawks and starting to prepare for the Arizona Cardinals.
But in an instant, Blair Walsh’s 27-yard kick went wide left and their season was over, and they were left with an entire offseason to wonder what might have been.
“The finality … ” Munnerlyn said, pausing to rehash the heartbreak. “It definitely happened fast. I wasn’t expecting to come here today to clean out my locker.”
But there the Vikings were Monday morning, less than 24 hours after their stunning 10-9 playoff loss to the Seahawks, grabbing what they needed out of their stalls and saying their goodbyes until the spring — or in the case of pending free agents or potential salary cap casualties, until they crossed paths again.
“Nothing in this league stays the same,” Bridgewater said. “The things that we did accomplish this year were pretty special, but we want to make a run for something even bigger. To know that it could have been the last time taking the field with some of the guys in the locker room is very emotional.’’
Once they can step away far enough for the big picture to come into focus, the Vikings will see that the 2015 season was a smash-mouth success. With a fast and physical defense and a punishing running game, they improved by four wins from 2014, went 11-5 and won the NFC North for the first time since 2009.
But as the Vikings departed Winter Park for the rest of the winter, there also was the sobering realization that there is no guarantee they will be back in the playoffs anytime soon.
Sure, they have a talented, young core with a developing quarterback. They have a demanding coach in Mike Zimmer who will try to keep them humble and hungry. And All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson is expected to be back in 2016.
But parity reigns in the NFL, where there are plenty of one-and-dones.
The last time the Vikings made the playoffs, back in 2012, they followed it up by winning five games and getting coach Leslie Frazier fired. They were one of five 2012 playoff teams that didn’t make it back to the postseason in 2013.
There were five new playoff teams in 2014 and four new ones this past season. Two of those 2014 playoff teams will be picking in the top six in the 2016 draft.
“As a young guy, you think these opportunities are going to come around all the time just because you’re on a good team. As an older guy, you start to understand that these opportunities come few and far between,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “Now you’ve got to look forward to a whole ’nother year before you can get back to that [position]. So it’s tough.”
Robison is one of a few highly paid starters who might have played their last game with the Vikings on Sunday. He is a potential victim of offseason cuts, along with right tackle Phil Loadholt and wide receiver Mike Wallace. Outside linebacker Chad Greenway and cornerback Terence Newman headline the team’s free agents.
But the players who hung around in the locker room Monday were confident that Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman this offseason will continue to bring in the talent they need to compete with the Seahawks and other big boys in the NFC.
The rest will be up to them.
“I feel like the sky’s the limit for us,” Peterson said. “Our chances are as good as anyone’s.”