Leslie Frazier finished fourth in NFL Coach of the Year voting in 2012. He received leaguewide praise for directing the largest turnaround in Vikings history, a year-to-year increase of seven victories. His benevolent approach served as a soothing influence for an organization that often produces the kind of goofy drama found in daytime soaps.
That same coach might lose his job.
A year removed from so many accolades, Frazier’s relatively short tenure as Vikings coach could end following Sunday’s season finale against Detroit in the Metrodome farewell.
Frazier’s contract expires after the 2014 season, but it’s unlikely that Vikings ownership would allow Frazier to coach a lame-duck season. That arrangement would create obvious distractions, and it would be unfair to have Frazier and his players face questions and speculation about the coach’s job status on a weekly basis.
Several national outlets have reported that the organization already has initiated conversations with potential replacements.
Frazier’s admission this week that he has not talked with Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf or General Manager Rick Spielman about his status does not bode well, either, because silence in these situations usually means change is forthcoming.
There’s no indication that Spielman’s job is in jeopardy, too, even though a few of his personnel decisions adversely impacted Frazier’s ability to win.
After all, Christian Ponder didn’t draft himself, Antoine Winfield didn’t cut himself and Josh Freeman didn’t sign himself.
In today’s pass-happy, high-scoring NFL, teams need to be solid at quarterback and in the secondary. The Vikings faced significant deficiencies in both areas. Frazier acknowledged his team’s issues at those positions and said “you better get those right” nowadays, but he politely declined to delve much deeper on that subject.
“It’s probably better for me to keep focused on getting the guys that we have playing to play,” Frazier said. “I think they’re playing hard and doing everything they can to help us to win.”
Frazier’s record reflects the level of fan frustration with his job performance.
He’s 20-33-1 since replacing Brad Childress with six games left in the 2010 season. A pair of long, dreary losing seasons sandwiched that surprising postseason appearance a year ago.
The fact that ownership only picked up Frazier’s one-year option rather than negotiate a contract extension last offseason underscored that this served as a “prove it” year for Frazier and his staff.
Lots of issues
Now the organization appears primed to initiate a significant makeover this offseason, one that’s not just limited to a coaching change. The Vikings likely will start over at quarterback in their never-ending quest to find stability at that position.
The drafting of Ponder 12th overall in 2011 was a huge swing-and-miss; the Freeman experiment, which started when he signed four games into the season after being released by Tampa Bay, failed; and Matt Cassel, if he chooses to return, can only be viewed as a temporary bridge until the next hopeful is in place.
The Vikings have 15 unrestricted free agents, meaning another roster shake-up looms. Their defense has only four surefire starters for next season — defensive end Brian Robison, linebacker Chad Greenway, safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes — and must be rebuilt.
As they begin construction on their roster and on a new stadium, the Vikings are left with a strange mix of optimism and frustration in assessing this season and whether things could have played out differently.
They gave up scores in the final minute of five games, going 0-4-1 in those games.
Those blown leads became a season-long narrative as players routinely lamented “five plays” that altered their season — and now, by extension, their future.
“A play here or there and you’re talking about us being a playoff team instead of sitting here at 4-10-1,” Robison said. “But that’s football.”
Coach on the hot seat
Frazier referred to speculation about his job status this week as an “elephant in the room.” He instructed his players to focus on Sunday’s game and nothing else, and many of them avoided that subject when queried by reporters.
Adrian Peterson offered his public support of Frazier last week and indicated that he intended to share his feelings with the Wilfs after the season. Others stated their case, too.
“He’s been like a father figure to us, one of those guys that you don’t want to let down,” linebacker Erin Henderson said. “He’s not really going to come out there and yell and scream at you. But he might give you that look of disappointment, which might be worse sometimes than getting yelled at or cussed at. He’s always going to be the same way, no matter what the situation is or who the situation involves. That’s something that you’ve got to respect.”
Even critics acknowledge the positives that Frazier brings to such a stressful and highly visible position. He’s a class act who treats everyone with respect and approaches his job with humility.
Ultimately, coaches are judged by their record. Frazier is further culpable because his hand-picked coordinators, Bill Musgrave and Alan Williams, have struggled at times to match their schemes with personnel and have left themselves vulnerable to second-guessing over their play calls, even inside their own locker room.
Though handcuffed by his quarterbacks’ limitations, Musgrave was slow to incorporate rookie Cordarrelle Patterson into the offense. Patterson entered the league raw as a receiver and needed time to learn the system. The coaches understandably didn’t want to overwhelm him, but Patterson is so physically gifted that they should have found ways to get him involved sooner.
Defensively, the Cover-2 scheme requires better personnel than the Vikings possess. And players grumbled privately and publicly about Williams’ play calls during critical moments at different times this season.
More than anything, the quarterback merry-go-round and defensive ineptitude doomed this season. The quarterback rotation created a spectacle that was disruptive and hard to understand. Though it remains unclear as to management’s true involvement in decisionmaking, Frazier reiterated in a recent interview that he maintains final say on personnel decisions that involve playing time.
Frazier’s insistence that Ponder gave the team the “best chance to win” infuriated fans. It was a gamble to sign Freeman and then risky to start him after only four practices with the starting offense. But to ask him to throw 53 passes that night was a reckless move that brought national embarrassment.
The quarterback quandary and loyalty to Ponder proved doubly damning when one considers the unimpressive state of the NFC North this season. Cassel has his faults, too, but the Vikings might have given themselves a chance to jump into the playoff race if they had stuck with the veteran.
League’s worst D?
The defense didn’t dominate headlines as much as the quarterbacks, but that unit was no less responsible for the mess. The Vikings rank last in the NFL in points allowed (467), and they could break the franchise record (484, set in 1984) in Sunday’s finale.
They also rank last in pass defense, 31st in total defense and 31st in third-down defense.
Spielman’s decision to release Winfield as a cost-cutting measure last winter stripped the defense of one of its best players and leaders. The Vikings unveiled a secondary that featured a disappointment as their No. 1 cornerback (Chris Cook); a guy who had never played the slot/nickel role (Josh Robinson) as Winfield’s replacement; and a rookie corner who figured to experience growing pains (Rhodes). On top of that, they lost their best defensive back (Smith) for eight games because of a turf toe injury.
The results should not surprise anyone.
“When you guys would ask me back in training camp, if you go back and look, I would always say that’s the wild card,” Frazier said. “How fast can we bring these guys along? I knew what our issues were. And then you get hit with the injury bug like we have, that really makes it more difficult.”
That word sums up the entire season: difficult. A season that began with optimism after a taste of the playoffs became a long grind marked by quarterback changes, blown leads and defensive breakdowns. And now uncertainty.
On Sunday, the Vikings will shut the lights off at the place they’ve called home since 1982. The organization has more than one construction job in its future.