One game into the season that might determine his future as an NFL head coach, Leslie Frazier suddenly finds himself wedged uncomfortably between philosophy and circumstance.
His philosophy dictates that he express patience and confidence in his quarterback. His philosophy dictated that his team draft and develop its own quarterback. His philosophy could endanger his career and the season, if that quarterback continues to play the way he did Sunday.
Circumstance dictates that Frazier treat his philosophy the way most of us treat freshman college Philosophy 101, and forget all about it. Circumstance compels him to treat his quarterback not as an investment to be protected against unpredictable market swings, but as the variable that determines value.
In the last year of his contract, Frazier has a playoff-quality roster, a future Hall of Famer or three in their prime and a big-name free agent whose success is tied to his quarterback. In his first game in this new reality, the quarterback his philosophy led him to choose, and defend, failed him.
To the untethered observer, benching Christian Ponder on Sunday at Detroit, or last November in Green Bay, would be simple. You tell him to take a seat and move on. For Frazier, the decision is complicated by philosophy and history.
Philosophy: Frazier, a man of faith, believes in staying the course, even when the course is filled with potholes. His faith-based decisions led him to retire when he might have been able to continue his NFL career, to coach at upstart Trinity College instead of using NFL contacts to get a more prestigious job, to believe that his good work with the Vikings eventually will be rewarded even though he was denied an extension after taking a previously mediocre team to the playoffs in 2012.
History: Frazier stuck with Ponder during his midseason slump last season, even after he looked hopeless in Green Bay, and was rewarded with four highly competent performances in must-win games down the stretch.
There is another history Frazier might want to consider if Ponder falters again on Sunday: Vikings history.
On Jan. 27, 1999, Randall Cunningham, who had led the Vikings to the NFC title game in 1998, accepted the Miller Lite NFL Player of the Year Award. On Oct. 17, at halftime of the second game of the 1999 season, Vikings coach Denny Green benched Cunningham in favor of veteran backup Jeff George, and George took the Vikings to the playoffs.
After that game, in the dankness of the old Silverdome, I asked Green what prompted his decision. He gave the most succinct and accurate answer of his life: “No points.”
In April of 2006, Brad Childress chose the quarterback he believed would mimic a young Donovan McNabb and lead his team for a decade: Tarvaris Jackson. On Sept. 17, 2008, two games into the season, Childress benched Jackson in favor of veteran backup Gus Frerotte, and he helped the Vikings reach the playoffs. I’d supply a Childress quote on the subject, but it’s still being translated.
Jackson was benched after two games of his third season, and his second season as a starter. Ponder is about to start the second game of his third season, and second season as a starter.
A previous Vikings coach, Jerry Burns, never was afraid to change quarterbacks. He would yearn for someone who could take control of a game and make winning plays “Like Francis” Tarkenton. He’d argue that changing the left guard wouldn’t alter the course of a team; only changing the quarterback could.
Frazier must feel bound by philosophy to support and protect Ponder, so it’s understandable that the coach supported his quarterback on Sunday and Monday.
Five days from now, if Ponder again makes the kind of plays that lose games, Frazier will be better served by studying history, and giving Matt Cassel a chance to become the latest imported veteran quarterback to take the Vikings to the playoffs.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays