MINNEAPOLIS — More often than not, Leslie Frazier’s press conferences begin with a heartfelt compliment of Mother Nature.
“Another beautiful day here in Minnesota,” he’ll say with a smile.
Which is typically followed by a glowing commendation of that day’s spirited practice plus five or 10 minutes of back-and-forth during which the Vikings coach entertains all questions — well-thought, bad or downright clichéd — as if they are truly insightful.
“That’s a good question,” Frazier will often reply. “As a matter of fact, we were just talking about that as a staff last night.”
The next time Frazier glowers at a reporter will be the first. Which often leaves members of the Vikings media horde scratching their heads.
Wait, an NFL head coach who’s never rude, irritable nor condescending?
And it’s not just the media marveling at Frazier’s pleasant disposition. Up and down the roster, Vikings players gush about how communicative their head coach is, how he sets clear expectations and has a knack for unifying the group.
That’s everyone from 35-year-old cornerback Antoine Winfield, whose entering his 14th season with Frazier his fifth NFL head coach …
“He has such universal respect because he respects us as grown men,” Winfield said. “And he has a way of tapping into guys and keeping the lines of communication open.”
… to rookie Josh Robinson, who’s 21 and eager to break into the league playing for a guy with whom he felt an instant bond due to their Christian connection.
“I could see his faith in the way he spoke and how he was always trying to say things that were encouraging,” Robinson said. “And I really appreciate that he’s always implementing things in players’ minds that will help them grow and get better.”
Yep, Frazier might just be the most likeable head coach in pro football. And while such kindness won’t directly catalyze the Vikings’ return to relevance, it might help buy Frazier extra time to see his vision through.
With the Vikings coming off a disastrous 3-13 season and undertaking a youth-infused rebuilding project, Frazier will need all the time he can get.
A postseason run in 2012 would be considered a miracle. Heck, a third-place finish in the NFC North will be deemed a major accomplishment.
So with Frazier in the second year of a three-year contract, his approval rating will need to count for something as the losses promise to pile up again.
But just how much patience will there be from fans and, more importantly, the front office, if in early December the Vikings are stumbling toward the finish line of their third consecutive losing season?
Put another way: What does Frazier have to do to keep his job?
Those are two questions that will loom for the rest of 2012. Yet those are questions Frazier would rather not entertain.
“I can’t get caught up in that conversation,” he said. “The one thing I have to be invested in is getting our players to improve. That’s what our team is concentrating on. Anything other than that is a distraction. And I can’t be distracted.”
The great communicator
At this stage, Frazier does not need to win over the locker room. And, to date, all indications are his relationship with General Manager Rick Spielman is as harmonious as it could possibly be.
There’s not the constant dysfunction that existed when Brad Childress was head coach and Spielman was still in the role of vice president of player personnel, forced to cede authority on roster moves and often failing to soften Childress’ stubbornness.
Now, such friction has dissipated. In fact, before being promoted to head coach in November 2010, Frazier told owners Zygi and Mark Wilf that, ultimately, he needed a general manager in place to succeed.
“I had seen what that vacuum had done here in Minnesota,” Frazier said. “It created problems. You need that hierarchy.”
Then, when Spielman finally was promoted this January, Frazier immediately went about syncing his vision with the GM and the Vikings’ scouts. He called lengthy meetings to discuss the kind of roster he wanted. He went position by position, delivering detailed instructions on what skills and traits he needed at each spot to make his systems work.
“We would talk about that in the past,” Frazier said, “but never as detailed as we did this time around where we’d spend two, three, four hours on one position. That was just to make sure the scouts understood that, for what we do, this is what fits.”
Frazier and Spielman also unified a vision to pursue players who were tough and smart and, most importantly, passionate and self-motivated. Enter rookies Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Josh Robinson, Jarius Wright, Rhett Ellison and the rest of the 2012 draft class. Same goes for notable free agent signees John Carlson and Chris Carr.
“You get those character guys,” Frazier said, “and now you have a better chance to ride through some of the highs and lows you have in a season. If you just have a bunch of talented guys who aren’t smart and don’t have good character, when things start going awry, you’ll have your hands full trying to pull it together.”
Added Spielman: “The level of communication and cooperation Leslie has brought has been off the charts. We were in agreement with how we wanted to shape this team. And since the spring, he and our coaches have been outstanding in working with and developing our guys.”
The next step in Frazier’s maturation will be proving his reliance on intelligent, hard-working troops can consistently produce victories. That’s the only benchmark that truly matters.
Frazier’s first full season in charge not only ended with a disheartening 3-13 record, but also included a handful of moments that left him open to sharp criticism.
Overall, with the NFL lockout creating an offseason that Frazier called “helter-skelter,” the assembly of the 2011 Vikings was itself somewhat haphazard. Frazier’s push to bring quarterback Donovan McNabb on board, for example, proved to be ill-advised and backfired quickly.
Then, in terms of game management, Frazier subsequently stubbed his toe in several big moments.
He bungled his clock management during the final three minutes of a 24-20 Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay.
A week later, the unsuccessful fourth quarter move to feed Toby Gerhart the ball on fourth-and-1 instead of Adrian Peterson created more frustration during a 26-23 overtime loss to the Lions.
In Week 12, Frazier’s failure to call for a replay review of a Percy Harvin run that should have been ruled a touchdown proved costly in a 24-14 loss in Atlanta.
The next week his unwillingness to let the Broncos walk in for a defense-free touchdown in the final minute instead allowed Denver to run the clock down and boot a gimme 23-yard tie-breaking field goal as time expired.
At points, Frazier suffered through the continuous struggles and wondered if he was on the verge of being overwhelmed.
“But I had to back up and say, ‘You know what, don’t beat yourself up over all these things,’” Frazier said. “I told myself, ‘You’ve been successful in so many different venues in the past. So you’ve got to sit back and look at the things that are occurring and figure out what we have to do to get our team in position to win.’”
Now, Frazier is certain that since last season ended he has had far more clarity to mold the team.
He also understands his growth will have to show up in the final scores if he is to retain support.
Maintaining the players’ near unanimous backing will help. Keeping the Wilfs and Spielman on his side will be even more important.
Still, neither the owners nor the new GM seem to be battling itchy trigger fingers. Publicly, they’ve promised patience, refusing to set a victory total Frazier needs to reach to be deemed safe.
More than anything, they say, Frazier will be judged on his ability to keep this team competitive and invested in developing under the current staff’s plans.
Frazier’s confidence that his way of doing things is the right way? It stems from a track record that helped him win a Super Bowl as a player in Chicago then rise through the coaching ranks in unique fashion — from stops as a college head coach in the NAIA to an assistant job in the Big Ten to jobs as a position coach, coordinator and special assistant to the head coach with the Eagles, Bengals, Colts and Vikings.
“I kept telling myself, ‘I’ve been in these situations before,’ whether it be as a player or a coach,” Frazier said. “And I’ve always been able to get it figured out and get it going in the right direction … You hear these negative rumblings from the outside. But I just know from my history in tough situations, I’ve always been able to get it figured it out.”
He says that with a nod and a smile.