Minnesota Vikings players cleaned out their lockers – some more thoroughly than others – on Monday and prepared to face a long, cold offseason, even if that offseason is taking place in warmer climes.
With a 3-13 record, there wasn’t much warm and fuzzy about the season.
"Obviously it was a tough one. If you look at the history of the Vikings record books, this will go down as tied for one of the worst,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “As one of the team leaders, I think you can be proud of the way our team fought all season. A game like yesterday with ups and downs (was) another game we probably should have won with the situations we were in. It's been tough, it's been frustrating, it's been hard. I guess now the best thing is we can move past it and move on to next year. Hopefully we can rebound and we can become stronger and better, and we will."
Changes are likely to come in the following days. Head coach Leslie Frazier’s job is believed to be safe, but the evaluation process of the coaching staff will take place this week, along with meetings with Vikings ownership, which remained in town on Monday.
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams described the season as “crap.” Defensive end Brian Robison expanded on that feeling with a metaphorical approach.
“3-13. That pretty much sums it up. I guess you could say a roller coaster that stayed close to the ground most of the time – a kiddie coaster,” Robison said.
Chad Greenway’s version of the 2011 roller coaster was a bit different, with a few more twists and turns.
“It had a lot of loops in it. There was a lot of upside-down moments,” Greenway said. “But you know, that's where I think you can look back. It was tied for our worst season in our organization's history, but you look around the locker room and you've got a lot of friends and teammates you played with and played hard with. You can't look at somebody and say, 'You quit on us.' You can't do that.”
The Vikings continued to stay competitive until the end of the season, even as the losses piled up and the playoff hopes evaporated. In Greenway’s mind, when the Vikings blew double-digit leads in each of their first three games to start the season 0-3, it took a toll.
“Mentally I could remember myself thinking … 'Gosh, are we going to hold onto this one?' You couldn't help but think that when you've done that multiple times in a row, and it's something you don't want to get into the thought process,” Greenway said. “But when you start a season like that, it just creates the wrong type of mentality. And I think if you look back, if I could put one finger on where this kind of went wrong, it was right away out the gate. Even if you start 1-2 or 2-1 in those games and you hold onto those leads in the second half, to me it changes the landscape of the season."
Instead, the Vikings lost all three of their games in September – 24-17 at San Diego, 24-20 against Tampa Bay, and a 26-23 overtime loss to the Detroit Lions. Two of those three games were at home.
Their losing ways continued with their fourth straight loss at Kansas City, a 22-17 defeat. In all, nine of the Vikings’ 13 losses were by seven points or fewer.
“It was tough. This year we lost so many games by less than a touchdown. To be so close so many weeks, it’s tough to deal with all year,” Williams said.
Jared Allen told Frazier one year ago that he would return an even better player. Allen ended up breaking the Vikings’ all-time record for sacks with 22.
Allen has endured losing seasons before – last year with the Vikings and before that with the Kansas City Chiefs. But three wins makes it even worse.
“If you can't find motivation in winning or losing, I don't know why you're in this business. To me, 3-13 is gross. It's horrific,” Allen said. “I want to come back and I want to win. As I accomplish the individual goals that I always wanted to accomplish in my career, the looming thing is at the end of it you're always missing something and for me it's a Super Bowl ring.
“With Jimmy (Kleinsasser) retiring, it really put it into perspective this week. Here's a guy who played 13 years with the same organization, he's been to two NFC Championships. He never got that ring and he ended his career on a 3-13 (team). For me, selfishly, I don't want to be that guy. Jimmy is a hell of a competitor and still could play his heart out. But you talk to him, he really wishes he had a Super Bowl ring. That's what we all play this game for. I want all my ducks in a row so I can walk out and I know this organization can do it.”
Greenway remained willing to answer questions from reporters throughout the season, but even he noticed that the questions didn’t change much. At one point in December, he walked through the Vikings locker room on a Monday after another loss and stopped to ask reporters if they needed anything. Without anything new to ask in a season that had become a broken record, he was uncharacteristically given a free pass to the parking lot.
“Obviously you can sense that we were frustrated, just in the sense that it was that recurring theme. What is the issue? We don't know,” Greenway said. “When you're out there putting everything into it and you're just not making the plays and things aren't going your way, it's just like what do you do? At certain points you've just got to keep playing and hope things can turn."
They never really did. The Vikings went from a 13-year veteran quarterback in Donovan McNabb to a rookie quarterback in Christian Ponder, but the losses kept coming. They started the season with four straight losses, endured a six-game losing streak in October and November and didn’t win a game against an NFC North opponent.
As they left the locker room to get away from the frustration, there was a recurring feeling.
“Relieved,” receiver Percy Harvin said. “Can finally close this book up and throw it in the trash.”
Robison compartmentalized the season. First, there were the blown leads in the first halves of the first three games. The middle of the season brought the more standardized close losses, with a couple of blowouts – at Chicago and at Green Bay – along the way. In the third quarter of the season, he saw losses in which they were weak in the first half of games and then mounted comebacks.
“It was just one of those deals where nothing went right for us this year,” Robison said. “But it is, it’s frustrating when you go back and look at the film and see one or two plays could have made the difference in the game. It’s just a matter of guys being mentally and physically stronger in the season and try to make those plays down the stretch.”
Greenway tried to guard against letting it get to him too much during the season.
“The biggest thing you have to err on the side of caution is just getting mentally ill with what's going on – just coming here and getting depressed and not wanting to work into next week,” he said. “You try to keep your head clean after 24 hours and move onto the next one and hope you can come back and get a win. I think that's the hardest part.”
That part of it is over until September. For now, the players are off for a few months and then return to start the offseason training program and gradually ease into a series of organized team activities and minicamps.
Eventually, the warmer season will come. At which point Robison can start looking for a different roller-coaster to take him on a ride in 2012.
“I’m going to have to go to Valley Fair and see which one of the roller coasters is best,” he said. “Hopefully next year we can definitely come into the year and start the season like we did in the three first halves of those first three games. Put those halves together and accumulate them for a season.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.