NFL Nation: Leslie Frazier

Vikings' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
12:00
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Over the next three seasons, as the Minnesota Vikings begin the tenure of head coach Mike Zimmer, play in two home stadiums and likely wind down the days of Adrian Peterson's prime, the key to their success will be finding some stability at a position where they haven't enjoyed much of it in the last decade.

Bridgewater
Other than two seasons with Brett Favre, the Vikings' quarterback position has essentially been in a state of flux since Daunte Culpepper was traded to Miami following the 2005 season. Since then, the Vikings haven't had a quarterback start 16 games in back-to-back seasons. Even when Favre was at the helm, the Vikings knew they needed a long-term solution at quarterback. Now that they have Teddy Bridgewater on the roster, much of their future success will hinge on the rookie's development.

Bridgewater figures to start training camp behind Matt Cassel, though he'll get a shot to win the job before the season. Even if he sits on the bench for much of 2014, though, Bridgewater will likely be the starter by the time the Vikings open their new stadium in 2016. Assuming he claims the job sometime in the near future, the first-round pick will have to develop quickly if the Vikings want to make the most of Peterson's remaining years as one of the league's best running backs.

Peterson turned 29 in March and will likely see a larger role in the passing game as the Vikings seek to find more balance on offense than they had under coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. That means the quarterback, not Peterson, will likely be the focal point of the Vikings' offense, and eventually it will put the burden on Bridgewater's shoulders to carry the Vikings.

The rookie was impressive during OTAs and the Vikings' mandatory minicamp, though it's hard to accurately assess his progress in such a controlled setting. When he is ready to play, though, Bridgewater will have a clear charge: He'll be asked to create a foundation for the Vikings at the most important position in the game.
MINNEAPOLIS -- Since he was introduced as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 17, Mike Zimmer has preached open competition as one of his core beliefs, and he should. It's a way for the new coach to keep his players honing their games to a fine edge, at least in theory.

If the Vikings hadn't gone into their coaching search with an open mind, Zimmer might not have landed his first head-coaching job at age 57, to the delight of people around the league who believed the longtime defensive coordinator had to wait too long for his shot. So when Zimmer -- who turned 58 earlier this month -- talks about an open battle at the quarterback position, adding that the Vikings won't be afraid to play rookie Teddy Bridgewater if he's good enough to win the job, there's every reason to believe the coach. There's also every reason for Zimmer to make sure Bridgewater has to clear a high threshold if he wants to line up as the Vikings' starter in St. Louis on Sept. 7.

Bridgewater
Zimmer
Zimmer needs only to look at the situation that played a large part in his job becoming available last winter. In April 2011, four months after the Vikings removed the interim tag from coach Leslie Frazier's title, the team took Christian Ponder with the 12th overall pick. Ponder had no offseason to learn the Vikings' playbook and no time to work with his new coaches because of a lockout that stretched until August. But after six mediocre performances from a 34-year-old Donovan McNabb (in what turned out to be the final six games of his career), the Vikings handed the job to Ponder and never looked back, putting two young quarterbacks behind him in 2012 and using several solid games during a playoff push at the end of that season -- a year in which Adrian Peterson ran for 2,097 yards -- as justification to declare Ponder the uncontested starter before 2013, despite the presence of Matt Cassel on the roster.

Would things have turned out differently if Ponder had been given more time to develop? Possibly not. But by putting him in the lineup as soon as they did, the Vikings were, in effect, making a statement that Ponder was ready to take the job for good and locking themselves into a long stretch with him. They didn't have to make that pronouncement as soon as they did, but if they'd waffled on it shortly thereafter, they would have invited scrutiny for their lack of direction at quarterback (as they did with their Ponder/Cassel/Josh Freeman carousel in 2013). Quarterback instability ultimately doomed Frazier, and in effect, it doomed his predecessor, Brad Childress. After feuding with Daunte Culpepper shortly after taking the job, Childress pushed for the Vikings to select Tarvaris Jackson in the second round of the 2006 draft and vacillated on Jackson until the team signed Brett Favre, whose stormy relationship with Childress ended with the coach's ouster 10 months after the Vikings nearly reached the Super Bowl.

The bet here is that Zimmer won't make a rash decision with Bridgewater, not when the Vikings are set up so well to avoid one. In Cassel, who's signed for the next two seasons, they've got the perfect custodian for Bridgewater: a veteran who's solid enough to handle the job in the short term, but not entrenched enough to step aside without a fuss. And even Ponder, who will be a free agent after the season, has some usefulness in 2014, as an emergency option in case Cassel gets hurt (or struggles early) and Bridgewater isn't ready. The Vikings have done everything they can to construct a healthy atmosphere for Bridgewater's growth. The key to the whole thing, though, is a coach who's patient enough to let it work. Zimmer might get only one shot as a head coach, and he's got something of a cushion this season, with the Vikings moving into a temporary home while trying to remodel their defense. One poor season won't cost the coach his job, but mismanagement of the quarterback situation ultimately could. Especially with offensive coordinator Norv Turner at his side, Zimmer should have the good sense to avoid the potholes his predecessors hit.

