Who else is having the Christmas Blues? You know, that feeling the day after December 25th, after we’ve unwrapped the presents, bid adieu to our families, and finished off the last of the homemade cookies — we’ve all experienced it throughout the years.
Even at 24, the end of the holiday season makes me a little sentimental. As soon as Thanksgiving’s over, we’re confronted with the Christmas rush. You spend an entire month planning, buying, cooking, and baking, all for the climax that is Christmas Day. And once it’s over, it’s simply…over. You’re left with the clean up, the transition back into the office, the harsh reality that is the return to the everyday routine.
In some ways, the Minnesota Vikings prepared us for this very feeling through the 2016 season. For me, at least, there are too many parallels to ignore: the exciting 5-0 start, the sudden crash to third in the NFC North, and the ultimate crescendo — elimination from the playoffs at the hand of the Green Bay Packers.
Though the season isn’t technically finished, we’re at the point where Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears feels inconsequential. The joy of another year of Vikings football has come and gone, the anticipation of another playoff run slammed down by Aaron Rodgers and Co. Every year, it’s the same result, yet every year, we get our hopes up that “this team is going to be different.”
A lot like Christmas, right? We stress, we celebrate, and reflect on another holiday passed. With the Vikings, we stress over every close game, celebrate each victory, then ask ourselves after another failure: “What could have been?” It’s as if we know the outcome, but fail to face reality; like Christmas, we enjoy the temporary reprieve, only to have it thrown in our faces.
I’ve come to terms with the conclusion of the holidays — a week off of work will help that — but I still can’t put my finger on what exactly went wrong for the Vikings this season. I can’t know what happens within the walls of Winter Park, but as an outsider with vested interest in the franchise, I do my best to follow every move and piece of breaking news that escapes the team’s bubble.
That’s what makes Minnesota’s slide such an unfortunate turn of events. Like so many of our readers and fellow fans on Twitter, I’m shocked by the collapse of Mike Zimmer’s promising 2016 team. Maybe a few intuitive fans predicted this would happen, but to fall from 5-0 to 7-8 so quickly and in such disappointing fashion has been a complete punch to the gut.
After far too much food and an extra few hours of sleep, I think I’m ready to share my thoughts on this team’s fall from grace. Thanks to my friend “reality,” the warning signs I didn’t recognize earlier in the year are clear as day, and like so many, I should’ve seen this collapse coming.
Sam Bradford’s been fine filling in for Teddy, but he lacks much of what made Bridgewater a perfect quarterback for the Vikings. Just look at what Stefon Diggs had to say about his fallen quarterback, who was lost before this tumultuous season even began:
WR Stefon Diggs gives some thoughts on Teddy Bridgewater. Wow, what a guy. pic.twitter.com/ow09l66CmX
— J.R. (@JReidDraftScout) December 26, 2016
More than losing Bridgewater’s mobility and decision-making, the Vikings lost the offense’s leader. Take a look at the unit now and tell me who’s stepped up in Teddy’s absence to lead the huddle. Chances are, you’ll flip-flop between a few players without agreeing on a single name. Bradford’s arguably been a better quarterback, but he’s not better for this team.
Teddy had the uncanny ability to rally his teammates without saying a word, to make the 10 other Vikings on the field better with his own play. From the moment he arrived in Minnesota, Bridgewater’s been the face of the franchise. Some will contest he’s underperformed as the Vikings’ signal-caller, but there’s no denying this is Teddy’s team and has been for three years.
Quantifying the loss of Bridgewater is almost impossible. You can look at the stat sheet and say Minnesota’s offense is better with Bradford under center, but the emotion of Teddy’s non-contact injury can’t be denied. Freak injuries happen, but this one felt different. Not because it was, in fact different, but because it altered the course of what we all expected to be an ultimately successful season.
An undefeated start brings the media attention, the praise, the talks of another NFC North title and Super Bowl run. It also creates expectations, many of which just aren’t realistic.
The Vikings have one of the NFL’s best defenses, but they aren’t the 1985 Bears (yet). Bradford, for all of his early success, was never going to elevate the Vikings as Brady or Wilson do for their respective Patriots and Seahawks. Zimmer, long considered a defensive mastermind, isn’t immune to mental mistakes or coaching errors.
5-0 felt good; it ignited a fanbase in need of a spark after losing Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson. It gave hope that hey, maybe the Vikings could prove us wrong and bring home the Lombardi trophy. But the injuries kept coming, other teams improved — here’s looking at you, Detroit — and the Vikings came crashing back to Earth.
Like the loss of Teddy, winning so many games in a row and defying so many odds comes with an emotional price. There’s a mental weight created by the early success, one the Vikings appeared to crumble under with every game. Maybe, just maybe during the winning streak, we should’ve seen the failure coming.
This requires little explanation. What started as a weak spot heading into 2016 almost singlehandedly ruined Minnesota’s regular season. Heck, it could be the most obvious contributing factor, but I can’t look at the offensive line and blame a single unit for ravaging the Vikings’ season.
When a team loses four offensive tackles — Matt Kalil, Andre Smith, Jake Long, Mike Harris — midway through the season, things can get ugly. That manifested itself in the form of T.J. Clemmings becoming “the answer” at left tackle, and everyone knows how that’s turned out.
Sam touched on Rick Spielman’s failures as a drafter of offensive linemen earlier this year, all of which has become painfully obvious this season. No general manager can account for so many season-ending injuries, but it’s difficult to look at teams like the Cowboys, Raiders, and Packers without feeling pangs of envy. Those franchises invested heavily in linemen — both through the draft and free agency — and look where it’s led them: the playoffs.
Norv Turner’s resignation, Zimmer’s eye, Peterson’s unceremonious return to the field, a skidding plane in Wisconsin. Every team faces adversity, but no team appears as snakebitten as the Minnesota Vikings.
I can’t remember a season so odd since 2010, which Adam W. is happy to bring up whenever we speculate this year’s zaniness. But look past the injuries and the team’s on-field failures, and you’ll find the Vikings can’t seem to get out of their own way.
So many distractions, in addition to the failures every Sunday, add to the weight a team must carry over the course of a 16-game season. That weight brought the Vikings to their knees.
Much more went in Minnesota’s demise, which I could cover in 2,000 words or so. But as I sit here and write, these are the factors that come directly to mind. For every on-field obstacle — injuries, defensive blunders, a conservative offensive approach — the Vikings faced just as many distractions and mistakes off of it.
The fix won’t come in the form of a highly-touted draft pick or another offseason under Zimmer. The problems, as hard as they are to identify, feel as though they run deeper than our eyes can see. I wouldn’t say the Vikings are in for a major shakeup this offseason, but I’d expect major changes between January and August.
Hopefully, next year, I’m not writing about the sour feeling that comes with another lost season. That’s the optimism talking through the reality that the Vikings feel further than any of us could’ve imagined.