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Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Listening: A novel concept in Minnesota

By Kevin Seifert

Leslie Frazier
Leslie Frazier is 16-22 with a playoff loss as Minnesota's coach.
Midway through the 1984 season, the Chicago Bears were preparing for a game against the Los Angeles Raiders. During practice one day, defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan pulled aside cornerback Leslie Frazier.

"He starts telling me all about Cliff Branch," Frazier recalled recently. "He's telling me how he is an old guy and how I should play him and what I needed to do and all of that. But I watch tape, too, and I look at it and see this guy can still play."

So Frazier marched to Ryan's office and told him the Bears needed a different game plan for Branch, who at the time was 36 and one year away from retirement. "If that's the way you feel," Ryan responded, "go right ahead."

Frazier left Ryan's office proud, motivated and with an indelible impression that helped steer his post-playing career.

"I was like, 'Man, I've got to make this work,'" Frazier said. "He's empowering me in this way and trusting me to do it this way. He thinks I've studied enough and prepared enough to handle [Branch]. Because if I don't, it affects not only me but the entire defense and the entire team. I've always thought about that. Those players, they are the ones that have go play. Why not listen sometimes?

"We had a system that everybody in America thought was a great system, the 46, blah, blah, blah. In that system, Buddy Ryan would let us make suggestions, let us tweak things and do things. And to me that was his genius."

Branch didn't have a catch in the Bears' 17-6 victory that afternoon. More important for us, 27 years later, Frazier has brought a similar mentality to his new role as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. He hired offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave to tailor a new scheme around the Vikings' existing players, demanding that he seek input from veterans and maximize the strengths of skill players. Musgrave, in turn, has gone so far as to ask quarterbacks to nominate plays to run in preseason games.

Defensive coordinator Fred Pagac has followed suit in the role Frazier held for the previous four seasons, an important turn of events for a veteran-laden team that isn't likely to allow on-high direction to go unchallenged.

"Buddy's ego wasn't so big that he would say, 'Get out of my office we're just going to run the 46 this week, 60 downs,'" Frazier said. "He'd listen and if it made sense, he'd say, 'OK maybe we could give that a try.' Now as a player, you're like, 'Wow, I'm going to try to make this work, because he listened to me, and then you would go down to the locker room and sell it to your teammates.'"

Frazier's approach is hardly revolutionary and is, in fact, practiced to a degree in most NFL cities. But it's notable in Minnesota for its departure from the rigid and structured program of former coach Brad Childress, who held strongly to his personal convictions -- especially as it related to offense -- and left veteran players complaining about a lack of flexibility and input.

Donovan McNabb
Donovan McNabb has been afforded freedom that didn't exist under the previous regime.
Childress' motivation was understandable; he had been hired with a mandate to clean up what owner Zygi Wilf believed was an undisciplined organization. Sometimes the inmates must be returned to the asylum with no questions asked. But from a schematic standpoint, scores of Vikings players were rendered robotic after finding Childress unwilling to make adjustments they had seen and used in other versions of the West Coast offense.

Musgrave, meanwhile, uses terminology derived from the offense developed by former New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt. But the specific plays and formations will be dictated by his evaluation of the Vikings' in-house talent and supplemented by recommendations from players.

Case in point: Musgrave's first conversation with quarterback Donovan McNabb this summer.

"I told him from the get-go that we have a system that we intend to teach to him, the quarterbacks and all the players," Musgrave said. "But it's really his system. It's Donovan's system. So if something happens here ... that he would like to tweak -- maybe call something differently in the huddle, at the line of scrimmage, maybe want to teach differently -- [we want him] to definitely come and talk to us about it because we're open-minded about it. We like to tailor-make or customize our system to fit our players."

Many NFL coaches seek input from key players. On Wednesday, I'll tell you more about the way Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy works with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But trust me when I tell you it's a relative culture change in Minnesota.

"The thing about it," McNabb said, "is that when you have guys that can make plays, you try to find ways to create plays for them. Bill is going to do that, and he's done a great job with that out here. "

Before each preseason game this summer, in fact, Musgrave gave his quarterbacks a working version of his play-calling sheet. The sheet was divided into roughly nine situational categories. According to rookie Christian Ponder, each quarterback was asked to rank his favorite and second-favorite play in each category.

Musgrave would then update the sheet with numerical notations to remind him during the game which quarterback liked which play.

"So we choose what we want to do and those are the things we're going to run when we get in there," Ponder said. "It's great that we have input."

It's worth noting there is a difference between preseason and regular-season game planning. I'm not sure if McNabb will choose all the plays he runs this season.

There is also a distinction between seeking input and running a democracy. Frazier plans the former but has no intention of broaching the latter. As the Vikings' defensive coordinator, he listened often to suggestions from cornerback Antoine Winfield, defensive end Jared Allen and others -- to a point.

"There were times when I might not agree and I had to make the final decision," Frazier said. "Other times I would say, 'You know what, maybe they've got something. Maybe we'll try that.' With a Percy Harvin or an Adrian Peterson, if you just say, 'This is the system, what you're saying may work but it doesn't fit in our system,' man, it gets kind of tough sometimes.

"You need a system, but not to the point where it will impede certain players on the team just because they might struggle with this particular system. You don't want to see one of your players go somewhere else and thrive and then ask, 'Why couldn't they do this in Minnesota?'"

Not even Buddy Ryan was proud enough to let that happen. Good for Leslie Frazier. And good for the Vikings. And open mind always is preferable to the alternative.