So how does this all play out? The 2012 Seattle Seahawks might provide a good blueprint. They signed Matt Flynn to a three-year deal worth just $9 million guaranteed, giving themselves a quarterback they could play if Russell Wilson wasn't ready to start. When Wilson ultimately won the competition, the Seahawks were free to trade Flynn a year later. Only time will tell if Bridgewater turns out to be as good as Wilson has been -- the Vikings QB has looked sharp to this point, albeit only against defenses prohibited from hitting him -- but if he can take advantage of the situation, Minnesota has the mechanisms in place to make it work, just as the Seahawks did.

For Bridgewater to get on the field in September, he should have to prove he's unequivocally the best man for the job. Otherwise, with the Vikings facing a nasty early schedule, a tie should go to the veteran. It's a good, sensible construct for the rookie coach and quarterback, and with so many recent cautionary tales about the costs of quarterback foul-ups, the Vikings would be wise to take advantage of it.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The televised celebration in the Minneapolis bid committee's conference room on Tuesday afternoon -- in response to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's announcement that Super Bowl LII was headed to the Twin Cities -- was spontaneously raucous, in the way that only a celebration of the end of a long wait can be. As Minnesota Vikings officials, corporate CEOs and civic leaders exchanged jubilant (and occasionally awkward) high-fives and embraces, the room quieted down only at the mention that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf was about to speak on TV.

It was then I realized: This must have been the first time in a while where it was purely, unequivocally good for the Wilf family to be the owners of the Vikings.

[+] EnlargeZygi Wilf and Mark Wilf
AP Photo/David GoldmanVikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf were all smiles after Minneapolis was selected as the host for the 2018 Super Bowl.
Zygi, Mark and Leonard Wilf, who prefer to stay out of the spotlight as much as possible, have presumably spent too much time in it for their liking in the past nine months, and rarely for positive reasons. First, there was the news that a New Jersey judge had ordered the family to pay $100 million in damages to its business partners in a 21-year-old lawsuit, which the Wilfs are still fighting in appellate court. That lawsuit triggered an emergency (if slightly theatrical) review of the Wilfs' finances that threatened to delay groundbreaking on the Vikings' new stadium, and four days after Zygi and Mark Wilf appeared at a news conference to announce the firing of coach Leslie Frazier following a 5-10-1 season, the owners ordered an independent review of the organization in the wake of former punter Chris Kluwe's allegations he was cut because of his support for same-sex marriage.

Even low-level controversies, like the news the Wilfs were receiving tax breaks in exchange for storing stadium dirt on parking lots they owned in downtown Minneapolis, played on the narrative that the Vikings' owners were suspicious out-of-towners, intent on driving hard bargains with a community that counts three Midwesterners as the owners of its other pro teams and tends to be leery of slick East Coast mavens.

But on Tuesday, the Wilfs weren't seen as carpetbaggers. They were the patient, steady hands who bought the Vikings in 2005, never threatened to move the team during a long legislative battle over a new stadium and ultimately helped forge the partnership on a $1 billion complex that will bring the Super Bowl back to Minnesota for the first time in 26 years. They got to talk about the "beginning ... of a long, great relationship and a great venue that everyone in Minnesota can be proud of," and as a kicker, they helped Minnesota exact a small measure of revenge for one of its most bitter NFC Championship Game defeats, beating out New Orleans for the right to host the game four years after the Vikings' overtime loss to the Saints. After a long, tenuous stretch, they seemed as much a part of the community in Minnesota as they had in some time.

However unscrupulous the Wilfs' business dealings might make them seem in the eyes of Minnesotans, it's tough to argue they haven't been good owners since they bought the team from Red McCombs. They've funded one of the NFL's highest payrolls, routinely spending money in free agency and giving general manager Rick Spielman the freedom to acquire seven first-round picks in the past three years. They were patient with state legislators through the fits and starts of the stadium process, even as the Vikings' local revenues in the outdated Metrodome ranked among the league's lowest. And they've now got the distinction of being the owners who helped bring America's biggest sporting event back to a state that might never have been more energized than when it had the game last time, in the middle of a remarkable 10-month run that saw the U.S. Open, Stanley Cup finals, World Series, Super Bowl and Final Four land in the Twin Cities in 1991 and 1992, making Minnesota the center of the nation's sporting conscience.

On top of all that, the Wilfs have a new head coach they like, a new quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and an iconic player in Adrian Peterson. The narrative around the team right now is very much about what's exciting and new, and very little about the unsightliness of the past nine months. Tuesday was a good day for them to be the owners of the Vikings, and as they landed a Super Bowl that's sure to induce plenty of fretting about Minnesota's frosty climate, it probably wasn't hard for the Wilfs to feel the warmth from their adopted fan base.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It's a predictable rite of coaching changes in the NFL: The new guy comes in, usually more (or less) of a disciplinarian or a player's coach than the last guy, and players talk about how the new atmosphere in the building is exactly what they needed.

With that in mind, we're not going to make any sweeping pronouncements from the second day of the Vikings' voluntary minicamp about whether the differences in Mike Zimmer's style from Leslie Frazier's will ultimately help the team win more games this season. There's a danger in trying to assign too much significance into anything that happens when players are in shorts and prohibited from hitting each other, so we'll try to err on the side of caution there.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
AP Photo/Johnny VyVikings coach Mike Zimmer is showing in minicamp that he's going to be active during practices in 2014.
That said, it was clear from what players said on Wednesday -- and what Zimmer modeled in practice -- just how much of a departure Zimmer's working style will represent from Frazier's. While Frazier preferred to run practices like a CEO, floating around the field, making broad observations about his team and letting his position coaches and coordinators do much of the hands-on work, Zimmer was there in the middle of defensive backs drills with secondary coach Jerry Gray on Wednesday, firing instructions at players on when to break on certain routes.

