SHIPLEY: All that’s left for 2018 Vikings is the hard part
ST. PAUL — For most of this offseason, it seemed the wind was at the Vikings’ backs; that after advancing to the NFC Championship Game with a backup quarterback and the NFL’s top-ranked defense, the best was yet to come.
After signing free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins in March, it was Super Bowl or bust.
But the wind is rarely, if ever, at a team’s back in the NFL, and success in a previous season is often irrelevant.
“I’ve always got the wind in my face,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “I’m always saying, ‘Couple extra clubs.'”
In the big picture, the Vikings’ world is blue skies and cool breezes. Grant Wood used to paint such scenes with a distant mass of blackening clouds on the far horizon, a reminder that no matter how much we work and plan, something can — and often does — sweep in to ruin your preparation.
No one knows this better than Zimmer, the fifth-year head coach whose best team starts the 2018 season at noon Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers at U.S. Bank Stadium, who reminded us Friday that “every year is a new year.”
This season might be transformative, it might be heartbreaking. In any case, it will be interesting, and there is no doubt that starting Sunday, the Vikings will supply the soundtrack to Minnesota life for however long it lasts. The goal is to make it last until Feb. 3 in Atlanta, preferably with a happy ending.
The last Vikings teams to look this good also were coming off appearances in the NFC Championship, games they probably should have won in 1998 and 2009. For a variety of reasons, they didn’t, and each underperformed the next season. The Brett Favre-led team that went 12-4 in 2009, in fact, finished 2010 at the bottom of a snow pile at TCF Bank Stadium with a 6-10 record.
Injuries, turnovers, boneheaded decisions, bad individual performances, personnel losses and more conspire against teams good and bad every season, every week. To win, Zimmer said, “You’ve got to go out and play good.”
Every football coach says this, and most of them mean it, including all 32 NFL head coaches. We might get sick of hearing it, but it’s a fact. These are the best football players in the world.
The Vikings were terrific last season and followed it with as good an offseason as any team in the NFL, outbidding a handful of teams for Cousins with an NFL-record contract, $84 million guaranteed over three years, adding veteran defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and extending the contracts of key pieces of a dynamic young defense such as end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Eric Kendricks.
But they took a few risks, such as replacing veterans Terence Newman and Brian Robison with young players at safety and defensive end, respectively, and ditching a limited but reliable place-kicker for a rookie. They lost their veteran offensive line coach in the worst way possible, and center Pat Elflein started practicing on a limited basis for the first time this week. His backup, Nick Easton, had season-ending neck surgery on Aug. 9.
After months of good news, this summer was just rough enough to remind everyone how difficult it is for any team to advance to the Super Bowl, even if the 2018 Vikings appear to be a better version of the team that went 13-3 last season and finally won a playoff game with the kind of miracle that had traditionally happened for their postseason opponents.
“It’s funny because two years ago, everybody was saying we weren’t going to be very good because we were 8 and 8, and (what) I saw (was) the 11-5 team that was the year before,” Zimmer said. “This team, I see the same way — I see that we have a chance to be a good football team if we do the right things.”
If you don’t want to sweat them, rest assured Zimmer will.