EAGAN, Minn. — When the Minnesota Vikings arrived this week for offseason workouts, they still had last season’s finale on their minds
To make the playoffs, the Vikings needed a win or a tie Dec. 30 at U.S. Bank Stadium against Chicago, which had clinched the NFC North and didn’t have much on the line. But Minnesota lost, 24-10, and finished a season that had begun with Super Bowl aspirations 8-7-1.
“We left a lot on the table,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “The main goal is to go win the Super Bowl, and we left that on the table. We didn’t achieve our goal, so we have a bitter taste in our mouth.”
Not making the playoffs gave players three extra weeks before the start of spring drills than they had in 2018, when Minnesota advanced to the NFC Championship Game. So, they’ve had plenty of time to contemplate what went wrong.
“For me, it feels super long, especially if you don’t make the playoffs,” safety Harrison Smith said this week. “It gets boring. You’re trying to find things for you to stay busy. So, it’s great to be back in the building and have some semblance of preparing for something and working towards a goal together.”
The Vikings failed to make the playoffs despite ranking fourth in the NFL in total defense, their third straight season in the top four. But they were without middle linebacker Eric Kendricks for the final two games of the season because of a hamstring injury.
Eric Kendricks couldn’t wipe the smile off his face when recalling the moment he learned one of his best friends was staying in Purple.
And that was moments after Harrison Smith, one of the toughest players on the team, became choked up when talking about Anthony Barr’s decision during free agency.
Yes, Barr’s defensive teammates were both ecstatic and emotional Tuesday that the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker recently chose to continue his career with the Vikings.
“Yeah, he’s with us,” Kendricks said with that smile on his face. “It’s dope. So dope.”
Perhaps nobody is as close to Barr as Kendricks is, as the two were former college teammates at UCLA. Take away the 2014 season — when Barr was a rookie and Kendricks was flourishing with the Bruins — and the duo have played alongside each other since the 2011 season.
The linebackers, both California natives, were working out in Los Angeles last month when free agency began. And for a day or two, it looked as if Barr was heading to the New York Jets.
But when Barr had a change of heart, it felt as if Kendricks was kind of along for the ride.
“I was working out with him at the time. Every morning he’s on the phone going through it while we’re working out, but I tried to stay out of it as much as I could,” Kendricks recalled Tuesday morning from Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. “I sent him a text when it started going down and I was just like, ‘Man, it’s going to be weird not playing with you.’
“Everyone was asking me if I’d thought about it yet … I’d thought about it, but I hadn’t really processed it at that time. Everybody was just kind of on me about it,” Kendricks added. “So I sent him a text … Hey, it’s going to be weird not playing with you … and he was like, ‘Hold on, wait a second.’ And I was like, ‘Oh.’ It kind of played out how it did, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Instead, Kendricks and teammates cleaned out their lockers the day after losing to the Bears.
“It’s definitely hard when you see everybody in the playoffs, chasing the Super Bowl,” Kendricks said. “That definitely sucks. But it also gives you a chance to reflect on yourself, your own performance a little bit. What you could have done a little bit better, what the team could have done better.”
The defense hasn’t changed much. The most major difference is the absence of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who left for Cleveland as a free agent and will be replaced by Shamar Stephen, who returns after being with Minnesota from 2014-17.
On offense, departures included backup running back Latavius Murray, who signed with New Orleans, and starting guards Mike Remmers and Tom Compton moving on. Remmers was released and Josh Kline was signed as his likely replacement on the right side. Compton joined the New York Jets after not getting an offer to return, and the Vikings eventually signed Jets free agent Dakota Dozier as a candidate to replace him at left guard.
There also were changes on offense with the coaching staff. Gary Kubiak, who coached Denver to a win in Super Bowl 50, was named assistant head coach/offensive adviser and Rick Dennison offensive line coach/run game coordinator. Kevin Stefanski was retained as offensive coordinator after serving in that role for the final three games of 2018.
“Just getting back to work, building a foundation,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “We’re learning football all over again, if you will.”
The Vikings are moving forward, but can’t help but look back.
“It’s always hard when you don’t meet expectations,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Everyone knows how our expectations were this time last year, coming off playing in the NFC Championship Game. … We have to earn our way back.”