His leadership style figures to evolve in time, as he settles into the role of being a head coach, but in his first on-field work with players Zimmer clearly was trying to establish a different tone -- to the point where defensive end Brian Robison and safety Harrison Smith said they'd never seen a head coach as involved in day-to-day work as Zimmer has been.

"We’ve always had head coaches sit in meetings, but they’ve never really talked a whole lot," Robison said. "It’s been about the defensive coordinator. Whereas Zimmer is, he’s stepping up, he’s running the meetings most of the time, going through the defensive calls. Pretty much, he’s been the defensive coordinator. It’s that type of deal. And that’s taking nothing away from [defensive coordinator George] Edwards; obviously he does a lot of stuff, too, with us. In a way, I like that. You want to see a coach, a head coach, coaching and you want to see him take it upon himself to make sure that everybody’s doing the right thing and that’s what you see at practice.

"We’re out here and he’s actually grabbing guys and he’s showing them what to do, how to use their hands, how to do their footwork. And a lot of times you don’t get that, a lot of times you have head coaches kind of sit back and let their coaches do the work. Whereas he is taking it upon himself to make sure that every single person is doing the right thing.”

The key for Zimmer, at some point, will be incorporating more work with the offense into his daily routine; he spent much of the winter working with the Vikings' defense, and said on Wednesday he's been "straying over to the defense a little bit," adding he ran a meeting with the defensive backs earlier in the day. He's got the luxury of having a veteran offensive coordinator in Norv Turner, but Zimmer has also said he wants to be the head coach, not just the defensive coach, so he'll probably start to balance his responsibilities more at some point.

What seems clear, though, is that Zimmer will be more hands-on in practice than Frazier was, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Time will tell if he needs to delegate more to his coaches, but as he talked about it on Wednesday, it was clear Zimmer hadn't lost the charge he got from his days running drills as a position coach.

"I think I’m fairly good at it, and so I’m going to try to use my abilities as best I can," he said. "I get around the offense as much as I can, but at this stage I just feel like I have to spend more time with the defense. I have to be in the meetings and run the meetings, actually, you know, coach. I have to coach. That’s what I am: I’m a coach. And so just because I’m the head coach doesn’t mean stop coaching. It means you coach everything, but you still do the best job you can to get guys better.”
MINNEAPOLIS -- There are just 16 days to go until the 2014 NFL draft, meaning we're firmly in the time of year when general managers are more likely to top off their draft preparations with a dollop of misdirection than a scintilla of truth.

And yet, when Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman described the process of evaluating this year's quarterback class as "torturous" in an interview published Monday, his comments were structured around a consistent theme he's been hitting since the Vikings began draft preparations in earnest three months ago.

"Every one of these quarterbacks ... nothing is a sure thing," Spielman said in a discussion with MMQB.com on Monday. "There’s no Andrew Luck, no Peyton Manning. It is such a mixed bag with each player -- every one of them has positives, every one of them has negatives. And if that’s the way you end up feeling, why don’t you just wait ’til later in the draft and take someone with the first pick you’re sure will help you right now?"

[+] EnlargeChristian Ponder
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsWould the Vikings have stayed with Christian Ponder as long as they did if he had been drafted in the second or third round?
Since January, Spielman has been talking about how far and wide the Vikings would search for a quarterback, how careful they would be not to get boxed into drafting one in the first round. He has described this class as being without a sure thing since February and has talked since March about how re-signing Matt Cassel gave the Vikings the freedom to wait on a quarterback.

There are a couple of viable explanations for the consistency. One possibility is that Spielman has been crafting the narrative that the Vikings won't force a quarterback pick at No. 8 for months, possibly to ward off teams that might be interested in leapfrogging the Vikings for a QB or to create a market for trading down. The other scenario is that Spielman is staring at the situation, knowing how damaging the fallout could be for him if he misses on another highly drafted passer, and is mulling the possibility that a first-round quarterback might just be too big of a gamble in this draft.

Plenty of people around the league believe the Vikings won't take a quarterback at No. 8, choosing instead to draft a defensive player or trade back a few spots to accumulate more picks before picking a defender. With the caveat that what you hear from people around the league has to be triple-filtered this time of year, I'm inclined to think it's likely the Vikings wait, for a couple reasons. First, the Vikings still have enough defensive needs that they would be helped sooner by a linebacker or defensive back than they would by drafting a quarterback who needs time to develop. There's some legitimacy to Spielman's statements that the Vikings aren't that far away from being back in the playoffs. That's based on how many close games they might have won with only slightly more efficient quarterbacking and a less porous defense last season. If you believe a full season of Cassel and the prospect of defensive improvement is enough for a quick pivot while Adrian Peterson is still in his 20s, wouldn't it be tempting to consider that route?

