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IN THE HEARTLAND

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SI spent the last four months with the VIKINGS: observing cryotherapy, watching film with coaches and strolling with the GM, trying to capture a franchise on the cusp of glory. Instead, something far more true to the NFL happened— an unpredictable, volatile season. Here, the highs and lows of Minnesota's journey, with an ending yet to come

A MOVING truck backs up to the entrance of the visitors' locker room at CenturyLink Field in Seattle on Dec. 10, the night the Vikings' season might have died. Sad containers of uneaten Chinese takeout line a nearby table. Workers toss lumpy equipment bags onto the truck. Everyone can hear the Seahawks whooping in triumph down the hall.

If the wins and the losses, the lucky breaks and the gutting injuries of Minnesota's 2018 season have come to resemble heart palpitations on an EKG—up and down, up and down again—then this, it seems, is the moment when the heart stops beating altogether. This is what the end looks like. It looks like All-Pro wideout Adam Thielen limping off into the night with a bag of ice wrapped around his right ankle; running back Dalvin Cook, finally healthy after missing five games, explaining to reporters, Of course we want to win; jerseys stained with blood and sweat, piled atop a laundry cart; tins of chicken broth and unwrapped sandwiches piled on a fold-up table, untouched. It looks like the franchise quarterback searching for answers about how to jump-start an offense that has been stalled for over a month.

The end looks like embattled offensive coordinator John DeFilippo emerging last from the locker room, face reddened, laptop open, hoping to salvage what's left of a mediocre season in which the Vikings still, somehow, have control over their postseason fate. And then ... who knows?

THIS IS the beginning, with all of its hope. Four months earlier, newly signed quarterback Kirk Cousins slings passes to Stefon Diggs, who just agreed to a five-year extension. Thielen assesses the scene and describes the best vibe he's seen in his five seasons. Tight end Kyle Rudolph points out: He stayed here in Eagan, Minn., all spring, rather than return home to California, because the team had just moved into its extravagant new headquarters, which had everything he needed—massage and acupuncture rooms, cherry juice and grilled vegetables, a sand pit....

Here at the TCO Performance Center, punts no longer doink off the practice-facility roof. The hot tub accommodates more than five players at a time. There's an underwater treadmill ... and a nutrition bar.... These are all stops on the tour given by general manager/cicerone Rick Spielman. Signs all around him extoll the virtues of watermelon water; defensive end Everson Griffen walks by, shouting about how much he loves the turmeric shots at the juice bar.

Coach Mike Zimmer tolerates these new digs, even if some of the more lavish touches make him squirm. He never allows anyone to turn on the fireplace in the locker room or to put anything other than the day's schedule on the TVs scattered throughout the facility. "Players win games," the 62-year-old says one day, scoffing at the amenities. Asked about the new draft room, with its 40 big screens all stitched together, everything digitized, he says, "Seven-hundred fifty-thousand [dollars], just so we don't have to use f------ magnets."

Later, Spielman settles into his desk as a summer storm rattles the tables outside on his veranda. Repeat: He has a veranda. Plus a coach he loves (begrudgingly, at times), a top-tier defense, two star receivers and, finally, a franchise QB. "All we have to do now," he says, leaning back, "is win."

At 91, Bud Grant knows something about winning. The 168 games he won as the Vikings' coach from 1967 to '85 rank 17th on the NFL's all-time list. The team gave him an office at the new headquarters, outfitting his space to resemble his cubicle from the old days, replete with a duck phone and a wall-mounted ceramic fish. Today Grant is hosting 98-year-old sportswriter Sid Hartman. They're trying to explain the Vikings' complicated history, bickering through it in the way that old friends do. There's the '61 expansion team, then Grant's arrival, the franchise's rise, the four Super Bowl appearances in the '70s with no titles.... And today: Still no titles. "It would be nice if they could win a Super Bowl while we're still alive," Grant jokes.

