Could lessons learned from 2016 help Vikings avoid a drop off after another hot start?
Minnesota started that season 5-0 but lost next 4 games to finish 8-8
EAGAN, Minn. — In 2016, the Minnesota Vikings started 5-0 and created Super Bowl talk in the Twin Cities. And why not? They had beaten NFC North rival Green Bay to open brand-new U.S. Bank Stadium and were outscoring foes by an average of 11.2 points per game.
Then came the bye week, and the Vikings never were the same that season under head coach Mike Zimmer. They returned to lose their next four games, stumbled to an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs.
Now, the Vikings are 5-1 under first-year coach Kevin O’Connell, their best start since 2016, and are coming off a bye week entering Sunday’s game against Arizona at U.S. Bank Stadium. And some holdovers from that team are working to make sure there is no repeat of what happened six years ago.
“Back then, we just came back (from the bye) thinking it’s going to be the same,” defensive end Danielle Hunter said Friday. “But, no, you got to restart, revamp and work on the little things.”
Hunter is one of four Vikings players remaining from 2016, along with wide receiver Adam Thielen, linebacker Eric Kendricks and safety Harrison Smith. Thielen said players from 2016 have brought up 2016’s collapse to teammates to help prevent any sort of repeat.
“There’s a few guys on this team that were on that team, and then to be able to use that experience, and there are guys from other teams that maybe have had similar stories or maybe the opposite where they started poorly and ended up really well,” Thielen said. “So, just using those experiences to talk to the young guys, to talk to the offense or the defense, the special teams, in meetings and say, ‘Hey, guys we can’t relax.’ We have to focus on the details.”
The Vikings lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a season-ending knee injury in 2016, two days before the final preseason game. They quickly acquired Sam Bradford from Philadelphia to be his replacement.
Backup quarterback Shaun Hill started the opener, a 25-16 victory at Tennessee. Bradford then took over for the first regular-season game at U.S. Bank Stadium, and the Vikings defeated the Packers 17-14. Three more wins followed — 22-10 at Carolina, 24-10 at home over the New York Giants and 31-13 at home over Houston — and Minnesota was rolling.
But the Vikings lost 21-10 at Philadelphia in their first game after the bye. Current Minnesota linebacker Jordan Hicks played for the Eagles that day, and had a monster outing with 11 tackles, including a sack and two other tackles for loss, and with two passes defended.
The losses continued to pile up. And the Vikings were already eliminated from the playoffs before they closed the season with a 38-10 home win over Chicago.
“I feel at that time we were playing our very best football, the very best we could possibly play, and so there wasn’t really anywhere up from there being at 5-0,” Thielen said of the hot start in 2016. “Where I feel like right now, we’re 5-1 and have not played our best football, and I feel like there’s so much room for improvement. … We still have to go out there and practice and play every day and prove that we are what our record says we are.”
Kendricks said the quest to get better is one thing keeping players motivated. The Vikings were impressive in the opener, a 23-7 home win over the Packers. But even in their other four wins, there have been too many lulls.
“I think our best ball has yet to be played, for sure,” Kendricks said. “We’re searching for that.”
In their only loss, the Vikings were walloped 24-7 in Week 2 at Philadelphia. At 6-0, the Eagles are the NFL’s only undefeated team.
Overall, the Vikings have benefitted from a weak schedule. The Packers were expected to be strong, but they’re just 3-4 now, 2½ games behind the Vikings in the NFC North division.
Minnesota’s other wins are 28-24 over Detroit, 28-25 over New Orleans, 29-22 over Chicago and 24-16 at Miami. All close calls against not-great opponents. The Lions are 1-5, Saints 2-5, Bears 3-4 and Dolphins 4-3. But Miami was without starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in that Oct. 16 game.
Now, the Vikings face the Cardinals, who are 3-4 and have yet to have a two-game winning streak this season. But Arizona does have elusive quarterback Kyler Murray, and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is back from a recent six-game NFL suspension.
Regardless of the foe, Hunter doesn’t expect the Vikings to let up coming out of the break. Perhaps some lessons learned from 2016 and passed on to teammates can help in that regard.
“We’ve just got to focus on doing the little things,” Hunter said. “Coming off a break, people tend to be complacent after awhile with everything going their way. So just focusing on the little things. Going to meetings on time. Doing the stuff that you normally do since the beginning of training camp. Just simple stuff like that.”
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