For the second time in the 2018 calendar year, Vikings players cleaned out their lockers on Monday, lamenting missed opportunities as they stuffed personal belongings into boxes and bags.
The first time came in the team’s spartan facility in Eden Prairie, a day after the Vikings lost the NFC Championship Game at Philadelphia. That the Vikings were doing it again before the start of the 2018 playoffs, in their spacious new accommodations in Eagan, created a sour coda for a season that began with stratospheric expectations.
The Vikings largely preached stability on Monday, with players backing coach Mike Zimmer as the man to lead them forward. Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf said in a Dec. 20 interview that ownership has “all the confidence” in Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman, and the Vikings made no immediate changes after a 24-10 loss to the Bears on Sunday cost them a chance to return to the playoffs.
“He is a phenomenal leader,” wide receiver Adam Thielen said. “He’s a guy who cares a ton about us as players and about winning, and he’s the guy who, we respect him, we love him as our guy, and we want to fight for him. So I don’t think there’s anybody in this locker room or upstairs who’s questioning his ability to help us win games. We have to do things to take care of him as players, and we didn’t do that well enough this year.”
Zimmer, who texted NFL Network on Monday to say he was not resigning or retiring, declined to comment when asked by the Star Tribune if he’d received any assurances about his job status.
Beyond the pronouncements, however, the Vikings have some big decisions looming.
Multiple sources have said Zimmer’s and Spielman’s contracts both expire after the 2019 season, meaning the Vikings could have to determine this offseason whether to extend the contracts of either the coach or GM or let both work into the final years of their deals.
Perhaps the Vikings’ most immediate question is the status of interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, whose contract expires 10 days after the conclusion of the season and who is reportedly interviewing for the Browns’ head coaching job. Stefanski, who stayed in Minnesota last year after the Vikings blocked the Giants from hiring him as their offensive coordinator, would need a new deal to stay with the Vikings, and interviewing for other jobs could provide him with some leverage.
“It’s kind of hard to say [what will happen] because I’ve had a different OC [every year] since I’ve been here too,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said. “I have trust in him, I believe in him. I bought into him, he’s our guy until otherwise [notified]. That’s who I’m rocking with.”
Once the Vikings sort out their leadership structure on offense, they’ll get to work on an offseason to-do list that will once again be topped, in all likelihood, by trying to improve the offensive line. Team captain Riley Reiff declined an interview request on Monday, finishing his second consecutive season in Minnesota in which he did not speak publicly other than after games, but guard Tom Compton said the group “probably just didn’t execute as best we could,” and admitted the death of offensive line coach Tony Sparano before the start of training camp had an effect on the season.
“It was a unique year. Obviously we had really high expectations, with Tony passing that was really difficult to deal with. Yeah, and then typical NFL ups and downs,” Compton said.
When they return for the start of offseason workouts in April, they won’t be feted with the same kinds of high expectations that accompanied the 2018 season, following the additions of quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to a 13-3 team.
Their ability to find an offensive identity in 2019, though, could determine whether sweeping changes arrive in Minnesota.
“Make no mistake about it. It’s hard to win,” running back Latavius Murray said. “Last year we were fighting for everything we want and we had an opportunity. This year we still had an opportunity and came up short. [Zimmer] knows what he wants and he’s going to make the right decisions to get that done. I think that’s why he definitely deserves to be right where he is.”