Thielen understands their pain, having lived his entire life in Minnesota, much of it as a tortured Vikings fan. "Every year you think, This is the year," he says. If only Drew Pearson hadn't caught the original Hail Mary for the Cowboys in 1975. Or Darrin Nelson hadn't dropped the tying touchdown in the '88 NFC championship game. Or Gary Anderson, in '99, hadn't saved his first field goal miss for the conference title game. Or ... "My whole life," says Thielen.

This feels like the year that torture could finally, mercifully, stop. The team is young, deep and talented. A year removed from reaching the NFC title game with the league's top defense, the Vikings flew Cousins in on a private jet and the most-coveted free agent of 2018 bonded with Spielman over their shared Midwestern roots, their mutual penchants for note taking and their obsessions over details. It was early in free agency, but already Cousins had narrowed his list to the two teams he knew could offer a fully guaranteed contract: the Vikings and the Jets.

That structure required a significant cash outlay, but Minnesota had been searching for a franchise quarterback since Daunte Culpepper departed in 2006. The Vikings' brain trust had analyzed every throw Cousins made in six seasons with the Redskins, and at 29 they saw him as the best free-agent QB since Drew Brees in '06, when Brees was 27.

In the end the Vikings believed Cousins could stabilize their greatest instability, so they guaranteed all $84 million in his deal. Then he arrived and became the first player in assistant GM George Paton's two decades of experience to ask for the advance scouting report the team prepares for coaches. Cousins spent the summer reading a biography on Ronald Reagan and outfitting his new house with blue lights "to regulate my circadian rhythms" in the long, dark Minnesota winters. All this reminded Spielman of Peyton Manning.

Still, Cousins would prefer you not think of him as some sort of final piece. "That's the uninformed perspective," he says. "I can't necessarily carry a team on my back. I'm not LeBron in basketball, where you can just dominate."

AFTER CARVING up the 49ers in the opener, Cousins and the Vikings travel to Green Bay. They trail 20--7 at the start of the fourth quarter—but here comes the QB, slinging passes all over, looking precisely like the final piece. He throws for 425 yards and four TDs, lofting the tying (and the game's final) score to Thielen between defenders as Cousins gets crushed. 29--29. "If the first two games haven't put all the questions about Kirk to rest," says Rudolph, "I don't know what would. That's why we brought him here, to bring consistency to that position."

Later, Cousins and Thielen watch the replay on the team bus, laughing at how NFL games are won and lost (or tied) by the slimmest of margins. Thielen notes how his new QB throws a better deep ball than he expected. He's tougher than advertised too, fitting with how the Vikings see themselves.

Minnesota has the league's sixth-youngest roster, so many players see Rudolph as an elder statesman even though he's only 29. In his eight seasons, he has learned this: Never read too much into a fast or slow start. The 2012 Vikings started 6--6, but four straight wins at the end nudged them into the playoffs. Four years later they shot out to 5--0 but ended up 8--8 and missed the postseason.

Zimmer is never sure at the beginning of a campaign. That's why he sleeps some nights in his office, pulling down the Murphy bed. But he hides any concern well. Griffen says Zimmer used to be "more uptight, more angry." These days, sometimes, he even smiles. "He'll slide a little joke in there when you're not ready for it," says safety Harrison Smith.

The coach is not happy, though, with a 1-0-1 record. In the space near the locker room where the team plasters photos from each win, he'll later notice several snapshots from the Green Bay game and order them all taken down. Not for a tie.

Spielman shares some of these concerns, and while Zimmer speaks to players in the visitors' locker room in Green Bay, the GM is already rejiggering his roster, replacing his kicker and signing a new wideout and defensive tackle. Does all of this action signify any sort of win-now panic? Spielman only admits he's never before reconfigured such a talented team after Week 2.

TWO DAYS before the Week 3 kickoff against the Bills, Cook lingers outside the Vikings' cryotherapy chamber, a sort of super-charged walk-in freezer. Dressed in purple shorts, socks, slippers and earmuffs, he bounces up and down, blasting hip-hop and readying himself for the -180° temperatures. Inside, he paces for 150 seconds as icicles form on his eyebrows and his skin temperature drops 30°. He laughs, hopeful the session will help heal the left hamstring he tweaked against the Packers.

