The Vikings are enjoying the weekend off and regrouping on the final day of their bye week.
They’re off to a surprising 6-4 start and, if all breaks right, could be playing their next game in Chicago with first-place in the NFC North on the line. This past week, Vikings beat writer Dan Wiederer sat down for a one-on-one interview with head coach Leslie Frazier. Here is Part 1 of the full transcript from that discussion.
Well, you’re heading into the stretch run here. Ten games in, 6-4, heading toward Thanksgiving with meaningful games ahead. How’d we get here?
Frazier: Man, a lot of hard work. If you’ve followed us through the spring and summer and our guys have just busted their tails from April 23 on to put themselves in a position where November really means something. And now we have to work as hard as we can in this third quarter of the season to make December the type of month we want it to be.
You’ve brought up April 23 many times this season, the first day that players could be back at the facility for offseason conditioning and training. It’s clear that was a day that struck a chord with you given the obvious player investment. What stuck out to you that day and those first couple months afterward where you sensed you could get a message across to a team about buying in?
Frazier: The attendance. The attendance. In all my time in Minnesota, we never had anywhere near the type of attendance that we had when we started up this year. And that was something I had challenged our guys with at the end of our 2011 season. I met with each one of them individually right here in my office before they went their different ways for the offseason. We talked extensively about coming back if they were serious about getting this thing turned in the right direction. And when more than 90 percent of our team showed up, I said to myself, ‘Wow. This is big. We’ve got a chance.’ And they continued to be here throughout the offseason. That’s a big deal when you’re trying to change the culture of a team and an organization. And I thought that was our only chance of getting it turned around. It just fueled me and our staff to get that type of attendance.
When you talk about changing a culture, what specifically did you want to implant? And to get this thing pointed in the direction you wanted it to go in, what had to be in place to get it right?
Frazier: I knew that the roster was going to be changing and that there were going to be a lot of new faces and that we’d be counting on a lot of new faces to play, play early and play well. So guys really needed to understand and be educated on how to win in the NFL. And to me the offseason is where that really happens. Of course, we didn’t have that the season before. And also, my style of coaching is a little bit different than some other peoples’ styles. So they needed to be around me. They needed to see how I deal with certain situations. And that’s what that offseason gave us. We could set up practices to put them in situations that we thought they were going to face in games. And for a lot of guys, these were situations they had never been in before in the National Football League. So we were able to do some things to prepare them for this 2012 season because of the offseason. And their attendance.
When you identify your coaching style as a little bit different, what are the things you think guys most need to get used to?
Frazier: I’m not a yeller and screamer. I’m not going to be cursing them out. I’m going to be demanding but not necessarily in the way that some other coaches might go about being demanding. That can be a little bit different for some guys and they have to adjust to that style of coaching and be able to say, ‘OK, I know what Coach means by that. He may not have yelled at me, he may not have cursed at me. But I’ve got to get this fixed if I’m going to help this team win.’ They needed to be around me to get a feel for what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.
When you arrived in Mankato, I remember you standing up at that podium in front of the dorms and there was a seriousness in your eyes about the message you wanted to impart that night as guys reported. You talked about setting expectations and blocking out the expectations of the outside world. Most of us admittedly had you pegged on the low rungs of this conference and this division. What was it about that first night’s meeting that you wanted to get across?
Frazier: I just wanted to make sure that all those things we had worked on from the time we walked in this building on April 23 to the time we left in June had not gotten lost with some of the things they had read in between. From late June when we left to that last week of July when we reported to training camp, I know they were hearing a lot of things about where we should end up at and how many wins we should have, what the expectations were. And outside, those were far different than the ones we had talked about when we had them in the spring. So I wanted to make sure we got back on point so we could start training camp off with the right mindset. I thought that was an important part of our success in 2012, not only what we did in the offseason, but now the next step is training camp. So you can’t come into that saying, ‘I just want to make this team.’ There’s more to it than making the team. We have to do some things with focus to have a chance to be a very successful team beyond what other people may think. So I wanted to make sure they felt the same way I felt.
When there’s this outside skepticism and no one is giving you a very high bar to clear, can that be an unhealthy crutch where it gives you almost an excuse not to strive at times if you’re not careful?
Frazier: We’ve seen it in life. When people don’t have high expectations for you as a person, if you’re not careful, you live up to those low expectations. So you just have to subconsciously be able to block some of those things out and realize what your self-worth is and where your self-esteem draws from. For us, it’s hard work and perseverance. And our players worked so hard going all the way back to April, I didn’t want them to lose that when we came to training camp. I had to remind them of the sacrifices they had made and why. You have some goals you want to reach. So whatever your cousins and uncles and nephews have been saying, forget that. Let’s focus on the task at hand and trying to improve each and every day. One day at a time, let’s get a little better at something.
So you hit this skid a few weeks back. That Thursday nighter against Tampa Bay was certainly a sobering loss. Then you go to Seattle, another double-digit loss. NFL seasons can cave in pretty quickly if you’re not careful. For you, what was the sense on how to make sure a collapse didn’t occur after those losses?
Frazier: I had to keep reminding them how long the season is. Teams go through stretches like that. It just so happens ours came in the middle of the season. There are some other teams who lost two in a row who didn’t feel like they should have lost those games or should have played better. But you have to see the bigger picture and understand that there’s a lot of football to be played. You can’t get caught up in the things that just happened. We had to find out what we did wrong, fix it and then concentrate on this particular game. In our case, that was Detroit. And just concentrate on that game. You can’t look back and you can’t undo the things that were done. But we can improve if we focus on this game and block all the other stuff out. And to their credit, that’s exactly what our guys did. They blocked some of those things out. They were disappointed. We were all disappointed with those previous two losses. But if you don’t block that out and move on, we’ve all seen it. I told our veteran guys that we’ve seen it, where you go into a spiral and you can’t get out of it. And I didn’t want us to do that. I’ve seen it happen. There are teams in many years that started off well and then suddenly a couple losses sends them into a tailspin. So I had to get our guys to a point of ‘See the big picture. Your goals are still within your grasp. But we’ve got to take care of business at home against Detroit.’ And they bought into it. And they played well.
So you had that leadership meeting to deliver that message to the veterans. When you’re having that meeting, what’s the feedback you’re getting within your message of “The sky is not falling”?
Frazier: I meet with them on a Wednesday after our walk-through. On that Wednesday when I met with them and I was talking, I said, ‘You guys heard what I said to the entire team. Now I need to hear some feedback from each of you. Because I don’t want to be the only one standing up and saying this and the only one believing this message. So what’s the pulse of the team? And more importantly, what’s the pulse of you guys What do you feel? Can we get out of this?’ To a man, they all agreed everything was still in place for us. We could block out those previous two losses and concentrate on Detroit. And I told them that I needed more from them. I needed them to be a little bit more rah-rah. Get the energy up in practice. Because I don’t want guys even for a minute thinking about the past. Every single guy, they’ve got to be so invested in that first practice of the week and then the practices on Thursday and Friday. So I said, ‘I need you guys to be going around at practice saying ‘Let’s go! Let’s do this. Let’s do that.’’ And they did. They went out that Wednesday and were encouraging their teammates, pushing them to practice hard, stay focused. It’s one thing for me to say it. But when Jared Allen is saying it, when Chad Greenway is saying it, when Adrian is saying, ‘Hey man, we’ve got to practice harder and concentrate.’ John Sullivan’s saying it. All of a sudden guys feel like ‘Whoa, this is different. It’s not just the coaches.’ So now as a player, these are your peers. And it puts you on point to pay attention.