CHICAGO – Only in the National Football League can tens of millions of people watch three hours of high-definition drama, complete with slow-motion replays and expert analysis, and wind up wondering what happened.
By the end of the Vikings’ whiplash-inducing 31-30 loss to the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday, defensive players were grumbling, the head coach was begging for blame and the defensive coordinator was promising that he will figure out what went wrong after he sees the game film, or maybe after the film makes it to Netflix.
Only in the NFL and Stephen King novels are misery and mystery so indiscriminately intermingled.
“I’ve got to do some things better to help our players, and I didn’t get that done in those last two minutes,” Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said.
Linebacker Erin Henderson admitted that the defensive alignment on the game-winning touchdown surprised him.
“It was just not what we expected in that situation, not really something we prepared for, practiced for,” he said.
Safety Harrison Smith said he deserved blame.
“I think I put him in a bad spot, actually,” Smith said of cornerback Chris Cook. “You can put that one on me.”
The locker room intrigue turned the Vikings’ annual depression-inducing loss in Chicago into a confusing melodrama.
Asked whether he would like to revisit the play-calling on the fourth-quarter drive in which the Vikings settled for a field goal, Frazier shook his head, saying that those calls are easy to second-guess when they don’t work.
Asked about the defensive play-calling, Frazier caught himself contradicting his earlier statement. “That’s one where, hindsight being 20-20, I’d do something differently,” he said. “We just have to do some things differently when we get in that situation.”
After the Vikings took a 30-24 lead with 3:17 remaining, Jay Cutler moved the Bears to the Vikings 16 with 16 seconds remaining. On third-and-10, Cutler came to the line of scrimmage. He saw Jamarca Sanford creeping toward the line of scrimmage and Smith laying back. Martellus Bennett and Earl Bennett went left, where only Cook and linebacker Chad Greenway were in position to cover them.
Cook feinted toward Earl Bennett, then was late in getting to Bennett, who caught Cutler’s pass at the pylon.
That’s when something strange happened: An NFL coach invited criticism.
In 1999, when Brett Favre beat the Vikings with a late touchdown pass and Cris Carter screamed at cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock on the field, Vikings coach Denny Green said a few minutes later, “That’s yesterday’s news.”
In a profession known for obfuscation, Frazier invited blame.
“There were some general things that I definitely could have done better in that situation to help our coaches, but I didn’t,” he said. “And I have to do a better job in that situation.”
The guess here is that either Frazier made a bad call, or failed to overrule defensive coordinator Alan Williams in time to properly set the defense. Neither is ideal, and the players were right to be frustrated after they poured so much effort and emotion into a winnable game.
Frazier played for the Bears, won a Super Bowl with the Bears, and was recruited as an ex-Bear into his first coaching job, at nearby Trinity International University.
If he admitted to selfish priorities, he probably would say he wants to win at Chicago more than he wants to win anywhere.
He left the locker room rubbing his face, distraught. His team is 0-2, having lost two winnable road games against divisional opponents to begin the last season on his contract. He’s probably still blaming himself.
That might be why this 0-2 start may not be as dire for this team as it is for most. When the head coach fosters paranoia, problems fester. Frazier doesn’t let that happen.
As dire as their situation seems, the Vikings might have found something in the second half, when their quarterback began playing like something other than a frightened rookie, and their coach handled a crushing defeat like a leader of men.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org