It doesn't work: Cook misses the Buffalo game, and in his absence the Vikings stumble badly. They get slammed at home by Josh Allen, a rookie QB making his first road start. Mike Boone leads Minnesota in rushing with 11 yards. It's the first real sign there may be cracks in this season. Injuries are piling up, particularly on offense, where center Pat Elflein and guard Nick Easton are out. Because the Vikings aren't healthy, they're not balanced. And without that balance, a rift has started to develop between coordinator and coach, who wants Minnesota to run more often. It's kept private, for now.

After the game, Zimmer drives to the Eagan office and scours film until the early morning. He wants the tape to convince him anything is still possible in late September, but what he sees concerns him. Specifically, his defense is a mess. It doesn't help that Griffen missed the Bills game following an incident at a hotel, where the three-time Pro Bowler allegedly threatened to shoot someone. (No arrest was made; no weapon was found.) Zimmer says he wants Griffen to tend to his mental well-being the same way he might nurse a leg injury, so he will be out indefinitely.

What a season, the coach thinks as the film plays. Tony Sparano, the Vikings' O-line coach and a close friend, died in July of heart disease, at 56. Zimmer recounts stopping by Sparano's office most mornings to talk strategy, two "straightforward and grumpy" guys, "always negative, in a good way," trying to figure out the next opponent.

When Zimmer's wife died suddenly in 2009, Sparano checked in regularly. Now it's Zimmer checking in on Sparano's wife, Jeanette, texting to say, simply, "I miss Tony."

Says Zimmer: "He'd be grumbling about the run game right now. That was his baby."

It's only Week 3. The coach digs in, resolute to find a fix.

INSIDE HIS office, near stacked cases of Diet Coke and Red Bull, DeFilippo cues up film from the Week 5 Eagles game, a 23--21 Vikings win. He says it shows what his offense is capable of. Minnesota led 17--3 in the third quarter, and DeFilippo says he "smelled blood in the water." Starting a drive at his own five, he dialed up consecutive deep passes, one to Thielen on a play called "Dolphin" and another, "Dragon," to Diggs. A field goal capped the drive, and a victory was all but sealed.

In the end Cousins threw for 301 yards and a TD, and Thielen surpassed 100 yards receiving for a fifth straight week. With 11 games left, DeFilippo considers the possibility that his offense takes off from here. And Zimmer, too, gets that glimmer of hope from the defense. Nosetackle Linval Joseph sparked a turning point when Philly was driving late in the second quarter, the game tied 3--3. Defensive line coach Andre Patterson says he wanted to attack Philly's right tackle, Lane Johnson, by "threatening his outside shoulder"; Johnson, in those situations, had a tendency to overkick. And when he did, Stephen Weatherly sprinted outside, then shifted back in, with a clear path to quarterback Carson Wentz, who never saw the defensive end knock the ball loose.

Joseph bent his 6'4", 329-pound frame and scooped up the rock, the former high school running back rumbling to the end zone at 18.2 miles an hour, finally miming a home run swing and blowing kisses to the crowd. Then he plopped down on the bench and pulled on sunglasses and an oxygen mask. That image went viral, minus the context: The oxygen tank wasn't working, and he wore the shades because a recent surgery had left his eyes sensitive to light. In the end he was a meme who might have saved the Vikings' season. Maybe.

Three days later, as Joseph turns 30, he thinks back to the beginning of his career, winning Super Bowl XLVI with the Giants when he was 23, and how he figured he'd be back every year. Instead he's played three playoff games in seven subsequent seasons.

SPIELMAN FOLLOWS the same routine before every Vikings home game. He wakes up at 5 a.m. He takes his dogs for a walk, following the same route. He eats the same breakfast sandwich: fried egg, bacon and peanut butter on a wheat round. He shaves the left side of his face, then the right. He puts his shoes and socks on before his pants, leaves his house at the same time so he can arrive at the stadium at eight, follows the same route, stops at the same gas station, uses the same pump and makes sure always to end his purchase on a zero.

