My trip to the NFL owners meetings last month included a chance encounter with an NFL executive. We discussed the state of what has become a highly competitive and interesting division from a league perspective, given the Green Bay Packers' recent success, the Detroit Lions' explosive offense and the Chicago Bears' flurry of offseason improvements.
And then we got to the Minnesota Vikings.
"Big year for Leslie Frazier," the executive said. "Big year."
That perspective caught me by surprise, given that Frazier has spent exactly one full season as the Vikings' permanent head coach. But Frazier is also entering what reportedly is the final fully guaranteed year of his contract, and the long-term approach the Vikings have taken toward building their roster provides a substantial challenge to a coach with limited job security.
That's a nice way of saying Frazier probably needs to do a lot better in 2012 than the 3-13 record he produced last year, but with a roster that won't be constructed to support a quick turnaround. It's an unfortunate collection of circumstances that Frazier is only partially to blame for, but when viewed in the big picture, you can understand why the executive sees 2012 as a pressure point for his career.
(My friend Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com made a similar point last week.)
When the Vikings promoted Rick Spielman to general manager in January, Frazier said the move "should help me tremendously." Generally speaking, working for a good general manager is a healthy situation for any coach.
But since that point, the Vikings have dismantled their offensive line by releasing both starting guards and making plans to shift left tackle Charlie Johnson inside. They've given young quarterback Christian Ponder one more established playmaker, tight end John Carlson, but otherwise left their offensive skill positions untouched in free agency. They've bid farewell to their nose tackle and middle linebacker, tapping longtime backups as the likely successor in each role, and left untouched two safety positions that ended 2011 in shambles.
Spielman has made no secret of his intention: To get younger, to find blue-chip players in the draft and to supplement with complementary players in free agency. That's a sound philosophy for building long-term success, but it sure doesn't work in favor of a coach whose career record is now 6-16.
Take a look at the chart. A little more than half of the NFL's coaches (18 of 32) have reached a third full season in their jobs. Only four of them made it without the benefit of at least one non-losing season in their first two. And the only two who didn't demonstrate progress were the Washington Redskins' Mike Shanahan and the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll, both of whom carried enough celebrity status -- and not to mention huge financial investments -- to be all but assured of a third season from the moment they arrived.
But consider the Vikings' placement in the NFC North, which put three teams among the top 10 in ESPN.com's most recent Power Rankings. Remember that they will be starting Ponder, who is in the midst of his first NFL offseason. Ponder will play behind a rebuilt offensive line, with a set of receivers who will either be underwhelming or inexperienced or both.
In a best-case scenario, tailback Adrian Peterson (knee) will resume football activities shortly before the season begins. And in a division that includes star quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler, it's worth noting the Vikings' historically poor pass defense hasn't been enhanced this offseason with a single defensive back who could be considered a starter. (Perhaps that sentence will need editing after the draft.)
Does that seem like a collection of circumstances favorable to a coach demonstrating significant progress in 2012? Not particularly, no.
To be clear, I don't think the Vikings are in an inappropriate spot as a franchise. This has been coming since the moment they failed to reach the Super Bowl in 2009. It's just poor timing for Frazier.
The best time to make these kinds of difficult decisions is in the first year of a coach's tenure. You take the resulting lumps when your job is most secure, and then presumably demonstrate steady progress thereafter. The Vikings lost 13 of 16 games last season in a misguided attempt to push an aging roster toward one final playoff berth. It was a lost year in every way, and only now do they face the proverbial bottoming-out. I don't want to say Leslie Frazier is set up to fail, but the deck seems stacked against him.