MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Zimmer had sorted through the what-ifs, the could-have-beens and the might-have-had-its from Sunday's 10-9 loss to the Seattle Seahawks when his final press conference at TCF Bank Stadium shifted to a valedictory tone.
"The finish was disappointing, but I thought we did a lot of good things this year," Zimmer said. "We had the best record of any team that's ever played in a temporary stadium. [This was the] first playoff game ever in a temporary stadium. We won the NFC North for the first time in I don't know how many years. Did some good things."
The statement could have hung there, like a salve for some of the blows that had chapped and cracked the Minnesota Vikings' skin on a bone-chilling afternoon. But it would not suffice.
"We'll never know," Zimmer said, when asked what else this Vikings team could have accomplished. "We did a lot of things a lot of people didn't think we could have done, and I think that's what hurts the most. We don't get an opportunity to continue to do that."
The next time the Vikings take the field, they'll be in very different accommodations than those they occupied this year. Rather than being temporary tenants in a 52,000-seat college stadium, they'll be the main show in U.S. Bank Stadium, their gleaming $1.1 billion home in downtown Minneapolis. They'll have upgraded their preseason expectations, too, moving from what Zimmer called the "low-rent district" of being a playoff sleeper to the office of defending NFC North champions. They'll have a defense that should return mostly intact, a quarterback heading into his third season and a fan base expecting an improvement on what the Vikings did in an 11-5 season.
Zimmer has talked about four stages of learning in the NFL: learning to compete, learning to win, learning to handle success and learning to be a champion. The Vikings have handled the initial three in their first two years under Zimmer, but the last one is the toughest to master.
"The unfortunate part is, each year is a different year, so just like whatever we did throughout the regular season, it didn't matter today," Zimmer said. "When we start back up in OTAs [organized team activities] and start lifting in the winter, none of that will matter. It's all about the opportunity you had and what you did with it. I like this football team. I think we have a lot of great people on it, a lot of really good team guys that care, that work, that will bust their rear end, so that's always a good place to start, but there's no guarantee about next year from where we're at."
The Vikings should head into next season with another strong defense after allowing the fifth-fewest points in the NFL this season. They'll have an offseason to address their offensive line and try to find a few more weapons for Teddy Bridgewater. And Adrian Peterson should be back at age 31, looking for a sequel to his impressive 2015 season while moving back indoors.
But the Vikings still have to find an offensive identity beyond Bridgewater and Peterson, and they'll need their third-year quarterback to take the next step, with the Green Bay Packers getting some injured players back and the Chicago Bears looking to improve in their second year under John Fox. Peterson said he's confident the Vikings will have the best record in the NFC next season, but nothing is promised to them, and one division title won't mean much, in the grand scheme of things, if the Vikings can't build on it next year.
The 2016 season will be like few in recent Vikings memory, in that it will come with robust expectations that can't be satisfied with just a playoff appearance. The Vikings have been building toward 2016, and there's a possibility that a high-profile prime-time game will served as the opener for their new home. That's the stratosphere the Vikings are likely to occupy at the beginning of the 2016 season, and it's up to them to keep themselves there.
"We always say the time is now; tomorrow isn’t promised for the group of guys in that locker room," Bridgewater said. "I’ll continue to say that -- it will be a totally different group next year and we’re going to have some guys that won't be here next year. It's just very tough."