The GM has devoted his whole adult life to the same goal, going back to his days as a Southern Illinois linebacker. Now he's spent the last 13 seasons at the same organization. His ringtone is a Viking horn. Nobody here wants to win a championship more. This year he feels ... close.

After running the Cardinals 27--17 in Week 6, he feels even closer. In the locker room Cousins dedicates the win to his grandmother who died that week, then he brings up his third-quarter TD celebration, a particularly suburban-dad-like jig that is sure to spur more memes. "Usually [the media] are the ones that make me look like a dork," he tells the team, as Thielen and Diggs burst into laughter. "I kind of play to that." More laughter. "I'm not a total dork."

THIELEN AGAIN passes the century mark in a Week 7 win over the Jets, and in a Week 8 loss to the Saints he ties Calvin Johnson's NFL record of eight straight 100-yard games. Zimmer is impressed, but not totally showing it. "Let's not put him in Canton yet," he says, echoing his mentor, the equally crusty Bill Parcells.

The Vikings discovered Thielen in 2013 at one of the open tryouts they hold each season. They cared less that he'd played his college ball at D-II Minnesota State and more that he busted his ass on special teams and barked at DBs in practice. Spielman likes how the scrap heap receiver has come to represent his team's philosophy. The GM collects players, even coaches, who outperform their expectations, who stare down challenges and cackle. The leader, Zimmer, who coached through several eye surgeries in '17. The franchise QB whose old team let him walk. The receiver who played his way in, one in a million, at a tryout.

Spielman has signed undrafted players like fullback C.J. Ham, wideout Chad Beebe, safety Anthony Harris and return man Marcus Sherels because in some ways they remind him of Thielen. They live for special teams. They play whatever role is asked of them. As the calendar turns to November the Vikings are 4-3-1, with crucial contributions from these players. Minnesota will need help from everyone on the roster to remain in contention.

That includes the MIA defensive end. For weeks—especially since the D has allowed 24.4 points per game—speculation has swirled around Griffen's absence. What happened at the hotel? Will he play again? Is he fit to, mentally? Inside the team's bubble, though, only the last question matters; his health remains a top priority, team officials say. Questions are deflected, and caution is taken not to jump to conclusions over an event about which details are scant.

The first time Patterson watched Griffen on film, after he became Minnesota's D-line coach in 2014, he knew he had to coach him. Griffen, a former fourth-round pick, wasn't yet a starter; he was a soon-to-be free agent who played mostly on special teams. But Patterson told Zimmer, "This is the most athletic guy you've got; I don't know why he's not playing," and the Vikings re-signed him. Patterson texted Griffen that day: "If you listen to me, I promise you'll be a Pro Bowler."

Patterson taught Griffen how to leverage his hands, optimizing his raw explosiveness, and by Year 2 he was a Pro Bowler. He became, to Patterson, like a son. Which is what makes this year so hard: There is little Patterson can do to help. "I think about [Everson] every day," he says. "I pray for him every night."

Spielman, meanwhile, says he's dealt with "four to five" situations like this over the course of his three-decade career. And he believes the paradigm is changing. "The stigma on mental illness, and how if you're a professional athlete, that's a sign of weakness"—that, he says, is evolving. "It shouldn't be like that."

Instead, the team has worked with Griffen on a treatment plan, a combination of resources already available to him (or anyone else), plus whatever time he needs away. One on-site clinician maintains contact with the league office and its support services, and a second specializes in behavioral and addiction counseling. There's a mental-performance consultant, plus relationships with local psychologists and psychiatrists, and counseling plans. "The beauty," says Patterson, "is that ... he'll be a tremendous advocate for the cause."

