Sunday Slant: Frazier deserves another year

Leslie Frazier (Adam Bettcher/Getty)

Leslie Frazier is coming under fire among the fan base, but with the roster in transition it would be premature to pull the plug. Despite their record, the locker room doesn't seem to be fracturing and the roster is getting the youth makeover it needed.

When informed that the number of losses for the Minnesota Vikings currently stands at 11, veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield had this deep thought: "Oof. That's pretty bad."

Sure is. In fact, it could be historically bad. The Vikings are 2-11 and threatening the Les Steckel-led Vikings that still hold the franchise record low with a 3-13 record.

The season of giving has meant giveaways for the Vikings in numerous areas – Christian Ponder has been giving the ball away, the Vikings have been giving tickets away to fill up Mall of America Field and the fans have been giving it to head coach Leslie Frazier.

But is it really fair to end the Frazier coaching regime this quickly? Probably not, for a variety of reasons that aren't always so apparent.

While the Vikings have every reason to fold up for the season, they haven't. Eight of their losses have been by seven points or less. Players continue to insist there aren't moral victories, but the coaching staff and front office have to be hoping the competitiveness of the team, even with all the losses, is enough to buy them at least another year of employment.

"Absolutely, guys are having fun, believe it or not. We have young guys playing and guys are playing beat up. There haven't been any excuses," defensive end Jared Allen said. "It's tough losing, but I'll give guys credit – they have character in this room and they seem to respond to challenges every time we put them out there."

There are some of the typical signs of frustration, but the locker room has showed no major signs of fracturing and that's, in part, a credit to Frazier. Some of the locker room leaders, like Allen and an emerging Percy Harvin, also deserve credit for continuing to play hard despite no hope of the playoffs over the last two months of the season.

Allen admitted that the Vikings have found plenty of creative ways to lose, the latest coming with a fumble from backup quarterback Joe Webb after taking the snap on the 1-yard line and needing a touchdown with nine seconds to go. Frazier made the right call in benching Christian Ponder after three interceptions – would a frustrated rookie really be able to learn from the final 20 minutes of play after that? – and he's making the right call by putting Ponder out on the field again for his next start. He still believes Ponder is the Vikings' quarterback of the future, and with better surrounding parts, that's the feeling from this view as well.

The Vikings have been hovering near the bottom of the league in the STATS LLC pass protection ratings. Despite starting for only seven games and having above-average mobility, Ponder has been sacked 24 times already, tied for 16th in the league. Fixing the line is a priority, and plucking top offensive tackle Matt Kalil with their first-round pick would go a long way to making a lot of things, including Ponder's play, look a lot better.

Frazier inherited an old team and has taken the painful first steps to rectifying the roster. Some releases were easier than others. Safety Madieu Williams and receiver Bernard Berrian didn't require significant downgrades in talent with their replacements, but the release of left tackle Bryant McKinnie, while the right move at the time, came with a severe price on the field. But even if the Vikings had McKinnie, this was going to be a year of some rebuilding. Having him might have helped the Vikings find a few more wins, but it wouldn't have gotten them into the playoffs.

Frazier and the front office couldn't fix all the decaying parts left in the wake of Brad Childress' win-now-or-be-damned philosophy as he went after Brett Favre. Frazier said last week that he has the support of ownership to stay the course on the roster rebuild and he deserves another year to make it work and try to return the Vikings to competiveness with a quarterback they can count on for years to come instead of a patched-together fossil.

There are bound to be more changes in the coaching staff, as well. More than half of the staff is leftovers from Childress, and Frazier made changes at the coordinator positions and on the offensive line. He also filled in vacated coaching spots at linebacker and running back. More changes are likely to come, the extent of them to be determined.

Some of the trying times have been due to new players in their first year of starting, a number of them because of injury and attrition. Just look at their defensive lineup against the New Orleans Saints Sunday. Their starting defensive backfield for Sunday's game will feature none of their starting players from last year, and with Erin Henderson and Brian Robison in their first year as starters and Remi Ayodele in his first season in Minnesota, the Vikings will have only four starters from last year's defense – Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, E.J. Henderson and Chad Greenway.

The defense wasn't intended to get this young, but injuries have made a painful transition look like a gushing wound – and the worst could be coming Sunday against the Saints.

Frazier and the Vikings will have several free agents of their own to consider. A couple of them are likely to move to other teams or retire, like LB E.J. Henderson and TE Jim Kleinsasser, respectively. For others, the size of their contract demand could be the key factor, and after signing John Sullivan it would appear that TE Visanthe Shiancoe could still remain in the Vikings' plans. For others – like safeties Husain Abdullah and Tyrell Johnson, and LB Erin Henderson – age isn't likely to be a factor as much as other deals they might find out on the market.

Frazier and the salary cap demanded that the Vikings get younger, even if it meant a painful transition that is likely to see a few more starters playing elsewhere in 2012, but until he has at least one full offseason to work with players who experienced new coordinators at the three phases, it would be premature to pull the plug on Frazier's transition project as long as the players still seem engaged in turning things around, even if avoiding the worst record in franchise history is one of the motivations.

"I think everybody's on that goal. No one wants to be the worst. We're trying to win games. We let another one slip away (at Detroit)," Allen said. "We'll go back at the end of the year and probably see seven or eight games that we easily could have won. It's about getting some confidence and guys playing for something. Right now, not being the worst is worth playing for."

Next year, if they are even close to being in the same position, sweeping changes in both the coaching staff and personnel department will be in order. But for now, Frazier should have another year to continue the roster overhaul.

QUICK SLANTS

  • Jamarca Sanford learned a valuable lesson this year about just how hard it is for teams to remain competitive over time. "Going to the NFC Championship, that first year all the guys told me, 'Don't take this for granted. It's hard to win in this league.' You know, me coming in as a rookie, I was like, 'Come on, man. You're good this year, next year you're going to be good too,'" Sanford said. "It just goes to show you how tough it is to win in this league. I mean, we've got a great group of guys. Like I said, you'll never get the sense that this team is (2-11). But we are. In reality we are."

  • The 2011 season marks the first in NFL history that four teams – Arizona, Cincinnati, Denver and the New York Giants – have five fourth-quarter comeback wins. Amazingly, the Vikings have contributed to only one of those.

  • Through Week 14, there have been 99 individual 300-yard passing performances, the second most of any season in NFL history. Christian Ponder has one of those.

  • How big of a challenge will the Jimmy Graham-Darren Sproles combination be for the Vikings? Graham leads the NFC with 80 receptions, while Sproles (74) ranks third in the conference. If Sproles catches six passes against the Vikings, Graham and Sproles would be the first pair of TE-RB teammates in NFL history with at least 80 receptions apiece in the same season.


    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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