This isn't the first time Kyle Rudolph, the longest-tenured member of the Minnesota Vikings, has experienced the difficulty of a 1-5 start to a season.
Back in 2013, which was the tight end's third NFL season, the team opened the year 1-7 and went through plenty of growing pains on the way to a 5-10-1 finish. While Minnesota's 2020 campaign might be comparable to that season so far record-wise, it's not the year that comes to mind when Rudolph looks for a parallel.
"That 1-5 team wasn't nearly as talented as we are now," Rudolph said by phone on Tuesday. "That's why I draw more to 2017. We were 2-2 and everyone was writing us off. Then we won eight in a row."
Indeed, the 2017 Vikings won the NFC North with a 13-3 record and advanced to the NFC Championship Game -- thanks to the Minneapolis Miracle -- before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Rudolph said he believes this year's team could go on a run at any point no matter "how bleak things may seem."
Plenty of folks are undoubtedly counting out Minnesota again with only one win in six tries, but the record alone doesn't tell the entire story of the challenges and close calls it's encountered thus far. The Vikings have already faced four playoff teams from last season and three of their losses came against squads (Green Bay Packers, Tennessee Titans and Seattle Seahawks) that were among the league's final four unbeatens this year. Rudolph and Co. lost by only one point to the Titans in Week 3 and Seahawks in Week 5.
"We felt like we made mistakes to lose those two games, instead of playing our best and getting beat," said the 10th-year veteran, who has 10 catches for 123 yards and one TD this season. "We're looking at the positives but there's a reason we are 1-5."
There have been bright spots that inspire hope on the Minnesota offense. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson leads all rookies in receiving yards (537). The Dalvin Cook-led rushing attack ranks sixth in the NFL with 139.2 yards per game, and Cook has returned to practice this week after missing the last game with a groin injury. The Vikings have scored a TD on 75 percent of their trips to the red zone (sixth-best conversion rate in the NFL) and lead the league in yards per play on first down (6.99). One of their biggest issues, though, is converting on third down as they rank 28th, converting just 37.7 percent of the time. They've also been playing from behind most of the time, forcing them to get away from what they do best -- handing the ball to their RB1.
"We're really good when we can lean on Dalvin," Rudolph said. "When we get down and have to abandon the run game, that's when we struggle."
An even greater turnaround is needed from the Vikings' defense, which has lost staples Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr to season-ending injuries. The team also traded away Yannick Ngakoue last week, so Minnesota is down its top two pass rushers and is giving up 32 points per game (30th in the NFL). The Vikings' young cornerback group has received the brunt of the criticism for the unit's struggles after taking its lumps against some of the league's top wideouts, including Davante Adams in Week 1, DK Metcalf in Week 5 and Julio Jones in Week 6.
"They make play after play in practice," Rudolph said of the CBs. "Those guys were some of the best corners in college and now they're facing elite receivers win in and week out. They're going to get beat. That's part of the position, but it only takes a few plays in a game for a young player to gain confidence and these guys are good at having a short memory."
With three consecutive games against division foes up next, beginning with a visit to Green Bay at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, Rudolph knows this team has an opportunity to reverse course and give itself a shot at a playoff berth. He certainly expressed a belief that the Vikings have the talent to do so.
In addition to getting ready for this week's game, Rudolph is giving back to the community. The Vikings' Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee in each of the last three years, Rudolph is auctioning off his personal, Vikings-themed custom Polaris Slingshot, a three-wheeled vehicle that Rudolph described as a mix between a convertible and motorcycle. Just two days into the auction, the bidding was approaching $20,000 as of the publishing of this article and closes at 10 p.m. ET on Saturday. All proceeds will go directly to M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital, where Rudolph and his wife, Jordan, established the End Zone -- a therapeutic space for pediatric patients and their families -- in 2017.
"We've already exceeded expectations and it's so awesome to see how generous people are, especially in tough times," said Rudolph, whose desire to aid this effort stems from his experience with his brother, Casey, who was born with, and survived, neuroblastoma, a cancer that forms in nerve cells and occurs most often in infants and young children. "When I visit the patients and families, I see my brother in the patients, I see myself and my parents in the families, so we always feel connected. Being [in Minnesota] for 10 years, our ties have gotten deeper and any time we have the opportunity to help, we jump."