Vikings fans missed seeing the likes of Danielle Hunter (all season), Anthony Barr (all but two games) and Eric Kendricks (the final five games) in 2020.
The Vikings defense missed those players — and others, no doubt — but also missed the home-field advantage that fans have created for Minnesota during different eras of the franchise.
Whether it was the determined spirit of those braving the harsh elements at Metropolitan Stadium, the thunderous roars inside the Metrodome, the continued support during two transition seasons or what fans brought to U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings have enjoyed one of the strongest edges in home games for any team in the NFL.
Minnesota's 23-9 mark in its first four seasons at U.S. Bank Stadium tied for the best home record of any NFC team from 2016-19.
The electricity surged to a crescendo before kickoffs with enhanced theatrics of the ship, featuring the purple-eyed dragonhead, and mammoth video boards. The unison of the SKOL Chant let foes know it was them vs. the Vikings AND the Vikings fans.
U.S. Bank Stadium and several other venues did not open for fans as a means of trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The Vikings finished 3-5 in their eerily quiet abode, the first time during Mike Zimmer's seven seasons to have fewer than five home wins in a campaign.
"We certainly missed the fans at U.S. Bank Stadium, and we're looking forward to having them back next year," Zimmer said Tuesday. "I think that'd be great for us."
Prior to 2020, the Vikings were 34-14 in regular-season home games under Zimmer for a win percentage of .708.
The Vikings defense had never allowed more than 21.4 points in home games since 2014, Zimmer's first at the helm and the first of two years at the University of Minnesota. That number improved to 20.0 the following season.
From 2016-19, opponents averaged 16.6 points against the Vikings when playing at U.S. Bank Stadium.
|Year||Points Against Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium||Vikings W-L|
|Average (2016-19)/Total W-L||16.6||23-9|
The pandemic caused the cancelations of offseason programs and preseason games, creating a certain set of obstacles for all teams, but particularly those with a half dozen new starters on defense like the Vikings.
In 2020 — a season without an offseason program that finished with NFL records of 12,692 points scored and 1,469 touchdowns — Vikings opponents averaged 31.1 points per game, doubling the average from the first four seasons at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"This is the highest-scoring season in NFL history," Zimmer said. "There's got to be something to do with the pandemic and getting defenses ready to play and all the different things, because I just think that's how it was."
Will 2020 be an outlier for the league and for the Vikings in home games if fans are able to return in 2021, or is it part of a surge allowed by rule changes that make it tougher on defenses?
It's worth noting that the 31.1 points allowed per game are the second-most in Vikings history behind the 1965 team still trying to find its footing (32.4 per game) in the franchise's fifth season, so that's not the identity that the Minnesota Vikings have hewn.
It's also important to mention that three of the five highest-scoring seasons in NFL history are the past three seasons:
1. 12,692 in 2020
2. 11,985 in 2013
3. 11,952 in 2018
T-4. 11,680 in 2015
T-4. 11,680 in 2015
"I think the scoring will come down this year. That's my personal opinion," Zimmer said. "Especially if we have a normal offseason, I think this thing will get back under control. I know the penalties were way down this year. There was a lot of things that teams got away with, I guess is the best way to say it."
The departure of Everson Griffen (he voided his contract with Minnesota before the full effects of the pandemic set in) and injury to Hunter led to defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo going from a rotation on the edge and some productive snaps inside to starting all 15 of the games he played. They were the first 15 starts of his career. His sacks total went from 7.0 on 368 defensive snaps in 2019 to 3.5 on 696 defensive snaps this season, and Odenigbo described a personal anger with how the season played out.
The Vikings struggled to affect passers throughout the season in home and away games, and Minnesota also experience growing pains with young cornerbacks before a revolving door of injuries throughout the defense.
That's a bad combination, and Odenigbo said the absence of fans didn't help.
"I think, if you want to be frank, I think because we don't have fans, so when you eliminate U.S. Bank Stadium with third-and-long and people can't hear the snap count, it makes it a lot easier, but not playing with fans turns it into a scrimmage, so throughout the league, it was high-scoring," Odenigbo said. "This year was kind of an outlier because it was a high-scoring offense all year, but obviously that's not an excuse.
"We as a D-line, we can do better. So, like I said, we have young guys, but there's things that everybody can do better," Odenigbo continued. "But I don't think ideally in this defense with what I've grown accustomed to is that first, second down we stop the run, we get them in third-and-long and then we get our pass rush. I think looking back to the whole year, it just seems like we didn't get in those same third-and-long situations that we had the year before."
For the first time since the AFL-NFL merger for the 1970 season, road teams won more often than home teams.
It was by the slimmest of margins, with road teams going 128-127-1 for a win percentage of .502, but true nonetheless.
According to NFL Media Research, the next best season for road teams was 1972 when they totaled a win percentage of .492 by going 87-90-5.
After that, the next best season for visitors was 2019 when a 123-132-1 mark resulted in a win percentage of .482.
Vikings fans have shown they travel well, whether to traditional venues like Arrowhead Stadium, Lambeau Field or Soldier Field, or even a temporary locale that hosted an overwhelming number of Vikings fans when Minnesota visited the Los Angeles Chargers.
Safety Harrison Smith, who tied his personal best for a season with five interceptions, said he's ready for fans to return. He also plans to apply what was learned this season in a different environment.
"I think we've learned a lot by not playing with fans," Smith said. "Home games and away games, just cadences and flow of a game and things like that, but getting the fans back in U.S. Bank would be a big deal for us.
"It really highlighted how big of an advantage we have at home games, so thanks for the fans for that, and we miss you guys and girls. So hopefully that will be a big factor," Smith added. "And that really adds a lot of energy to the games. I think we started to do a better job of bringing our own energy to try to make up for that. So that's something we can use, especially going into away games next year, but fans were missed."