Seven-plus months after their season ended with an overtime loss to the Saints in the NFC title game, the Vikings returned to the Louisiana Superdome to open the 2010 season.
The pressure on that team was immense.
Brett Favre, coming off one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career, was a month away from his 41st birthday and had made the late decision to play one more year only after being coaxed by a trio of teammates who made the trip to Hattiesburg, Miss.
The Vikings’ offense for that Sept. 9 opener had only one change from the group that had started on Jan. 10 and that was because Sidney Rice was injured. The defense featured four different starters, but veteran cornerback Lito Sheppard was the only one who hadn’t been on Minnesota’s roster for the NFC title game.
That was an aging team set to make one more run at a Super Bowl. We all know how it ended. The Vikings lost the opener, started 1-3, coach Brad Childress was fired after an embarrassing loss to Green Bay in November at the Metrodome … and on and on.
That was the last time the Vikings began a year with the type of expectations that will follow them into their regular-season opener on Sunday against San Francisco at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Minnesota is again coming off an appearance in the NFC title game — this time a 31-point loss at Philadelphia — that followed a 13-3 season. That was a one win improvement on the 2009 team. But while the records of the 2009 and 2017 Vikings were similar and both ended up losing in the conference championship game, there are differences behind the construction of the teams that returned the following season.
The most important is that this version of the Vikings appears to be built both for the short and long term. There were offseason decisions by general manager Rick Spielman — who was with the Vikings but did not have control of the 53-man roster in 2010 — that were surprising. Why didn’t the Vikings address the need for a guard early in the April draft? Was trading up to take kicker Daniel Carlson in the fifth round really a wise move?
But the Vikings made plenty of smart moves, too, starting with the decision to try to upgrade at quarterback by allowing Case Keenum to walk and signing Kirk Cousins, the top free-agent QB on the market, to a three-year, $84 million contract. The addition of veteran free-agent tackle Sheldon Richardson (one-year, $8 million) to play alongside Linval Joseph strengthened the defensive line.
The Vikings’ proactive approach to trying to improve their roster, as well as trying to protect their future, didn’t end in the offseason. Veteran safety George Iloka was signed during training camp after being let go by Cincinnati, reuniting him with former Bengals defensive coordinator and current Vikings coach Mike Zimmer.
The decision to release veteran Brian Robison in the final cutdown — and get cornerback Terence Newman to accept a coaching role — enabled Minnesota to keep a younger defensive lineman and defensive back.
The decisions on Robison and Newman couldn’t have been easy — especially with a coach like Zimmer, who has a huge appreciation for veterans — but it speaks to the understanding that has to exist between the general manager (who always needs to be thinking long term) and the head coach (who is focused on the now).
According to a Star Tribune story published after the final cuts last weekend, the average age on the Vikings’ roster was 25.5 years, tying them with the Rams and Jaguars for the fourth-youngest team in the NFL. Two years ago, the Vikings were 31st out of 32 teams with an average age of 26.6 years and last year Minnesota was ranked 20th at 26.1 years, according to the paper.
Mixing veterans with youth should keep the Vikings on track to continue to be successful well past 2018 in the extremely competitive NFC. This does not guarantee the Vikings their first Super Bowl championship, or even a Super Bowl appearance, but it certainly appears to be a better plan than the Vikings had with an aging roster eight years ago.