The second, and probably more important reason for the Vikings to wait on a quarterback, is this: They've seen just how much time and how many resources can be squandered on a quarterback who doesn't pan out. Peterson was 26 when Christian Ponder made his first start for the Vikings. Percy Harvin was a 23-year-old turning into a breakout star, and Jared Allen was in the midst of a 22-sack season at age 29. The Vikings were in the middle of a rebuilding project under Spielman and Leslie Frazier, but those don't have to take that long in the modern NFL when there are cornerstone players in place.

Heading into 2014, though, Harvin, Allen and Frazier are gone, Ponder has lost the benefit of the doubt, and the Vikings are still trying to figure out their long-term answer at quarterback. Spielman outlived Frazier in Minnesota and got a chance to hire his own coach in Mike Zimmer, but he probably can't survive another big swing and miss at quarterback. If the Vikings were to hitch their fortunes to the wrong guy at No. 8, Zimmer could eventually be dragged down with the GM.

It's interesting to think about what might have happened in 2011 if the Vikings had taken Ponder in the second or third round and if they would have felt less compelled to stand by him. Would they have made a play for Robert Griffin III the next year or taken Russell Wilson instead of Josh Robinson in the third round after Frazier and his staff coached Wilson at the Senior Bowl?

The Vikings might have decided to give Ponder time anyway, but it's difficult to argue any team faces the same pressure to stick by a second-day draft pick as it does with the 12th overall selection. It has to be in the back of Spielman's mind that taking a quarterback later in the draft wouldn't carry the same kind of inherent commitment as drafting one in the top 10, in addition to the fact that passing on QB at No. 8 would give him the opportunity to pick from a dynamic group of defensive players. Considering the quarterbacks that could be in next year's class -- such as Florida State's Jameis Winston, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon's Marcus Mariota -- the Vikings had better know how tethered they want to be to a quarterback they would take this year.

The Vikings are in eight days of pre-draft meetings that conclude next Tuesday, when players return to the team facility for a three-day voluntary minicamp. That event will give Zimmer his first real chance to work with players and make some determinations about what he has in Cassel and Ponder. From there, the Vikings can have their final discussions about how they want to approach the quarterback position. But it seems possible, as it has for months, that they are seriously weighing the benefits of waiting if they're not completely enamored with a QB in the first round.

"How many franchise quarterbacks actually come out?" Spielman said earlier this offseason. "Last couple years, there have been a couple guys that have been taken in the second and third rounds that have been successful. I think there’s some depth in this quarterback class. You’re definitely not going to be forced to take a quarterback at 8 unless you’re totally sold on that quarterback. I can guarantee you that it’s not going to be a forced issue.”
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Vikings' pursuit of former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson began just after the start of the free agency negotiating period on March 8. It was fueled by an obvious connection between Johnson and new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who had been Johnson's defensive coordinator in Cincinnati.

Griffen
Johnson
The Vikings, however, finished a five-year, $42.5 million deal with Everson Griffen in the early morning hours March 9, and Johnson had a five-year, $43.75 million deal with Tampa Bay in place just before the start of free agency. Zimmer said in a radio interview Thursday morning that he "lost" out on Johnson because he wanted to be closer to his Selma, Ala., home, but added bringing back Griffen was the Vikings' first priority.

"Michael is a very Southern, country kid," Zimmer said on KFAN-FM in the Twin Cities. "It had nothing to do with football. He wanted to be with me, and I think that was the struggle he was going through -- whether to be with me in Minnesota or close to home. I lost.

"I don't want to give the impression that Michael Johnson was the guy we were going after and Everson was the second guy. We felt like Everson was a guy that, his career is starting to go up and he was the guy that we really put our eggs in his basket first. If it got too out of hand, money-wise or something like that, we were going to move on Michael."

The Vikings would have had to get creative, both with their scheme and their finances, to get Griffen and Johnson. It's hard to envision a scenario in which they would have landed both, but it seemed like they knew fairly early in the process that Johnson wanted to stay home, which probably allowed them to hammer out the Griffen deal in short order. The team had been talking with Griffen's camp in general terms about a new deal for months, but things got serious late on the night of March 8 and early in the morning of March 9.

As we discussed earlier in the month, it was an interesting twist to see Johnson sign with Tampa Bay (where former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier is the defensive coordinator) while Griffen stayed in Minnesota with Zimmer, but if Johnson was always itching to play closer to home and Griffen wanted to stay in Minnesota, things might have worked out for both players anyway. Time will tell how the deals worked out for both teams.
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: LB Adam Hayward, FB Erik Lorig, LB Jonathan Casillas and WR Tiquan Underwood.

Where they stand: The Buccaneers don't have any huge names among their own free agents, but they'd like to keep some of them as role players. Hayward is a key special-teams player and Lorig is important as the lead blocker for Doug Martin in the running game. If Casillas returns, he's a candidate to start at strongside linebacker. The major need on defense is for a pass-rusher. On offense, the team may look to overhaul its offensive line. Tight end and depth at wide receiver also are big needs.

What to expect: The Bucs were 4-12 last season and they have a new coaching staff and general manager. That means there will be significant changes. The Bucs have $18 million in cap room, so they’re going to be active in free agency, even though they've stated their goal is to build through the draft. Look for connections to the new regime to play into free-agent signings. Return man Devin Hester and cornerback Charles Tillman played for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier worked with defensive end Jared Allen in Minnesota. All of those players could be prime targets. A veteran quarterback also could be added to the mix, with Josh McCown and Michael Vick as possibilities.
Before I head off to Bristol, Conn., for a couple days of meetings, let’s reach into the mailbag for our question of the day.

