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Vikings' Harrison Smith takes flight
1:52 | NFL
Vikings' Harrison Smith takes flight
Monday October 24th, 2016

PHILADELPHIA — It is quiet in the Vikings’ locker room. So quiet that one can hear the tap, tap, tapping of safety Andrew Sendejo hopping around on his one good foot after suffering a sprained ankle in the first half of the team’s 21–10 loss to the Eagles. The toenails on Sendejo’s bare feet are painted jet black, and while the mood in the room is not quite funereal, it’s just about as close as it can get for a team that still sits atop the NFC standings at 5–1 after suffering their first loss of the season.

“There isn’t anybody happy in this locker room,” receiver Adam Thielen says. “Nobody here is ever O.K. with a loss no matter how [many games we’ve] won.”

Several players sit silently on stools, towels wrapped around their waists, simply staring into the abyss of empty lockers. Answers to reporters’ questions are kept short. Smiles are rare. At one point general manager Rick Spielman, usually ebullient, walks through the room expressionless, without uttering a word. Quarterback Sam Bradford and coach Mike Zimmer follow suit shortly thereafter, en route to the podium to give terse press conferences.

On the dais, Zimmer gives several one- or two-word responses, calling his team’s effort “disappointing” and “embarrassing.” Minutes earlier the coach had gathered his team in the middle of the locker room and chewed them out, giving what players described as a “fiery” speech.

“He was pissed,” safety Harrison Smith says, before agreeing that the coach had every right to be upset with the team.

Zimmer told his squad that the way they played was unacceptable, that they weren’t good enough in any of the three phases of the game. What upset Zimmer the most was that everything the Vikings had prided themselves on through their first five games, the very tenets that allowed them to be the NFL’s last unbeaten—limiting turnovers, managing field position, keeping penalties at a minimum—came crashing down on them in a comedy of errors performance.

Minnesota entered the game without an offensive turnover through the first five games, the only team in the NFL who could boast that. Against Philadelphia, the Vikings had three turnovers in the first quarter and finished with four giveaways and seven (often crucial) penalties. They threw interceptions in the red zone, didn’t convert on third-and-shorts, gave up a 98-yard kick return for a touchdown, fumbled a punt. To summarize, it was a very un-Vikings-like performance.

“We just didn’t do the things that we have been doing well, and that’s not how we win games,” Smith says. “We definitely can’t make that who we are as a team. We have to get rid of those things. The good teams are the ones that when you lose one, you bounce back. You don’t lose two in a row. So that’s what we have to do.”

So while the loss may have exposed the Vikings’ Achilles’ heel—a sievelike offensive line, decimated by season-ending injuries to both starting tackles, which allowed Bradford to be sacked six times and seemingly hit or hurried every other time he dropped back—the Minnesota players actually seem more emboldened than despondent. The refrain We’ll watch the tape, we’ll learn from this, and we’ll get better echoes throughout the locker room.

NFL
The NFL's most anonymous star, Vikings S Harrison Smith prefers to fly under the radar

Sure, the players are disappointed, even embarrassed, by the loss, and the mood in the locker room is very much subdued. But because of how uncharacteristic their effort was, several players admit that the game seems more likely to be a fluke than a harbinger of things to come. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn even channels a certain quarterback from an NFC North foe.

“It’s like that Aaron Rodgers quote, R-E-L-A-X,” Munnerlyn says. “We just have to fix it. We have a lot of football left to play. But ain’t nobody in the NFL going to wait on us to fix our problems. Teams are not going to wait for us to fix our problems. We have to do it next week.”

The Vikings pride themselves on (excuse the clichés) their grittiness, the ability to grind teams down and win ugly. They know they do not have much offensive firepower (especially after losing their starting quarterback and franchise running back to injuries) and that means their margin of error is always going to be small, despite having the NFL’s most smothering defense. And after improbably stacking up five wins in a row to start the season, players admit that sometimes you can get complacent, satisfied, maybe even begin thinking about getting days off. But following their first loss of the season, the urgency has returned.

“Now guys are excited to just get back to work,” Thielan says. “We all want to get back in the [facility], look at the film, see what we can do better, and then get to practicing again.”

Players dismiss the notion that maybe it was good for them to get their first loss out of the way somewhat early on. (“I don’t care if it’s last week, or 10 weeks from now, it sucks losing, period,” Munnerlyn says.) They say they want to and expect to win every week. This is not a team that was patting itself on the back after starting 5–0, and it won’t be a team that throws in the towel after dropping to 5–1. Despite the fusillade of injuries that have beset them so far this year, the Vikings have much bigger plans for the rest of this season.

“There’s only been one team that’s been undefeated and won a Super Bowl, so you can look at it that way.” Newman says. “Or we can say, ‘We wanted to be the second team to do it and now we can’t do that.’ Either way, we just have to get back to the drawing board. We down but we not out.”

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