LONDON – Leslie Frazier survived a soap opera season in 2010 in which the ceiling literally collapsed so, as Vikings coach, he’s well-versed in dealing with distractions and unusual circumstances.
He received a refresher course this week.
Roughly 24 hours after an excruciating loss in a game that most predicted as a gimme, Frazier and his players boarded a Virgin Atlantic jet for an eight-hour trek across the Atlantic for an international showcase that, in Frazier’s words, allowed the Vikings to serve as “ambassadors for our game.”
They brought with them a bundle of frustration over their 0-3 start, a quarterback with a fractured rib near his heart and the blunt reality that a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday will pretty much signal cheerio, as the locals say, to their season.
Their trip to London will feel worse than the Griswolds’ excursion if they fly home still winless.
“After our [31-27 loss to the Browns], the urgency level increased,” Frazier said. “It didn’t have to take us being on a plane trip to London for that to happen. We understand where we are in our season. We know the importance of getting our first win.”
Only three teams since 1990 have emerged from the Vikings’ current predicament and made the playoffs. They realize they can’t drill down much further and expect to remain relevant.
“Must win?” Adrian Peterson said, repeating a question from a British reporter. “I wouldn’t go that deep, but in our minds it’s definitely a must win, going into the bye and being 0-3. That’s the focus right now.”
Peterson made that declaration in a greenhouse that doubled as a press tent as a woman swam in a pool nearby at the team’s headquarters this week. The Vikings spent most of the week at an upscale golf and spa resort called The Grove about an hour outside London. They relocated into the city after Friday’s practice.
The Vikings taught football to school kids the day they arrived, made an appearance at the Tower of London on Friday night and entertained a few unique questions from the British press, including one from a man who wondered if Peterson is interested in auditioning for a James Bond movie.
“I might have to take some acting classes and see what I can do,” Peterson said. “You never know.”
The timing of the trip created an odd perspective for Frazier, who tried to balance the urgency of being 0-3 with myriad problems to fix with the understanding that this is a cultural experience that his players should embrace and enjoy — all while dealing with Christian Ponder’s rib injury, which ultimately opened the door for Matt Cassel to make his Vikings debut as the starter Sunday.
One answer was repeated so many times this week that it became the team’s unofficial slogan: “This is a business trip, not a vacation.”
“You don’t want to be Scrooge,” Frazier said. “This is a great place to be. There’s so much history here. I know our players would love to get out and experience London. But at the same time, we have a game to prepare for.”
Secluded in the English countryside, the players treated their getaway as training camp Part II. They hung out together in the hotel lobby after practice. Some played a few holes of golf at night, others played bocce ball. “I went 3-0,” linebacker Chad Greenway noted.
Frazier and several players expressed hope that the retreat could serve a valuable purpose at a time when their season is on the precipice. Maybe bring everyone closer together. It all sounds good, but at least one veteran believes the team simply needs to play better more than sit around and sing “Kumbaya.”
“We bonded enough in training camp,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “I really love my teammates, but I really enjoy going home and being with my wife and daughter and being away from people. It’s not high school and it’s not college. We get paid to win football games and that’s the bottom line. So we can all bond later, I guess.”
Sense of urgency
Greenway acknowledged that all the talk about team bonding likely would not be a “question for the week” if the defense hadn’t allowed game-winning touchdowns on the final drive the past two games. Allen poured more cold water on a reporter’s optimistic tone regarding those narrow loses.
“There are no moral victories in football, no attaboys, great job, we almost got them,” he said. “That’s for Pop Warner. We’re an 0-3 football team. That’s what we are.”
An 0-3 team with a new quarterback. Conspiracy theories this week over the timing and severity of Ponder’s injury were put to rest — or at least tempered — with news that he suffered a fractured rib in the second quarter against the Browns.
Left unknown is whether he’ll get his job back. That decision likely will be based on how Cassel performs in relief. If he plays well and the Vikings win, Cassel presumably will remain the starter.
“I’m hoping that he shines,” Frazier said. “I don’t foresee a quarterback controversy. But we want him to play lights out. We want him to have the best game of his NFL career on Sunday.”
The Vikings need that and more. As poorly as Ponder has performed, he’s not solely to blame for the 0-3 start.
The Vikings rank near the bottom of the NFL in pass defense, total defense and scoring defense. Special-teams miscues cost them dearly in the losses to Chicago and Cleveland. Despite all that’s gone wrong, the Vikings put themselves in position to win the past two weeks, but they wilted at the worst possible time.
“To lose them in the style that we’ve lost them, at the end of the games, that’s the thing that really can be frustrating,” General Manager Rick Spielman said in a rare in-season interview this week. “I think we have the right players to get those situations corrected. And there’s a sense of urgency.”
Wide receiver Jerome Simpson put it even more succinctly.
“It’s kind of hard going to the playoffs at 0-4,” he said.
That also would make a long flight home feel even longer.