The 2014 season has not gone exactly as the Minnesota Vikings had planned. Star running back Adrian Peterson played in one game - the season opener - before off-the-field legal issues put him on the sideline and the league's suspension list for the remainder of the season. Because of injuries, first-year coach Mike Zimmer was forced to start three different quarterbacks over a three-week span earlier in the year, before finally settling on rookie Teddy Bridgewater. The team, which is 6-9 heading into Sunday's season finale against the Bears, will miss the postseason for the fourth time in the past five years.
It wasn't the year Zimmer or Vikings fans may have hoped for, but it did show a glimpse of things to come. And it is clear: the future is quite bright in the Twin Cities. The franchise's new stadium will be open in 2016, right around the time the team's growing collection of young talent is ready to emerge as a force in the NFC North.
"We want to keep it moving forward for next year," safety Harrison Smith said Wednesday on a conference call with Chicago reporters. "We are here to compete for championships and this year wasn't good enough. But [we want to] end on a high note, you know, get the arrow pointing up."
Smith, the 25-year old free safety who is tied for third in the NFL with five interceptions, is one of the 'veteran' leaders of the Minnesota team. According to a data analysis done by Philly.com, the average age of the Minnesota roster heading into this season was 25.58, fifth-youngest in the NFL. That is what tends to happen when a team selects seven players with first-round draft picks over a three-year span, as the Vikings have done.
None of those seven picks is as important to the team's development as Bridgewater, the team's second of two first-round picks in 2014. The rookie from Louisville has had an up-and-down campaign, but he has ascended of late, with one of his best games as a pro coming a week ago. In the Week 16 game at Miami, Bridgewater completed 73.1 percent of his passes, throwing for 259 yards and two touchdowns. His quarterback rating of 114.1 marked the third time in the past four weeks the rookie has exceeded a 100 rating.
"It's about trying to get better each week," Zimmer said on his conference call, of the progress his team and young quarterback are making. "We are such a new program… trying to get the players to understand what we are trying to teach them and move forward with where we are going."
The collection of young talent has shown flashes of the long-term potential the team has invested in. Along with Bridgewater, the Minnesota offense has been led by its young running backs (rookie Jerick McKinnon and undrafted third-year pro Matt Asiata) and receivers (third-year pro Jarius Wright and former seventh-round pick Charles Johnson). On defense, Smith is the catalyst, along with fellow old pros: 27-year old defensive end Everson Griffen (12 sacks) and 25-year old strong safety Robert Blanton.
Both sides of the ball are a work in progress, as the Vikings offense ranks 20th in points scored per game (20.8), while the defense is tied for 14th in points allowed (22.3).
"It's always fun to grow as a team and communicate, make sure everybody is on the same page," Smith said. "That's kind of our main thing, is making sure that we are all running the same type of defense, we all know where to expect the other guy to be, that's what we are working on."
For Zimmer, the steady improvement shows that his message is getting through to his players. When asked about his reflections on his first season at the helm of the Vikings' ship, Zimmer acknowledged that 2014 hasn't exactly gone as planned, but that brighter days are ahead for his team.
"I haven't really thought about it, I mean, you always think about it. But I haven't reflected on the whole season," Zimmer said. "I know it's been a grind as far as all the different things that we've had to deal with. But it's like that everywhere. There's been some tremendous highs and tremendous lows. I appreciate how much the players have tried to do what I've asked them to do, I appreciate the work that they've put in."