Alex in San Angelo, Texas, asks if the Bucs keep Darrelle Revis, will they still be able to pursue free agents like Jared Allen and Charles Tillman.

The Bucs can keep Revis (and his $16 million cap figure) and still have plenty of room to target the two veteran free agents and others. At the moment, the Bucs have $114.2 million committed toward a cap that’s expected to be $133 million. And I think the cap position will only get better. I suspect you’ll see a few high-priced offensive linemen get released or have their contracts restructured.

Age should keep the price for Allen and Tillman relatively low. The Bucs don’t want to overhaul their team with veteran free agents, but Allen and Tillman are likely exceptions to the rule. The Bucs have needs at defensive end and cornerback. Allen has history with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and Tillman played for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago.
MINNEAPOLIS -- In his introductory news conference as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach, Mike Zimmer made it clear that he wanted to be involved in every aspect of the team, not just the ones where he'd made his reputation as a defensive coordinator for more than a decade.

Zimmer
"I want to hire an offensive coordinator, yes, and I want him to have his ideas, but I want to be the head coach and I want to be in charge of this football team and I want to be in charge of everything that we do here," Zimmer said on Jan. 17. "So there will be times when I’ll go in the offensive room and talk to them about certain plays and doing different things and what I have seen on tape. Being a defensive coach and knowing a lot of things that hurt certain defenses, I know a lot of coaches in this league from playing against them for so long. But my goal is to be the head coach, not the defensive coach, and then have an offensive coach to be the offensive coach."

Zimmer wouldn't have hired an offensive coordinator with as much clout as Norv Turner if he wasn't planning to empower that person, but it's clear Zimmer also won't limit himself to the defensive side of the ball. His predecessor, Leslie Frazier, also became a head coach after working as a defensive coordinator, and seemed too deferential to his coordinators at times. Frazier said on Sept. 16 he had overridden his coordinators' calls on some occasions, and wouldn't hesitate to do so in the future, but the entire reason he was discussing the topic was what had happened the day before in Chicago, when Frazier had castigated himself for not getting more involved in the defensive play-calling at the end of a 31-30 loss to the Chicago Bears, where Jay Cutler found Martellus Bennett for a touchdown with 10 seconds left.

We don't -- and won't -- have all the details on coach/coordinator interactions, so it's difficult to make a full assessment of the relationship, but at a minimum, it seems safe to say Zimmer wants to make sure he's directly involved with the entire sphere of the Vikings' decisions. He spent last Thursday night talking offensive strategy with Turner at the NFL scouting combine, he said, and is intent on tapping Turner's knowledge to learn more about the offense.

"I’m still growing that way," Zimmer said on Friday. "Obviously I’m trying to get all the defensive things in place as far as playbook, terminology and all that and we keep working our way over that. I’m learning offense, the offensive system and things. The one good thing about Norv, we talk about different things and I said, ‘Do you ever do this off of it?’ and he’d say, ‘We used to do that.’ So we communicate.”

Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have said they'll lean heavily on Turner as the Vikings think about taking a quarterback in the draft, but Zimmer won't be shy about weighing in on the decision, either. He'll ultimately be judged on how smoothly he can transition from running one phase of the game to running a whole team, and when the Vikings' biggest offseason move might be on the side of the ball Zimmer hasn't coached, it makes sense for him to get involved quickly.

"It will be a collective decision between Rick and myself and Norv," Zimmer said of the quarterback move. "When I was in Cincinnati, they wanted to find out what kind of defensive players I wanted and guys who I liked and things like that. And just because I liked them didn’t mean they were going to take them. I think it’s important that's the same thing with Norv. I think he’s evaluated quarterbacks a lot longer than I have. I’ve played against them a lot longer than he has. I think it’s part of the process, too.”
Mike ZimmerAP Photo/Johnny VyCoach Mike Zimmer said Friday at the combine that he wants the Vikings to be "smart players."
INDIANAPOLIS -- The image much of football-watching America, and ostensibly a good chunk of Minnesota, has of new Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is the one portrayed in HBO's "Hard Knocks," where Zimmer could be seen delivering corrections or admonishments well-seasoned with expletives. Zimmer was branded as fiery, or a disciplinarian, or some similar catch-all term meant to depict a coach who does a lot of yelling and swearing.

That will certainly be part of Zimmer's on-field persona, and it will stand in stark contrast to the stoic demeanor of Zimmer's predecessor Leslie Frazier. But both the coach and general manager Rick Spielman have been working hard at the NFL scouting combine to chip away at the image of Zimmer as a drill sergeant who didn't get a shot to be a head coach earlier in his career because he was too blunt for his own good.

"He may be gruff between those lines, but if you ask -- and I called agents with players who played for Mike Zimmer -- as demanding as he is, I've never heard so much respect for a coach, that guys love to play for this guy," Spielman said. "He has that 'it' factor, on being able to hold guys accountable, and get them to play to their utmost ability. The players love him for that."

