The Vikings open training camp this week without the Super Bowl-or-bust hype train that steamed into town last season.
The folks who set online betting odds have mostly put the Vikings outside the top 10 teams favored to reach the Super Bowl. Mike Zimmer must be in hog heaven. This is how he likes it — under the radar, overlooked, whatever cliché you prefer.
Not buying it. Expectations shouldn’t be lowered. The Vikings’ roster construction still screams “win now.” Their core group that has grown, matured and signed mega-contracts together won’t be together forever.
So if not now, then when?
Maybe national prognostications aren’t touting the Vikings as obvious contenders, but an underlying sense of urgency is evident within the organization. That feeling comes from optics.
Look at the roster, especially the veteran core that has been the focal point of a blueprint conceived by Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman.
Kirk Cousins turns 31 in August and enters a contract year after this season. Everson Griffen accepted a pay cut in order to stay with the team. Kyle Rudolph renegotiated his contract to extend his tenure at least one more season.
Linval Joseph turns 31 in October, Riley Reiff turns 31 in December. Harrison Smith is 30.
Financially, can the Vikings afford both starting cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes after this season? Can salary-cap magician Rob Brzezinski continue to pull rabbits out of his hat to keep the high-priced core together?
Both Zimmer and Spielman had options picked up on their respective contracts this offseason, extending them through the 2020 season, but that doesn’t guarantee ironclad job security.
This feels like a pivotal season in many regards.
The team’s veteran core reached the brink of the Super Bowl two years ago. They’ve experienced a lot together. Their bond was captured perfectly when the typically stoic Smith fought back tears at a news conference this spring when asked about Anthony Barr’s decision to turn down a more lucrative free-agent contract from the New York Jets to stay here.
Everyone in the NFL feels pressure to perform, so to suggest the Vikings feel added pressure is being overly dramatic. Urgency is probably a more accurate description, knowing prime years of individual careers and a window to accomplish something special together aren’t without end.
Zimmer didn’t just promote Kevin Stefanski to offensive coordinator and call it a day. He and the organization made an aggressive move in hiring former Super Bowl-winning head coach Gary Kubiak to serve as an offensive adviser/strategist/savant/safety net. That’s a sign of urgency.
Stefanski appears to be a bright offensive mind who is widely respected inside the organization, but he’s still relatively unproven as a coordinator, and improving the offense can’t be a slow cook. The Vikings need to run the ball better, produce more points, get better line play and create conditions that maximize Cousins’ strengths. And quickly.
Cousins gave a quote this spring that was illuminating for its honesty and self-awareness. The topic was what the Vikings can do to help their $84 million quarterback ascend to the “next level.”
“The next level is all about winning,” Cousins said. “I’m pretty much a .500 quarterback in my career so far, and I don’t think that’s where you want to be. That’s not why you are brought in or people are excited about you.”
This is what organizational urgency feels like in a sound bite.
Zimmer’s team has responded favorably to disappointing seasons, resurging when expectations have waned a bit. That almost assuredly will be a popular narrative again as camp opens.
The Vikings don’t have an under-the-radar roster. Sure, they have key questions — offensive line, Cousins’ performance in big games, new offensive system/coaching staff — but there shouldn’t be a “nobody believes in us” rallying cry.
Last season was a bust, plain and simple. And while that might change how people nationally view the Vikings coming into this season, the ticking of the clock doesn’t slow down or get reset.