In building his defensive line Patterson has leaned on the lessons he learned at Weber State, where he coached alongside Zimmer in 1988, making do with two-star players since they weren't signing top prospects. Back then he and Zimmer started to identify the skill sets they wanted for each position. For D-linemen they sought long, athletic players, high school tight ends they could mold into something more. All these years later, they stick so closely to the original blueprint that Spielman says, watching the D-line practice, they all "almost look identical, like clones, like they're all power forwards on a basketball team."

When Griffen rejoins that unit before the Saints game in late October, neither he nor the team address in any detail the hotel incident or the treatment he received in his month away—but the D-line finally starts to look like itself again. Even then, Zimmer is adapting, tweaking his scheme, dropping more defenders into coverage because he can get pressure from his full-strength front. He also appears to play more Cover 3 than Cover 4 and limits his double-A-gap blitzes, tweaking his tendencies before opponents can exploit them. Against the Lions, in Week 9, the Vikings bag a franchise-record 10 sacks, 1½ of them by Griffen.

The defense is no longer the problem. Cook remains sidelined. Cousins is fumbling enough—three times against Buffalo and once more in each of the next four games—to raise concerns. As the Vikings limp into their Week 10 bye at 5-3-1, Zimmer still has work to do.

"Coach and I get along very well," says DeFilippo, the man whose unit has to change fast. "We're both very blunt people. But if there's something he wants to tell me, he tells me."

THE VIKINGS' postbye schedule: at Chicago, against Green Bay, then at New England and Seattle. They can seize control of the division if things go well. They do not.

Even after Minnesota falls to the Patriots, dropping its record to 6-5-1, Spielman lauds this season as "maybe [Zimmer's] best-ever coaching job," given the need to mesh together a new quarterback, a new coordinator and a new offense while dealing with all the missing players. But the Vikings still lose three of four against likely playoff teams that expose their flaws, which can no longer be pinned on Zimmer's rebounding defense.

As the season starts to spiral, the focus of Minnesota's issues lands largely on DeFilippo, who has called for runs an average of just more than 21 times per game through Week 13, fourth-fewest in the league. Dozens of columns and hundreds of TV hours are devoted to the lack of a ground game. Reality isn't that simple, though. A healthy Cook would have helped the balance, and not just in the sense of total runs versus total passes. The Vikings, Cousins says, need to hit on more "layups," or low-risk, high-reward plays, like short dumps to the running back in the flat, to put them in better positions on second or third down.

On the eve of the Seattle game in Week 14, the QB takes stock and reflects on his free-agency move: "I don't think there's any doubt this was the right decision for our family. The onus is on me, on us, to deliver, to win."

DeFilippo closes the shades in his office and evaluates all of this on film. There's a growing criticism of his quarterback, painting Cousins as uneven, but the OC calls this unfair. Cousins's presence has swung more games Minnesota's way than it has the other way. But it's hard to find the same show of support for DeFilippo. Week after week Zimmer attacks his run calls publicly, and then sometimes again internally, in front of the offense right before the OC addresses them.

DeFilippo looks at his unit through 12 games and grades the offense as excellent in five, efficient in four and "the pits" in the other three. In a nutshell, inconsistent. As in: 37 points against the Jets, but six against the Bills. But that doesn't all boil down to just scheme. The offense lacks depth on the line and at receiver beyond Thielen and Diggs.

Cousins concurs with the ratings, at least. "If you look at the top offenses," he says, "they're going to say 90% of their games are the explosive kind. They're opening up and scoring over 30 points and being dynamic.

"We've just gotta get there."

ON DEC. 5, a scheduled off day, Zimmer calls his team in for an 11 a.m. meeting. He wants to stress everything that will be at stake in their Monday-night game in Seattle. He again calls out his offensive coordinator, again stresses how he wants to rush the ball more, one week after DeFilippo called just 13 run plays. He tells everyone to forget the seesawing of the season so far, to view the final four games as the start of their playoffs. He tells the players they are welcome to stand up and say anything they want.