Zimmer certainly doesn't come across as a coach who will suffer fools. He talked on Friday about how much he likes smart players, and said "I'm not a patient person with anybody" when talking about whether Christian Ponder could get another chance to start at quarterback. But if Frazier's calling card as a coach was leadership, Zimmer's could turn out to be education.

He talked in detail on Friday about how he ordered a renovation of the Vikings' meeting room at their team facility, swapping out a flat floor and tables for stadium seating, where the coach could meet the eyes of every player in the room. He recalled more details from the film session he recently conducted with team scouts and front office members, detailing the specific responsibilities of each position in his defense and what kinds of players could best meet those responsibilities. And he largely declined to offer sweeping assessments of the Vikings' current players, saying he wanted to wait until he'd had a chance to work with them and observe them on the field this spring.

"I try not to prejudge that," he said. "Number one, I don't know if a guy's a smart guy, yet. I don't know what they were being told to do. I think you can make a lot of mistakes by guessing, 'Well, he should have been doing this,' but maybe the coach was telling him to do something else. Whatever they were telling him could be right or wrong, or maybe the player was in the wrong, too. But there are so many different ways to do it, it's what you believe in and how you do it."

The natural tendency in the NFL is to replace a fired coach with his opposite, or at least perceive that the replacement must inherently be the opposite of the fired coach. Frazier reached players through quiet motivation; therefore, Zimmer must do it through loud force. Those narratives might encompass some fragments of reality, but they can also be overly simplistic.

Zimmer will be more animated than Frazier, and if he is fiery, he'd follow Jerry Burns and Dennis Green in the tradition of Vikings coaches who have been that way. But for as many players as have credited Zimmer for getting the most out of them, his methods must be more nuanced than sheer volume and obscenity.

At the combine this week, he and Spielman have offered a part of his platform: Zimmer will have exacting standards for his players, but he'll make sure he's equipping them with enough knowledge to do the job.

"Bill Parcells used to have a big sign in the facility -- and I may put one up, too -- that said, 'Dumb players do dumb things. Smart players very seldom do dumb things,' and it's true," Zimmer said. "I want us to all understand that we all represent one another, and all of our livelihoods are based on how (we all) do. That's one of the things that we tried to do, tried to [set up] a good educational environment, football-wise."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Early in his time as the Minnesota Vikings' coach, Mike Zimmer sat the team's front office and scouting staff down in a film room, and turned on tape of the Cincinnati Bengals' defense. He pointed out the responsibilities of each player in the Bengals' scheme, outlining what he'd want those players to do when Zimmer brings that defense to the Vikings.

Quickly, general manager Rick Spielman said, the people in the room realized they'd be able to look at some players that had been incompatible with the Cover-2 schemes of the Vikings' past.

"There are guys that are good football players that we may not have been interested in, in the past, that we’ll be interested in now because of what we learned so far of listening to Zim speak," Spielman said on Friday.

So what does that mean on a practical level? Well, I'd say a couple things. First, if Zimmer is using the Bengals' defense as a template for what he wants in Minnesota, I think we can largely put the idea of a 3-4 scheme to bed. Zimmer has coached a 3-4 defense in the past, as has defensive coordinator George Edwards, but Zimmer has typically preferred a 4-3 defense, and told reporters at the Vikings' Arctic Blast event last weekend that he hired Edwards in part because he'd been working in Miami under defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, the former Bengals secondary coach who had been running Zimmer's defense in Miami.

It also means, though, that the Vikings can probably take a longer look at corners who play more man coverage and linebackers who can play a bigger role in the pass rush than they've had in the past. Zimmer's defense figures to be more aggressive than Leslie Frazier's and Alan Williams' were, and the Vikings will find their personnel accordingly. To paraphrase the famous line of Zimmer's mentor, Bill Parcells, the Vikings' front office has been given a different grocery list to cook a different meal.

Spielman mentioned the Vikings might be able to take a look at smaller defensive ends that many teams view as 3-4 outside linebackers. In the past, the Vikings haven't necessarily pursued those players, but they might have more interest in them now. They could be nickel rushers, such as Everson Griffen (a similar body type) has been, or might even fit as linebackers in a 4-3 under Zimmer. Remember, former Steelers linebacker James Harrison -- one of the best pass-rushing 3-4 linebackers in the league -- shifted to the strong-side linebacker role in the Bengals' 4-3 scheme under Zimmer last season.

The Bengals' defensive ends were on the taller side, but they made effective use of shorter pass-rushers like Wallace Gilberry. That makes me think it's even more likely Griffen will be back with the Vikings next season, and it could cast a wider net for linebacker types than the Vikings have used in the past. Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, who is a free agent this March, could also make sense for the Vikings. Essentially, they're able to consider players they might have previously stamped as poor fits for their scheme.

"We were on a particular player and it was, 'This is what his skill set is. Can he fit or can he not fit in the system?'" Spielman said. "In the past, he couldn’t fit in the system but now he does fit in the system. So as we're talking and going through it learning about what we’re doing defensively, offensively, but more on a defensive of the ball (we were), I don’t want to say retrained, but we’re looking at guys differently than we may have in the past."

Bucs question: Jared Allen a fit?

February, 13, 2014
Feb 13
12:00
PM ET
Let’s reach into the mailbag for the question of the day.

Blake in Rutherford, N.J., asks if the presence of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier could help the Bucs land defensive end Jared Allen in free agency.

