Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Off-field issues hang over Vikings' approach
By Ben Goessling
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Vikings emerged from the fog of their 2010 season in early January 2011, when they removed the interim tag from coach Leslie Frazier's title and got to work reconfiguring an aging roster that had slogged through one of the most tumultuous years in team history.
That process took another leap forward in early 2012 with another job change: The Vikings made vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman their general manager, giving him full control over personnel decisions. Spielman and Frazier went looking for players they termed a "Viking fit" -- which typically meant players who were young, hungry, committed to the team and able to stay out of trouble.
It worked splendidly in 2011 and 2012, as the Vikings built their roster primarily with players they'd vetted through the draft process. They took some risks here and there, signing receiver Jerome Simpson last April shortly after he was suspended three games for a drug-related arrest and hanging onto fullback Jerome Felton when he was arrested for drunken driving last May, but the Vikings believed they could fold players into their culture and get them to clean up as they helped the team. In some cases, such as those of Felton and cornerback Chris Cook, that approach has worked. The Vikings -- who led the league with 33 arrests from 2000-11 -- went 16 months without one from July 2012 to November 2013, and they jumped from 3-13 to 10-6 during a charmed 2012 season, reaching the playoffs for the first time in three years.
That approach officially hit rough water this week, when the Vikings released defensive back A.J. Jefferson on Monday, hours after he was arrested on a domestic assault charge. Then, news surfaced on Wednesday that linebacker Erin Henderson had been arrested eight days earlier for drunken driving and possession of a controlled substance. The arrests, following Simpson's drunken-driving arrest earlier this month, gave the Vikings three since Nov. 7, when Frazier sent a jubilant locker room off on a three-day break following a Thursday night win over the Washington Redskins. And the news sent the coach to the podium on Wednesday, reading a hastily prepared statement from Spielman the Vikings had released three minutes before Frazier's news conference, while the general manager did not appear in public to discuss the arrests or the remarks he'd made through the team.
Headlines about NFL players behaving badly are far too common these days, and the problem stretches far beyond the Vikings. But when the Vikings have rebuilt their organization on a build-from-within process and Frazier's ability to get players pulling the same direction, it stings to have three incidents occur in such a short period of time. It leads Spielman to admit the Vikings might have to review their player development program, as he did in Wednesday's statement, and it forces Frazier to stand at a podium and attempt to explain why the Vikings have taken such different approaches to discipline with each player. None of it wears particularly well, especially when paired with the team's 2-8-1 record, and none of it helps the causes of an embattled coaching staff and front office.
Frazier has often likened a coach's role in player conduct to that of a parent, giving a child the information to make good choices, praying he does but knowing he ultimately has the ability to do what he wants. Neither he nor anyone else with the Vikings can mandate everything their players do outside the building. But for a team that had purportedly rebuilt itself on the premise it was beyond so many off-the-field troubles, it's been an awfully ominous month.