EAGAN, Minn. – The 2022 Vikings team was a special one.
It will take much longer than 24 hours for the pain of Sunday's Wild Card loss to dissipate; but what remained clear Monday afternoon is the true brotherhood that formed over the past nine months.
The Vikings locker room at Twin Cities Orthopedics Center was mostly quiet, lacking the energetic buzz that just a few days ago had reverberated through the walls.
Players solemnly moved T-shirts from plastic hangers into garbage bags acting as temporary luggage. They drifted about and exchanged embraces, pats on the shoulders and shared nods of understanding. Justin Jefferson autographed jersey after jersey while talking to media members – not for fans but for teammates who have become friends.
"This team is definitely close. Our team chemistry is something that we emphasized on as soon as K.O. (Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell came into the building," Jefferson said. "It's one of the closest teams I've been around, so it's definitely tough to get this type of loss, just knowing that we're so close as a team and that we wanted to be on that Super Bowl platform."
View images from the Vikings locker room at TCO Performance Center on Monday as players cleaned out their lockers at the end of the 2022-23 season.
Jefferson was asked if it's fair to call his third NFL season, in which the Vikings went 13-4 and hosted a playoff game, a success.
"We had a good season. You can call it a good season. But I wouldn't call it a success," he said. "Everybody wants to get to the Super Bowl. That's the success of the season. But you can say you had a good run at the Super Bowl and where you want to go and where the future could bring you."
The team feels the future is bright for Minnesota.
But it's inevitable that the 2023 Vikings roster will look different – and that's especially difficult considering the team-wide bond that exists.
"It hurts," quarterback Kirk Cousins said Sunday night. "This is probably the toughest loss I've had in my career. It hurts."
He noted players like Garrett Bradbury and Alexander Mattison, among others who are slated to become free agents this spring, add to the uncertainty of saying "goodbye" after a season comes to an unexpected end.
"It's tough to know that there's no guarantee that they're back with how great of players they are and what they've done, what I've been able to watch them do," Cousins said. "It's difficult to know the possibility is there that you don't get to play with them moving forward."
Adam Thielen shared similar sentiments in the immediate aftermath of his ninth NFL season.
"Just because we know the type of guys we have in this locker room, the staff that's been put together, this organization – how much effort they've put in to help us be at our best," Thielen said. "And to not get it done – especially with the team that we have, it's disappointing. It's frustrating."
Jordan Hicks joined the Vikings this spring after playing for the Eagles and Cardinals; he was impacted nearly immediately by the camaraderie inside Minnesota's locker room.
Hicks paid credit to the team's previous leadership that brought in "the right type of guys" and then General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O'Connell's goal to "hold onto" and build upon that culture.
"Before I got here, you could tell the foundation and culture that was built," he said. "When I came in, they were great guys, welcomed you in with open arms and you'd try to get to know each other on a personal level, more than just the basics of football and being out here every day. You want to talk about life, you want to talk about where you're from and how you got here, so that's how it starts.
"I've been on the outside looking in at this team for a long time, honestly, and seeing guys like Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith and Adam Thielen, seeing the success they've had, and especially Eric, always admiring his game," Hicks continued. "I said it since the day I first talked to you guys. He was a big reason why I came here, the ability to play with him and the opportunity that held.
"You create bonds with guys, create relationships with the people in this locker room that really outlast wins and losses," he added. "You want to be able to look back on those memories and see all we accomplished together."
Kendricks reciprocated appreciation for Hicks and explained that when the sting of a lost season eventually begins to fade, the friendships don't.
"Just looking back at high school, college and my years in the league, you don't really – you remember games, you remember plays, this and that, but it always is about the guys in the locker room," Kendricks said. "The little B.S. and joking around and just putting in the work together … I think people here understand you better than anybody else."
Similar to Hicks, Harrison Phillips has spent just one season with the Vikings and doesn't take this particular group for granted.
He said the "reality of the business" is what sometimes hits the hardest after a season's final game.
"As I was emotional yesterday, you kind of get your wits about you, the tears dry up and then you look up and make eye contact with someone and you realize, 'I don't know what the future holds for us and them,' " Phillips said. "That's definitely part of the game that's probably overlooked by the media and fans."
As the Vikings work to flip the page to the 2023 season, the memories of 2022 will never be forgotten.
"It's always about the guys in the locker room. Shoot, I've just had so much fun this year. It sucks it's over with," Kendricks said. "But you always have your hat, you know, you put in the work and can hang your hat on the work you put in throughout the week and everything like that, so I'm just happy I've got experience with these guys in the locker room.
"A great bunch of dudes," he added. "I love them to death."