Allen
This has become a frequent question and it’s only logical to wonder about it. Frazier and Allen were together in Minnesota and have a good relationship.

The Bucs have a big need for a pass-rusher. In fact, you could make an argument that the lack of an outside rusher is the only thing standing between this defense and being great. Allen instantly could fill that need.

The only downside might be Allen’s age. He’s 31 and you have to wonder how much he has left. But Frazier knows Allen as well as anyone. If Frazier thinks Allen has something left, I can see the Bucs making a run at him.

Allen isn’t going to command an outrageous salary. That means there would be little risk with the possibility of a high reward.
Rick SpielmanAP Photo/Jim MoneThe success of the next Minnesota Vikings quarterback may determine the legacy of general manager Rick Spielman.

MINNEAPOLIS -- In his 17 years as a member of NFL front offices, through a career that's spanned three teams and taken him through two convoluted power structures, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman might never have had more influence over a team than he does right now.

Vikings ownership scrapped its disjointed "triangle of authority" structure in 2012, elevating Spielman from vice president of player personnel to general manager and giving him full control over personnel decisions. The Wilf family decided not to give coach Leslie Frazier a contract extension after a surprising 10-6 season in 2012 and fired him after a 5-10-1 season in 2013. Spielman got to pick his own coach for the first time in his career, hiring well-respected former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and heads into the 2014 draft with four of the top 100 picks, including the No. 8 overall selection.

Spielman could use that pick to take the highest-drafted quarterback in Vikings history. If he does, he could also be making the selection that defines the rest of his tenure as the Vikings' GM.

The biggest hole in Spielman's résumé with the Vikings -- which includes an otherwise commendable record on first-round picks, a shrewd trade for DE Jared Allen, and what appears to be a good return on dealing WR Percy Harvin -- is his inability to find a long-term solution at quarterback. Spielman came to the Vikings shortly after the team had used a second-round pick on Tarvaris Jackson, and didn't have to devote a high pick in the draft to a QB until the end of Brett Favre's two-year run triggered a youth movement in 2011. And now the Vikings appear to be acknowledging that the decision to pick Christian Ponder 12th overall in 2011 was a mistake.

"I haven't got it right yet. We've worked as hard as we could to try to get that right," Spielman said after the Vikings fired Frazier on Dec. 30. "I wish that you could get a quarterback [easily], and it's not. It's maybe the most difficult position to fill, but we're going to do everything and use every resource we can to try to get that corrected."

Spielman will have veteran offensive coordinator Norv Turner helping him this time, and the GM might rightly conclude that the best decision is to take a defensive player in the first round, come back to draft a quarterback later and let him develop without the expectations (and guaranteed money) that often drive a first-round pick into action right away. But the Vikings would have to bring Matt Cassel back on a new deal or go another route if they want to have a veteran quarterback on their roster next year, and trading for a player like Kirk Cousins or Ryan Mallett would cost the Vikings at least a midround pick while offering few guarantees. More than ever, it's incumbent upon Spielman to get it right at a position he's struggled to fill since his days in Miami.

During his five seasons with the Dolphins, Spielman initiated the first of his two trades for Sage Rosenfels, a move he'd repeat with the Vikings. Spielman had a hand in the acquisitions of Ray Lucas and Brian Griese, and in 2004 -- his only season as the Dolphins' full-fledged GM -- Spielman dealt a second-round pick to Philadelphia for A.J. Feeley, only to watch the quarterback fail to hold the starting job as the Dolphins slipped from 10-6 to 4-12.

The Dolphins' 2004 season went awry in part because running back Ricky Williams went AWOL before the season, but a clear direction at quarterback might have helped the offense weather the loss of its best player. And for all of the Vikings' defensive issues -- and running back Adrian Peterson's nagging injuries -- along the way in their fall from 10-6 to 5-10-1 in 2013, there's a convincing argument to be made that the team could have won a mediocre NFC North if it had stability at quarterback. Frazier seemed to be making that point on his way out of town, leaving some strong hints that responsibility for the quarterback situation -- and who started games there in 2013 -- should be borne by more people than just him.

Frazier, of course, is gone now, and Spielman got his chance to build a more seamless football department by picking his own coach. He has outlived his gaffe on Ponder, and he has more than $20 million of cap space with which to mold the roster this spring. Ownership seems firmly behind him, and as the Vikings move toward the opening of their new stadium in 2016, their direction is firmly under Spielman's control.

But the stigma of his misses at quarterback still follows him around, and if he can't get the position right this time around -- especially if he makes what turns out to be a bad investment with the eighth overall pick -- he likely won't get another chance to change his reputation. General managers can often survive at least one coaching change, but the best ones extend their careers by finding quarterbacks.

To his credit, Spielman seems to know he needs to fix the position. All that's on the line is all he's built for himself in his time with the Vikings.

"I have confidence we'll get this quarterback situation resolved. I really do," he said on Dec. 30. "What that answer is right now, I'm not going to have those answers until we get the coach in place. And when we sit down and delve into what we have at this position -- what is potentially out there in free agency? What is the draft class? Those answers will all come in time."
MINNEAPOLIS -- Now that the Minnesota Vikings have finally announced their coaching staff for the 2014 season, we can take a look at the list of assistants and see what trends emerge with the group new coach Mike Zimmer has put together. And as it turns out, it won't take quite as long to peruse the list as it did with predecessor Leslie Frazier's staff.

