View images from the Vikings locker room on Monday as players packed up their things to head home for the offseason.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The day after an NFL regular season ends can often feel like a wake, but the Vikings locker room on Monday gave off a vibe that things are only beginning at Winter Park and some special seasons could follow.
Sure, there were boxes filling up with shoes and trading of jerseys among players who became brethren through sweat-filled workouts, triumphs and tribulations. The Vikings went through them all together.
There will never be the exact same menagerie of elite athletes and interesting personalities united for team goals again, but there was a consensus that a foundation for the future has been established.
"Every year it's kind of sad to know that guys are going to be gone and this isn't going to be the same team," defensive end Brian Robison said. "Obviously, we've got a long offseason ahead of us, and we'll see what happens. No team is ever the same twice, so it always is kind of bittersweet at the end of the year."
The Vikings closed 2014 with a win, finishing 7-9 and third in the NFC North. It was two more wins than the previous season, and the additional victories were prompted by improvements on defense under first-year Head Coach Mike Zimmer and growth on offense despite multiple injuries.
Minnesota finished 14th in total yards allowed per game (344.7), 11th in points allowed per game (21.4) and seventh in passing yards allowed per game (223.3) a season after finishing 31st, 32nd and 31st, respectively in those categories.
"We made big-time strides, but we're not satisfied," Robison said. "We're not happy with being the number 14 defense. We want to be in that top 10, we want to be in the top 5, and if we can get up there, we won't be satisfied with that. We want to be number one, so we've got to work hard this offseason, have everybody be in shape and be able to put it on tape when we come back."
Harrison Smith, who led the Vikings with five interceptions (tied for fifth in the NFL), said the progress was encouraging but not a settling point.
"I think there's a lot of confidence in here moving forward, not that we're happy where we're at, but there's a positive mindset of where we can go," Smith said. "We're not where we want to be, but we're trending that way. I think that's what you're seeing in the locker room."
Robison said the defense made multiple strides but had a few lapses of assignments that Minnesota will want to eliminate next season and beyond.
"I think we've got to be more assignment sound," Robison said. "When we did that this year, we showed we can be one of the top defenses in the league, and I think we have to tackle better next year. I think that was one of the deals that got us in trouble this year. If we can shore up those, we've got a chance to be a pretty dang good defense this year."
LISTEN TO ZIM': Captain Munnerlyn, who joined the Vikings as a free agent, said he didn't meet the expectations he has for himself in his first season in Minnesota but was able to help a young secondary.
"I feel like it was one of my worst years of football. At the same time, I feel like I helped a lot of guys by being a leader in the secondary," Munnerlyn said. "We finished seventh, and that's a big difference from last year, and I didn't play my best football. If I had played my best football, we might be number one.
Munnerlyn said he will study more this offseason and plans to "make more plays on the ball, and listen to Coach Zim' more, try to stay on top of receivers and force them to throw underneath and make tackles" in 2015.
VALUABLE EXPERIENCE: Teddy Bridgewater set Vikings rookie quarterback records for wins (six), starts (12), completion percentage (64.4) and passer rating (85.2) while experiencing multiple situational aspects like running a two-minute drill, coming from behind in the fourth quarter, responding to a mistake and finally on Sunday, playing with a lead. He said lining up in the victory formation on Sunday was his favorite experience.
"We were able to for the first time in the Chicago game, and that's something we want to continue to do each game instead of being in the two-minute situation and scrambling around and trying to win the game," Bridgewater said. "But we do understand in this league, sometimes the game is going to come down to the last second and we have to put together a drive to score a touchdown or kick a game-winning field goal. We understand those situations and are glad they came up this year. We were able to learn a lot, and the type of players we have in those situations speaks volumes and shows we have a team that's resilient and loves playing for one another."