EAGAN, Minn. – The Vikings aren't happy with a 7-9 record that stopped their season short of the playoffs.
But there is something to be said for playing all 16 games in an unprecedented season that many questioned if it would even take place. Conversations with players and coaches during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic were marked with uncertainty – and understandably so.
Vikings center Garrett Bradbury called it a "roller coaster" emotionally and mentally.
"We're sitting there like two to three weeks before camp on those NFLPA calls, and we're like, 'Are we reporting? We don't know what we're doing. Are we having a season? Is it going to start and then get shut down?' " Bradbury recalled earlier this week.
When all was said and done, Organized Team Activities and preseason games were canceled, and teams across the league held truncated training camps. Team meetings were almost all virtual, and heavy protocols were implemented that required wearing of masks and contact tracers, social distancing and a rigid coronavirus testing regimen.
The Vikings played home games at an eerily empty U.S. Bank Stadium. Five of their nine losses occurred against a backdrop of 66,000-plus vacant seats, save for cardboard cutouts in one end zone and a few games midseason that allowed 250 staff or player family members to test out protocols.
"There was so much uncertainty going into the season," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer told media members. "I'm really proud of our guys in the way that they handled their business. Obviously we got a lot of help and input from [Vice President of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer] Eric Sugarman and [General Manager Rick Spielman] on the things that we could do.
"No one would have ever thought we'd be trying to play football in the way that we ended up doing it this year, but I'm extremely proud of our guys, the way that they went about their business and worked like crazy," Zimmer added.
To prevent any large-scale infections, it was a team-wide commitment to following protocols inside the facility and on road trips as well as taking proper precautions on their personal time.
"Everyone wanted to do whatever they could to make the season possible in the safest way possible," safety Anthony Harris said. "So from there, it was just taking what you were given in terms of information, in terms of resources, and preparing, leading up to the season and trying to maximize it as best way possible.
"From within the locker room and myself, the staff and players and coaches, we all tried to be accommodating in terms of what we needed to do," Harris continued. "I think everyone is happy that we were able to come up with the collaborative effort to make it successful."
Harrison Smith also tipped his cap to Sugarman, Zimmer and his teammates.
"Starting with Zim' and Eric Sugarman, getting things set up appropriately, taking care of us, and then the players did a great job of checking off all the boxes every day," Smith said. "It can get tedious, you've got a lot of other things going on, so the guys did a great job of that, of keeping the COVID from kind of taking us out, so we gave ourselves a chance in that area. We just didn't do enough on the field."
Throughout the season, Minnesota had to add a dozen-plus players to the COVID-19/Reserve list due to positive tests or being deemed a close contact to someone infected with the virus.
That group included receiver Adam Thielen, who was sidelined Week 12 for the Panthers game, and tackle Riley Reiff, who was added to the list last week and unable to play the season finale.
Nevertheless, Thielen emphasized that the Vikings were able to navigate a full season without "too many hiccups" in regards to the pandemic.
"I'm glad to be here now and to have had all the games played and excited to watch the playoffs and, you know, hopefully [the NFL] can finish strong and get through the Super Bowl, and then hopefully it's back to normal next year," Thielen said. "I mean, we need fans in the stands. We need football back to football with the excitement that that brings and the energy that that brings. Man, I miss it, and I know my teammates miss it."
Despite disappointment in the on-field results of the 2020 season, Zimmer recognized the accomplishment of getting through several months that asked a lot of everyone.
"I was talking to one player yesterday, [and some] people don't realize some of the other factors going on in [the players'] lives," Zimmer said. "Not just the pandemic and playing football but some of the outside influences that they have to deal with – their families [dealing with the] pandemic or their families being without jobs and areas like that.
"There's a lot on these young guys, and the way they handled it, I was really proud of them," he added.