EAGAN, Minn. — When Vikings players walked into the sleek new locker room at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in April to begin the offseason program, they were accompanied by lofty expectations.
Invisible, but clearly there, the thoughts of making it to Super Bowl LIII after coming within one game of the big one the previous season were legitimate.
The same players walked out of the locker room — several for the last time — on Monday with a collective disappointment and belongings in large, nondescript plastic bags.
The Vikings didn't take it for granted that it would be easy, but they also were unable to deliver in critical situations at multiple times or string together consistent complementary football.
Minnesota finished 8-7-1 and half a game out of the playoffs after losing 24-10 to Chicago at home Sunday. The Vikings were 0-7-1 this season in games when they trailed at halftime, 0-4-1 when trailing in the fourth quarter and 1-6 against teams that made the playoffs.
"We had high expectations that we didn't meet, and we're upset about it. So we'll always have next year; next year's always the goal," cornerback Xavier Rhodes said. "Next year, we're going to give it our all like we did this year but just come out with a better outcome."
Rhodes went from garnering his first All-Pro First-Team selection and helping the Vikings rank No. 1 in yards allowed and points allowed in 2017 to fighting injuries throughout 2018.
View images from the Vikings locker room on Monday as players cleaned out there lockers as the 2018 season came to an end.
He said he was "pretty close" to being able to play in Sunday's win-or-tie-and-get-in game against the Bears.
"Honestly, it was one of those things where I felt like it was a 50-50 chance, but I've been fighting injuries all this year, and it was one of those things where I probably wasn't going to finish the game, and I didn't want to hurt the team," Rhodes said. "It was a situation against Detroit where I was covering, I ended up getting injured, and he was open. So I didn't want that situation to happen where it could have been an important drive and I fall down. We were being more cautious than anything. I didn't want to hurt my team, going out there knowing I had a problem, an injury."
The Vikings finished fourth in the NFL in yards allowed (309.9) and ninth in points against (21.3) this season, but 43 of the 341 against the Vikings were points off turnovers and a blocked punt. Removing those points, the defense allowed 18.6 points per game.
Adam Thielen turned in one of the best statistical seasons ever by a Vikings receiver. His 113 receptions rank only behind the 122 by Hall of Famer Cris Carter in 1994 and 1995.
Thielen also set career bests with 1,373 yards (fourth-most by a Viking in a single season behind only Hall of Famer Randy Moss) and nine receiving touchdowns. Thielen broke Moss's team record of games with 100 yards with nine, becoming the first player in NFL history to have eight such games to start a season.
Team goals, however, always outweigh individual accomplishments for Thielen.
"I think there's a lot of guys in this locker room that are disappointed, and I hope they are disappointed," Thielen said. "When you don't make the playoffs in this league, and you feel like you have the guys to do it, it's going to be disappointing. But at the same time, it is what it is now, and we have to make sure we learn from it and go back to work. As soon as the body is good, go back to work and try to get better."
Iloka on playing time
When George Iloka was cut from Cincinnati in August, he joined Minnesota, thinking he could contribute to the Vikings playoff aspirations.
Iloka was quite familiar with Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's defense from Zimmer's time as defensive coordinator at the Bengals.
When Andrew Sendejo suffered a season-ending injury, the Vikings turned to Anthony Harris, who tied with Harrison Smith for the team lead with three interceptions.
Minnesota implemented a big nickel defensive package with Jayron Kearse, and Iloka played mostly special teams.
Iloka was asked if he was surprised he didn't play more on defense.
"For sure. That wasn't talked about. But it is what it is, you know? I like to consider myself a team player, so even though things weren't going my way, I still wanted what was best for the team," Iloka said. It's unfortunate that we couldn't accomplish our goals, but that's done, it's over with. I'm a free agent now, so I'll move forward accordingly."
Iloka said he thinks he can still be a starter if "given the opportunity."
"My confidence in myself is still very high, regardless of how things shook out – situations, reasons, stuff like that," Iloka said. "But I'm still thankful for the opportunity. I wish we could have done more as a team."
Bailey on 2018, potential return
Kicker Dan Bailey was in a similar boat when he signed with the Vikings in September, thinking that he'd have the opportunity to help a playoff contender.
Bailey joined the Vikings in Week 3 and worked to get rhythm with long snapper Kevin McDermott and holder Matt Wile.
Bailey made 30 of 31 extra points and 21 of 28 field goals, which lowered his career average to 86.6 percent, which is still fifth in the NFL all-time.
"I don't want to put blame on any one thing, but I think working with the same guys over a period of time is huge for us," Bailey said. "You're talking about three guys working collectively to do one job in 1.3 seconds, so the timing, the rhythm, all of that stuff has to be on for everybody to be confident and comfortable. Not implying that that wasn't the case, but I think just getting a full offseason to work with people and get that down is huge, at least from my perspective."
Asked if he'd like to be back with Minnesota next year, Bailey said he hadn't thought much past the 2018 season ending the previous day.
"I think, right now, the more important thing is learning what I can do better and taking a look at this season and trying to fix the things I can fix and then understanding that this is a pretty good organization to play for," Bailey said. "I've enjoyed my time here. Nine games inside, including Detroit, so that's kind of hard to beat. There's a lot of positives about being out here.
"Obviously, it's not completely up to me," Bailey added. "All I can do is control what I can control, and that's try and get better, and when the time comes to make those decisions, I'll cross that bridge when I get there."