Smith, a veteran safety, steps forward, looks around the room and tells his teammates they've lost some of the "nasty" mentality that once distinguished them. They've made the game too complicated. Scheme, practice, strategy—all of that is important, but victory sometimes comes from physical imposition, from taking another man's will. "We play the best when we play willing to lose," he says.

Cousins steps up next, rooting his remarks in simple mathematics. Should the Vikings win out, he says, they'd most likely take the NFC North. Go 3--1 and we should make the playoffs. Go 2--2, though, and we don't deserve to get an extra game. He promises he will play his best football here on out.

Three days later the Vikings land in Seattle, where players alleviate their anxieties by toggling between game film and Netflix. Spielman walks 6.2 miles downtown, burning off nervous energy. And on Sunday the team rides four buses in silence behind a police escort to a final practice at the University of Washington. Cook, who's been easing his way back into DeFilippo's game plan, spends the 15-minute ride on his phone, telling a friend, "Let's see what we do!"

He will not like the answers, though. The Seahawks dominate the line of scrimmage, containing Cook (13 rushes, 55 yards) and turnstiling the Vikings' offensive line. Thielen, double-teamed often, doesn't catch a pass until midway through the third quarter; after his streak ended in Week 9, he's topped 100 yards just once in five games. Cousins botches a potential go-ahead touchdown throw; his personal record on Monday Night Football drops to 0--7. When Seattle blocks a field goal attempt, it's a harsh knife twist for Vikings fans, who've witnessed a lifetime of kicking woes.

Late in the game Thielen, Mr. Minnesota, is caught on camera muttering complaints about the play calls. He's not alone in his disgust. DeFilippo will fly home with the team, return to his office, analyze film ... and then be fired, at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday. Zimmer hands the offense to quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski, his new coordinator.

WAS THAT the end? That's not how the EKG works. In keeping with the season's theme, the Vikings gash the Dolphins for 41 points one week later, their highest output in three years. They rack up 220 yards on the ground, a season high, while a healthy Cook goes off for a career-best 136. And the defense sacks Ryan Tannehill nine times, marking just the second instance since 1990 of a team hitting at least that number twice in the same season.

This is life in the NFL, an unstable week-to-week existence defined as much by what happens between games as by what happens on the field, as much by the obvious (the facility, the free-agent signings) as by more inconspicuous events (injuries, unexpected absences, funerals, coaching rifts ...). The Vikings' key contributors have missed 75 combined games to this point, and yet here they are, in position to make the playoffs heading into Week 16.

"Seasons are that way," says Alan Page, the Hall of Fame Vikings D-lineman who after football became the first African-American on the Minnesota Supreme Court. "That's the oblong spheroid. It can bounce in funny ways. Always has."

Page says this from the in-house television studio at the practice facility in Eagan, an amenity he never could have imagined when he began playing in the late 1960s. This season, meanwhile, moves forward. Always does. The Vikings will make the playoffs if they win their final two games, perhaps even pass the Seahawks and seize the fifth seed in the NFC. Win once more and they guarantee, at minimum, a winning campaign. Win out through the postseason and they obtain everything they'd hoped for, that final and most elusive goal. For this franchise with a tortured history, it's all there for the taking in this up-and-down season. Maybe Spielman and Zimmer and Cousins get where they intended, just on an unexpected path.

"Eventually they'll win the Super Bowl," says Page. "When? We don't know. Eventually."

"EVERY YEAR YOU THINK, THIS IS THE YEAR," SAYS THIELEN, A LIFETIME VIKINGS FAN AND NOW MINNESOTA'S TOP WIDEOUT. "MY WHOLE LIFE."

"SEASONS ARE THIS WAY," SAYS PAGE, TOUCHING ON THE SEEMING DISAPPOINTMENT OF 2018. "THAT'S THE OBLONG SPHEROID. IT CAN BOUNCE IN FUNNY WAYS. ALWAYS HAS."

[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]

vs. SF

@ GB

vs. BUF

@ LAR

@ PHI

vs. ARI

@NYJ

vs.DET

@ CHI

vs. GB

@ NE

@ SEA

vs. MIA