Coaching, QB decisions could doom Frazier
December, 29, 2013
By Ben Goessling | ESPN.com
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsLeslie Frazier may have coached his last game with the Minnesota Vikings.MINNEAPOLIS -- It's not in Leslie Frazier's nature to point fingers in public or play politics, so anyone expecting him to stump for keeping his job in what might have been his final news conference as the Minnesota Vikings coach was probably misguided. But if Frazier had anything to say about why he shouldn't be fired after a 5-10-1 season, Sunday was his chance.
Asked after a 14-13 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday how quickly he thought he would find out about his job status, Frazier said this:
"Not sure about that. I have a contract -- our staff has a contract -- through 2014, and I hope that the Wilf family will honor that and give us a chance to come back next season and try and get our quarterback situation fixed, try to get the depth of our roster along with some other errors that need to be fixed. I hope they'll give this staff the chance to finish what we've gotten started. We're only a season removed from the playoffs. I think our guys are still playing hard and we're under contract. We'll see."
Frazier parsed his comments carefully, but I thought the remarks he made about the quarterback situation and the depth issues on the Vikings' roster were his attempts to point out that he didn't create two of the biggest issues on the Vikings' roster. General manager Rick Spielman did, drafting Christian Ponder, cutting Antoine Winfield and, instead of bringing Winfield back after the Vikings had discussed a return with the cornerback in September, spending $2 million on Josh Freeman on what amounted to one disastrous game as the starter and the rest of the season on the bench.
The Vikings were bad at the two things you can't be bad in the NFL -- throwing the ball and stopping the pass -- and there was only so much the Vikings' coaching staff was going to be able to do with the roster as it existed coming out of training camp. Frazier also said two weeks ago that the Vikings had to "go through the process" of evaluating Ponder before going to Matt Cassel, hinting he was being asked to fight a war on two fronts (trying to win while doing due diligence on Ponder). He made that point in even clearer terms on Sunday.
"When we made those decisions early in the season regarding our quarterback, you're making decisions based on, in my mind, the short-term and the long-term," he said. "When we decided to stay with Christian, there was a reason why we did that at the time. Now in retrospect, you can look back and say, 'Well, maybe you should have done this,' but we've talked about why we did what we did, and if it worked out, there would be no second-guessing. It didn't, but we knew why we did what we did."
Later, he said this: "In this position, when you're talking about the quarterback position, you don't make these decisions alone. The quarterback position, this is a franchise position. It's a collective decision. At the end of the day, I'm the head coach, but when it comes to the quarterback, it's not like inserting an offensive guard or a wide receiver or a tight end. That's a completely different matter, so believe me, there was discussion in each one of those situations. ... I've been in the league too long and been around football too long. You don't want to make decisions regarding the quarterback without ownership and the general manager being involved in some degree. You can make decisions, but they need to sign off on it. This is the franchise. It's not the center position, it's not the guard, it's the quarterback. So, yeah, we discussed each one of those moves."
Frazier may well have a case if he was handed Ponder with the instructions the Vikings needed to give him more time. Spielman has often talked about a three-year rule on evaluating quarterbacks, and Ponder went into the season as the unquestioned starter, even after the Vikings signed Cassel, who started or played significantly in every game they won. It would be a cold way to go out if Frazier were asked to develop a quarterback, and pay for the losses with his job, though it wouldn't be the first time it's happened.
Still, the Wilfs seem tied to Spielman, who hasn't yet had the chance to pick his own coach, and if Frazier was trying to make the case that he couldn't have won with this team, he'll have to address two key factors.
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsInconsistent quarterback play may be one of the two reasons Frazier loses his job.
First, Frazier said as recently as last week that Ponder was the quarterback the Vikings targeted in the run-up to the 2011 draft. He still had some say in personnel matters at that point. And to use his own logic, if the quarterback position is an organizational decision, Frazier must bear some responsibility for drafting Ponder, or for staying with him as long as the Vikings did.
Second -- and probably more importantly -- Frazier was the one who picked offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave and defensive coordinator Alan Williams, hiring the former in 2011 and tapping the latter to replace Fred Pagac before 2012. Both have looked overmatched in Minnesota; Musgrave was slow to incorporate Cordarrelle Patterson, who looks like a transformational talent on offense, and several veteran players have criticized Williams' play calling throughout the season. If Frazier had any chance to stay, he'd likely have to replace his coordinators, and his comments on Sunday seemed to tie him to his staff. That could always change behind closed doors, but even if it did, Frazier essentially would be asking the Vikings to bank on his ability to hire coordinators more than Spielman's ability to hire a head coach.
He'd also be asking them to trust his staff could develop another quarterback, in the final years of their contracts, with a team two years from moving into a new stadium and a fan base itching for some sense of momentum. Frazier has shown he can win when he gets competent quarterback play. Cassel provided that for the better part of the second half of the season, when the Vikings went 4-3-1. Players campaigned for him again on Sunday, and Adrian Peterson said he plans to talk to the Wilfs on Monday.
In the end, though, making the case that this year wasn't his fault probably won't save Frazier's job. He would have to convince the Wilfs the Vikings will be better with him than without him, and if he's unable to do that, the two factors we mentioned likely could be the reasons why.