Sunday slant: Survival will require next step

Leslie Frazier took the Vikings to the playoffs last year when few people expected it, but the next proving ground for him is finding playoff success with a more talented roster. If not, a new study showed that, sadly, it could be harder for him to find a second chance.

Christian Ponder's critical career juncture could be directly tied to Leslie Frazier's career sustainability.

Ponder is entering his third season in the NFL and with one full season and 26 overall starts to his credit. The quarterback has consistently received the backing of general manager Rick Spielman and Frazier, his head coach. To some, Frazier's backing of Ponder could be his downfall … if there is a downfall for him.

Frazier took over on an interim basis in 2010 for Brad Childress after a rocky start to that season ended the Childress regime. After Childress started the season 3-7 and was canned when he overextended his power and cut Randy Moss before informing ownership of his decision, Frazier went 3-3 to finish a season of turmoil.

Frazier then became a minority statistic among minorities, becoming the rare African-American interim head coach to be hired as the full-time head coach. Before that, the previous six opportunities were all taken away from the African-American coaches and given to white ones, according to USA Today's revelation of a study commissioned by the NFL in 2011 that extended back to 1963.

The study yielded a 30-page report entitled Examining Coaching Mobility Trends and Occupational Patterns: Head Coaching Access, Opportunity and the Social Network in Professional and College Sport that was obtained by USA TODAY. It yielded several other interesting (and sad) findings:

  • Since 1980, 30 former NFL head coaches accepted similar positions at the major college level. All were white.

  • After losing their first NFL head coaching job, 53 were re-hired as head coaches. Of that number, 46 were white and seven were minorities.

  • Of the 42 who landed as offensive and defensive coordinators after losing their first head coaching job, 40 were white. Two minorities became coordinators; the overwhelming majority of minority coaches landed as position coaches.

    For Frazier, it was a long road to his post as head coach of the Vikings. His six-year playing career was cut short by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the Chicago Bears' amazing run to the Super Bowl in 1985. He was in the trainer's room following that Super Bowl championship while his teammates were celebrating the win in the locker room.

    When he finally realized he wasn't coming back from that devastating ACL injury, Frazier started the football program at Trinity College and stayed there for nine years before taking a coaching position at the University of Illinois for two years. From there, he started his NFL coaching career with various positions with the Philadelphia Eagles, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts before taking the defensive coordinator job with the Vikings in 2007.

    Fortunately for Frazier, the Vikings have done better than most teams in hiring minority head coaches. Since 1992, the Vikings have had four coaches, two of them African-Americans – Dennis Green for 10 years and Frazier for the last two-plus seasons.

    Of the eight head coaches in the storied history of the Vikings, Green is second to Grant in regular-season wins (Green had 97; Grant 158), playoff wins (Grant 10; Green four) and regular-season winning percentage (Grant .620; Green .610).

    So far, Frazier has a losing record. He has a 16-22 regular-season record, but that .421 winning percentage is still better than Norm Van Brocklin (.369), Les Steckel (.188) and approaching Tice's .492 mark from 2001-05.

    In some ways, Frazier's situation draw parallels to Tice's tenure. While Tice was dealing with a roster built on the cheap, the start of Frazier's tenure at the helm has taken place during a major roster overhaul under the direction of Spielman.

    So far, Spielman has been staunch and consistent about the coaching staff's ability to develop young talent. However, the next step will be taking an increasingly more talented roster to the point where playoff success is a consistent expectation.

    Up until recently, Frazier hasn't been given an average deck of cards to compete against the rest of the NFC North, but by shuffling it up a bit over the last two years, he should have the NFL's full deck of 53 (count Adrian Peterson as the joker that kills all tricks).

    This year, Frazier was treated by Spielman and the Vikings ownership much like an unproven free agent. Instead of being given a long-term contract extension after a strong 10-6 season, he was essentially handed another prove-it contract when the Vikings executed the option year (2014) on his contract. Call it a compromise between a vote of full confidence and entering a lame-duck season as a coach.

    Frazier was clearly disappointed he didn't receive a full contract extension rather than just the option year, although he (not surprisingly) opted to take the high road.

    "I moved past it. It is what it is and I've got to concentrate on getting our team ready for this season and that's what's important," he said in February.

    "I think the most important thing for me 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 really all that's important."

    What Frazier needs is playoff success, which would be the next step, and he likely is going to have to rely on Ponder, who wasn't able to play in the Vikings' first playoff game since the 2009 NFC Championship Game because of an arm injury. Together, their futures will be forged this season. If Ponder succeeds, chances are he can finally put on the helmet fit for the quarterback of the future. If Ponder fails with an improved lineup around him, it could tough for Frazier to maintain his job with a status-quo (or worse) season.

    "Typically, (fired African-American NFL coaches) don't land as NFL coordinators, and none has ever gone on to become a head coach at the major college level," USA TODAY reported from the study.

    Unfortunately, if that's the case, the study revealed by USA TODAY shows it might be even harder for him to find another job as a head coach.

    Here's hoping nice guys don't finish last.

    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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