INDIANAPOLIS -- If Leslie Frazier were more of a jerk, chances are he would have a contract extension by now. I found that conclusion difficult to avoid Friday while talking to Frazier about his arrival in contract purgatory during the third offseason of his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings.
When team officials decided against extending his deal after a breakthrough 10-6 season, disregarding a common practice among NFL teams, they knew Frazier was too nice to make a public stink and too loyal to question them privately. In football and every business, money is the best tool for keeping the personnel peace. But Frazier's classy demeanor rendered it unnecessary and no doubt emboldened the team in taking a defensible, but hard-line approach to Frazier's future.
In essence, as we discussed last week, the Vikings have told Frazier that his performance has not met their standard for long-term security. By simply picking up a previously-unreported option, keeping Frazier under contract through 2014, the Vikings met the minimum level of professional decency and nothing more.
To no one's surprise, Frazier offered not a single disparaging word about the situation during a series of questions from local reporters here at the scouting combine. But it seemed clear that he had expected the Vikings to make an offer, and it was easy to read the disappointment in his body language. Frazier admirably pledged to accept the judgment, but it would be a perfectly human reaction to be hurt by it.
"What I believe and what actually is, that's what you have to deal with," Frazier said. "As you guys know, that's the reality. And that's what I want to deal with -- the reality of the situation. You guys are well aware of what my situation is. There was an announcement made. That's where things are. I'm excited to be the head coach of the Vikings. I like the job that I have, and I like the team that we have."
Frazier has been the Vikings' coach for about two and a half seasons. He was 3-3 as an interim coach in 2009, 3-13 in 2011 and 10-6 in 2012. You could reasonably argue that a 16-22 career record isn't good enough to merit a long-term commitment, and it's true that the option year gave the Vikings an efficient alternative. After all, one could say, why spend money when you don't have to?
But this wasn't just a business decision. It was also an unwritten job review. If the Vikings were convinced that Frazier was equipped to be their coach in the long term, they would have ripped up the option year and offered him an extension. Frazier is smart and has been in the NFL a long time. He understands the underlying message: His bosses aren't sold on him yet. And in his case, they didn't feel compelled to commit a few million dollars to avoid the discussion we're having right now.
Frazier said Friday that he "moved on" as soon as he was informed of the decision, an answer that lets the Vikings off the hook for creating what could be a distraction in 2013.
"My focus shifted," Frazier said. "I've just go to let my agent handle what needs to be handled, and I've got to remove myself from that and concentrate on what I have to get done."
So what happened here? First, we have to remember what we've discussed before: Frazier is working for a general manager who did not hire him. Rick Spielman was the Vikings' vice president of player personnel when owner Zygi Wilf elevated Frazier into the permanent job in January 2011, apparently without conducing another interview. A year later, Spielman was promoted to general manager and Wilf said "all football-related activities" would be his responsibility.
If Spielman had recommended a contract extension, I'm sure it would have happened. If Wilf ignored Spielman's advice, then I would be concerned for the future of this front-office structure. I'm going to assume that's not the case. Asked this week about Frazier, Spielman only said: "I know we're very excited and ownership is very excited with what Leslie has done with this football team."
Again, many of you might agree with a cautious approach. There is plenty of gray area here. But in the name of caution and efficiency, the Vikings have set up a very public judgment year for Frazier. His career as a head coach depends on similar or better success in 2013. If the Vikings slip, he will almost certainly be fired. That's a tough message to send in the weeks after a playoff season.
"The most important thing for me," Frazier said, "and the best thing I can do for our team is to really focus on getting our guys ready to have a great season. That's all that's important, that's the only thing that's important. I think our players, coaches, from a leadership standpoint, I can't ever forget that. They derive a lot of their energy from me. I need to make sure I'm focused on what we needed to get done in order to have a great year."
I wouldn't have expected any less honorable of an answer than that. I've covered other coaches in unfavorable contract situations. They usually devolve into awkward and uncomfortable spaces. If anyone can maintain serenity at a moment of career uncertainty, it's Leslie Frazier. Make no mistake: His bosses know that, too. And so here we are. ...