The Vikings currently have just 17 coordinators and assistants on their staff, down from the 20 they carried last season under Frazier. As ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky pointed out this morning, that makes the Vikings' staff the smallest in the division and one of the smallest in the NFL.

That's not to say a leaner staff is good or bad -- it's simply a different way of doing business -- but it does offer some insight into how Zimmer might conduct business. In Cincinnati last season, he had five position coaches under him while he was the Bengals' defensive coordinator (former Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams had six).

It could also help Zimmer that he has offensive and defensive coordinators in Norv Turner and George Edwards who have done those jobs before. Frazier, on the other hand, was working with first-time coordinators Bill Musgrave and Alan Williams, who both seemed to struggle at times in Minnesota. Turner also has 13 seasons of NFL head coaching experience on his resume.

"We already talked a little bit about things. Scheduling, how we did things," Turner said. "He’s an extremely experienced coach. He's been with some outstanding people. I’m sure he has strong opinions of how he wants to do things and if there’s something he wants to lean on me, I’ll give him my opinion."

It's always possible the Vikings could add another coach or two, but assuming the staff is set for now, here are some factoids about each group:

The 17 coordinators and assistants on Zimmer's staff have a combined 278 years of coaching experience, for an average of 16.35 years per coach. Five coaches -- Turner, Edwards, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray and offensive line coach Jeff Davidson -- have at least been coordinators for other teams before joining Zimmer's staff.

Frazier's 2013 staff had 336 years of experience across 20 coaches, or an average of 16.8 years per coach. Three coaches -- Priefer, Davidson and assistant linebackers coach Mike Singletary -- had at least been coordinators before coming to the Vikings. A fourth, assistant linebackers coach Fred Pagac, was the Vikings' defensive coordinator in 2010-11 until Frazier demoted him to assistant linebackers coach.
MINNEAPOLIS -- On Friday afternoon, with a couple lines of agate type in a news release, the Minnesota Vikings announced they'd parted ways with linebacker Erin Henderson, ending a six-year relationship with the linebacker and marking the first time since 2003 they didn't have either Erin or his brother E.J. on their roster.

[+] EnlargeErin Henderson
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsOn Friday, Minnesota released linebacker Erin Henderson, who played 64 total games over his six-year career for the Vikings.
It was a move that had seemed inevitable since New Year's Day, when Henderson got in a one-car accident in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen and was arrested for the second time in six weeks on suspicion of drunken driving and possession of a small amount of marijuana. But it probably wasn't as clean and seamless as the transaction wire would indicate.

Since last April, when coaches first told Erin Henderson he should prepare to play middle linebacker in the event the Vikings didn't find a more proven option, the younger Henderson seemed to take extra pride in the idea of moving from weak-side linebacker, becoming the quarterback of the Vikings' defense and taking over the spot where his brother had become a Pro Bowler. He announced the move to reporters last May, fired back at doubters later that month and curtly replied, "I'm playing the 'Mike,'" when asked about the possibility of the Vikings signing former Green Bay Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop last June.

The pressure of holding onto something he wanted so badly seemed to get to Henderson; he admitted after his first arrest in November that he'd been struggling with the "the stress and pressure of playing in the NFL -- coming in here and fighting for your job day and day out and what goes with that." And on Dec. 30, as he cleaned out his locker and thanked former coach Leslie Frazier for his guidance, Henderson sounded like he'd done some more soul-searching toward the end of the season.

"I think I grew leaps and bounds as a player and as a person as well," he said that day. "You start to learn a lot about yourself when things can go wrong or bad, if you’re willing to try to learn, if you’re willing to look in the mirror and figure things out and I think I was able to do that. Not just as a player, but as a person as well. Started watching the film honestly, looking at tape and seeing stuff I can improve on and what I can do better. As opposed to, 'I’m here, I’m already the greatest ever.' That allowed me to progress and get better as the season went on."

This is not to say that Henderson -- or any NFL player -- is unique in his struggle to process the stress of keeping a job in a competitive industry, or that he's not responsible for his two arrests. He put his employment on the line by getting himself in trouble, and he'll have to deal with the consequences, legal and otherwise.

But Henderson's situation -- and his introspection in a couple of interviews about it -- does provide a glimpse into the darker side of the NFL, a game where young men are handed exorbitant sums of money at a tender age, put their bodies on the line to keep the cash coming in and are expected to navigate the churning waters at the confluence of wealth and physical toil.

As it is for many young American men, alcohol is often an accomplice when things go wrong; just over a quarter of the players polled in ESPN's NFL Nation Confidential survey this season said alcohol is a problem in the NFL. There's a reason teams invest so much time into educating rookies about the temptations of being a professional athlete -- as a safeguard against personal missteps that can range from the unfortunate to the tragic -- and a year after getting a two-year contract from the Vikings, Henderson is looking for a job not because of what happened on the field in 2013, but because of what happened off of it.

Did he make mistakes? Yes. Are the Vikings within their rights to cut ties with him for those mistakes? Yes. But Henderson seemed like he was battling some deep-seeded issues this season, and his release is a reminder that for players in the NFL, there is often shaky and treacherous ground to walk on the way from inexperience to success.

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