Restricted by the salary cap, waylaid by the lockout, saddled with an aging roster, Leslie Frazier today will lead the Vikings as a full-fledged NFL head coach for the first time.
Little has changed since the end of last season, other than his title. As interim coach, he finished 2010 in charge of a 6-10 team featuring an older, imported quarterback and a number of key players whose performances had lagged behind their reputations.
Since then, his best receiver has departed in free agency, his massive left tackle has gorged his way off the roster, and the team's first-round draft pick procured a quarterback who will play this season only if injury or ineptitude force him into the lineup.
For the Vikings to improve, much less contend, Frazier must extract more from his veterans than they offered last year and more from his young players than they would seem capable of offering. In a business known for ruthlessness, Frazier believes he can reach professional football players the way his mentors reached him in Columbus, Miss., at Alcorn State and with the Chicago Bears.
"I think, to reach different guys, it's really important that you be yourself," Frazier said. "You have to be mindful that you're trying to reach people from all different socio-economic groups and demographics from all over the country. You've got different ethnic groups, and there's so much in their background that you don't know about.
"You have to speak to them with that in mind. The most important thing is to be honest and truthful with them. If you take that approach, you have a chance. If you do anything other than that, it creates problems in your locker room."
Frazier requires a redemptive season from his new old quarterback, Donovan McNabb. He needs to spur a resurgence from his star defensive end, Jared Allen, and receiver Bernard Berrian, all while finding enough caulk to fill his offensive line and secondary.
If he's worried, Frazier isn't showing it. He has publicly predicted he will eventually bring a Super Bowl title to Minnesota.
"I think it's important that the leaders on this team buy in to what we're doing," Frazier said. "I grabbed a group of guys on Monday that is going to be our leadership group, about 11 guys, from every position. I talked to them about what I'm talking about now. In the locker room and in the huddle, they've got to be an extension of me.
"If that's the case, then the message I'm trying to get across will have an impact. If the veterans don't buy in, then the young players are getting off the boat, too."
Once, in 2009, Frazier and Allen had to be separated during a game. Allen thinks Frazier is capable of not only monitoring the pulse of a team but quickening it.
"When you have a relationship with a guy, and there's something there, when you like him and care about him, you'll sell out for that guy," Allen said. "Coach Frazier, to me, is a friend. Developing that relationship with him as a man, he's the kind of man I aspire to be ...
"He's never lied to me about anything. If we have to have tough conversations, we have the tough conversations. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and I'll be friends with him until I'm old and gray."
McNabb cited a popular yet strange reason for believing in his new coach: That Frazier, a former Bears cornerback, was an outstanding NFL player. This seems important to players even though many of the most successful coaches in the game, including Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Mike McCarthy and Mike Tomlin, did not play in the NFL.
"It's always important when you have a guy that has played the game," McNabb said. " Leslie has played the game at a high level. He has seen success in the game, he has seen tough times in the game.
"Being a secondary coach to being a coordinator, to now being a head coach, he understands the way to bring the best out of guys."
For the Vikings to contend, Frazier will have to do just that, starting today.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@ startribune.com