Leslie Frazier remembers being asked repeatedly about his job security just one year ago. With him now leading the way during one of the franchise's best improvements from one year to next, the sentiments surrounding his job are much more festive this holiday season.
Frazier and company will set a franchise record for the highest increase in wins from one season to the next if they beat the Packers at Mall of America Field Sunday. After a 3-13 season, even the unflappable Frazier is smiling more these days.
Frazier deserves it. He took the Vikings through one of their toughest stretches in recent history. They had fired head coach Brad Childress after 10 games and released Randy Moss midseason on their way to a 6-10 record in 2010. Frazier was on the hook for a 3-3 record during that stretch, but the following season, with the franchise in full-fledged rebuilding mode, the team managed only three wins.
Through it all, Frazier stayed consistent in his message to the public and the players: They were improving and better times were ahead. Of course, with predictions of a losing season on the 2012 horizon, that wasn't always apparent to those outside and even some within the organization. Linebacker Chad Greenway said he started to believe a playoff contender was possible when he saw the talent in this year's rookie class.
"I think when we got to training camp and realized the job that (general manager Rick Spielman) and the guys in the front office had done with our draft, I think that was really the key," Greenway said. "Those guys have been huge for us, especially defensively just talking about our back end. The injuries we had last year, we were really isolated in what we could play just because of that and lack of experience and injuries.
"The way those guys have taken to what we're trying to get done and just become one of the guys now, obviously they're not rookies anymore and that to me was kind of the … as a veteran like, ‘wow,' we really can get this done. It might be some ugly times, but it's a long season. If they can respond we'd have a chance. So here we are now."
Both of the Vikings' first-round picks – left tackle Matt Kalil and safety Harrison Smith – have started every game and played nearly every snap. Others, like record-setting kicker Blair Walsh, cornerback Josh Robinson, tight end Rhett Ellison and receiver Jarius Wright have also played important roles.
Frazier consistently points to the participation of the players in the offseason program as the time he realized they had a chance to be competitive. Most outside the organization wrongly predicted a losing record. They are guaranteed a winning record (currently at 9-6) and have the opportunity to win their final game and get into the playoffs with one of the youngest teams in the league.
"For us to be on the cusp of getting there? It's satisfying in some ways, but until you actually make it happen it's hard to put your mind in that frame," Frazier said, offering more consistency in his message. "We really have to focus on this ballgame, winning this game, and then you can think a little bit about what you have accomplished. But until you get that accomplished, it's hard to even think about what's ahead."
During lean times, fans have often criticized Frazier for being emotionless on the sideline, equating that to cluelessness. Hall of Famer Deion Sanders doesn't see it that way.
"Leslie Frazier should get mentioned for NFL Coach of the Year," said Sanders, now part of NFL Network.
Greenway further confirmed that the perception of Frazier as a calm and collected coach is reality with the players.
"I wouldn't call him a Knute Rockne speech-giver, but again, the message that he preaches to us from Day One is the same message he preaches now. That's why I say his speeches are consistent," Greenway said. "We know as athletes what we're getting from him and we know what's expected of us. I think at this point in the season, it's all about just trying to go out there and get it done, together. Sometimes it's ugly, sometimes it's pretty, sometimes it's just get the job done. But we know his approach and I think that helps us."
The high praise and sharp criticism that comes with the typical NFL season seems to roll off Frazier's back, too. Asked about his sideline demeanor earlier this year, he said he knows the perception but isn't about to change who he is.
"I never have doubted what we were capable of doing here. And I understood where we were a season ago, coming off a lockout, and some of the things that were in place," Frazier said. "Having an offseason, having the participation by our players that we did; I mean, when you have 95 percent participation here in Minnesota? That's a big deal when you're trying to change the culture of a team."
Frazier knew his team was going to be young this year, and Spielman endorsed Frazier and his staff as good teachers and developers of talent. That's been a needed approach with 16 players contributing from the last two drafts.
Not much gets Frazier to waver from his steady demeanor, but Greenway said the angriest Frazier gets is when players scuffle in practice.
"He's more of a thinker, if you've noticed. If he's got something on his mind, he's definitely the kind of guy who thinks about it and will do one of these (thinking gestures). … But when we see him we try and go over and shake him up a little bit, like, ‘It's going to be OK.'"
Usually it's Frazier assuring others that it will be OK, and this year – despite the ups and downs – it has turned out OK.
"Every year is different. Every year is different. Who knows what's going to happen next year?" Frazier said. "But … I didn't doubt we could get it turned around."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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