EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Packing boxes and filling up large trash bags with their personal belongings Monday, the Minnesota Vikings cleaned out their lockers at Winter Park and departed one by one for the offseason.
Minnesota’s players weren’t pleased to be leaving on Jan. 7, with the sting of Saturday night’s first-round playoff loss at Green Bay still lingering. The Vikings expected to be playing another week instead of wrapping up the season with exit interviews.
Monday’s disappointment demonstrated the increased expectations for Minnesota inside that locker room. Coming off a 3-13 2011 season, the Vikings exceeded others’ expectations but not their own.
“We never put a ceiling on what we could do, and we felt like we gave ourselves a shot to make the dance and get to the Super Bowl,” fullback Jerome Felton said.
With time to offer more perspective, the Vikings, too, might qualify the season as a success. Their seven-win improvement is the biggest single-season turnaround in team history, and perhaps the most dramatic. From 1997 to 1998 Minnesota improved from nine wins to 15. But this season, the team recovered from the depths of the league in 2011 to reach the playoffs at 10-6.
“A seven-win improvement is huge,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “If you ask any team, they’ll take a seven-win improvement. But bottom line is we’re not here just to make playoffs. We’re here to win championships, and that’s what we want to do. Losing the first round, obviously to a team that we beat a week before, division rival, there’s a lot of emotions in there. Overall, I think it was a good season, but I don’t think were satisfied with it. I think we want more.”
The season started with low expectations outside the organization. The Vikings had transformed the roster significantly with a focus on youth and still had many unknowns, starting with Leslie Frazier entering his second full year as coach. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave was starting his second year, defensive coordinator Alan Williams was added and had to deal with a historically bad secondary, second-year quarterback Christian Ponder was unproven and running back Adrian Peterson was coming off major knee surgery.
The Vikings believed the attitude changed in the offseason. Many times, Frazier has pointed to April 23 as a defining moment for the team. The first day of the offseason program was the day he began to see a team form. Minnesota had near unanimous participation in the voluntary workout.
“Our guys worked extremely hard, going all the way back to — you’ve heard me say this before — April 23, when they came back in the building to really set a foundation for this 2012 season,” Frazier said. “Because of their hard work, we were able to secure a playoff berth, something we were extremely pleased with. The foundation has really been set for our team, without question. Our core identity showed up. The traits that we talked about throughout the year, being a tough, smart, disciplined football team, were exemplified through this group of young men.”
On the final 53-man roster, 31 players had less than three years of experience. Gone were veteran leaders such as Steve Hutchinson, Ryan Longwell and E.J. Henderson, along with Cedric Griffin, Anthony Herrera and Visanthe Shiancoe. Eight of the team’s 10 draft picks were active for games this season, and receiver Greg Childs was only missing from that group because of knee injuries. At the end of the season, 17 players were completing their first season with the Vikings.
“Really, you didn’t know what to expect when we came in,” said defensive tackle Kevin Williams, the longest-tenured Minnesota player. “We didn’t have expectations of winning three games like last year, but once I started seeing the guys and going through minicamps I knew they were a good group of young guys.”
The changes were reflected early when Minnesota won four of its first five games and raised expectations. A tough midseason dropped the Vikings to 6-6 and created a playoff-type scenario in the final four weeks, but Minnesota finished with four straight wins – two on the road, two to playoff teams – to advance to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
“Let’s be honest,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “The city probably would have said if we won six games this year, that would be enough for everybody. But it just showed the character of this team and the guys on this team, nobody quit.”
And in the process, the Vikings just increased their own expectations and definition of success.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do this offseason,” Frazier said. “We understand that. Our players know that. We had a good meeting on Monday, talked about what we do need to do when we get back in the building in April. They’re enthused. They’re excited. They weren’t holding their heads down. … Our guys are hungry to get back and finish the mission that’s been put before them.”