Leslie Frazier says his team bought in to the program early, and the devotion has not wavered all year long.
April 23. Rarely a week goes by anymore in which Leslie Frazier doesn't reference the date, in his opinion a watershed moment for these 2012 Vikings.
It was, in so many ways, a routine day. On April 23, the official opening of offseason strength and conditioning at Winter Park brought together, as it always does, a bunch of guys readying for the grind of an NFL season in early spring.
Yet when Frazier saw voluntary attendance at those initial sessions reach levels never before seen in his five years within the organization, he recognized a chance to hammer home several key themes to a legion of receptive players.
That's why the team's 95 percent turnout rate on April 23 resonated so much.
"The commitment that they made told me we had a chance," Frazier said. "Because now they were going to be around our coaches. And I think we have a great staff with great teachers. And to be able to invest the time that was necessary to get guys on the same page and get them to understand what it takes to win in our league [was important]."
Frazier's paramount priority in bringing together a reshuffled team was implementing an ambitious mindset. He wanted players to set the bar high with few worries about the recent past (read: a 3-13 record in 2011) or the unanimously low expectations of outsiders.
So here the Vikings are now in the final week of the regular season with a tantalizing setup: Beat rival Green Bay on Sunday at Mall of America Field and it's on to the playoffs. A team almost universally pegged in July as one of the NFL's four or five worst is one victory away from joining a 12-team chase for the Lombardi Trophy.
Defensive tackle Fred Evans is certain he knows why.
"This is about belief right now, man," Evans said following Sunday's dominant 23-6 defeat of Houston. "It's all belief. In professional sports, everybody's got talent. But to actually have that legitimate belief in your teammates and in the coaching staff and in the whole organization is incredible. When you have that belief in what everybody is preaching, there comes a cohesiveness that you don't really see a lot."
Linebacker Chad Greenway may not have fully recognized the importance of the buy-in back on April 23. But Greenway did sense in the first days of training camp that General Manager Rick Spielman and the front office had loaded the roster with a group of guys who exemplified a winning combination of talent, savvy and drive. That left an impression.
And when the Vikings rolled out to a 4-1 start, Greenway felt eagerness crystallizing into certitude.
"When we kind of got on a little bit of a roll there," he said, "I think everybody could kind of see that the stamp was out there for, 'This is how we are capable of playing.' "
Sunday's surprise in Houston provided another undeniable example of the Vikings' potential and provided their second three-game winning streak this season.
"This is where we want to be playing our best football," Frazier said. "And [Sunday] we exemplified what can be our best."
Throughout the locker room, players credit Frazier for his consistency and even-keel leadership. Greenway says Frazier's pep talks can be, well, "real consistent if you know what I mean." Which, loosely translated, indicates the players can recite the coach's requests for "smart, tough, disciplined football" in their sleep.
But that doesn't mean the redundancy isn't respected. Instead, Frazier's deportment has had a steadying influence all year, even when so many left the Vikings for dead after their Week 13 loss at Green Bay.
"Obviously Leslie's the kind of guy where it's: 'We're still in this thing. We're fighting. We're together. We're all in,' " Greenway said. "And his approach is perfect, in my mind, for what an NFL coach needs to be."
Frazier reciprocates the praise, thrilled to be coaching a team so eager to learn and so willing to invest.
And now the Vikings enter the season's final week with everything on the line and one final test against a top-notch opponent that can validate them as a playoff team.
"I think the best part for us is, if you really want to prove it, you win this game and you're in," Greenway said. "This is everything. All the chips are in now. We wanted this. We asked for it. Let's go. Let's not be scared of it, because there's nothing to lose at this point."
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