Leslie Frazier (Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire)
Most of the 2012 roster building is complete with the old-timers shown the door. Now the pressure is on to turn all those roster moves and grand rebuilding visions into more wins. If not, the structure could change once again.
Rick Spielman has made some bold decisions in his time with the Vikings, but never before has he been in the position to be “the last word” on roster choices. Hired after Brad Childress was already installed and monopolized power after Fred Flintstone (a.k.a. Fran Foley) was shown the door, Spielman was the second leg on the Tripod of Authority. It was thought that Leslie Frazier might be on equal footing until his endorsement of Donovan McNabb blew up in his face. Spielman was officially named general manager and given the wheel (and the cool skipper’s hat) of the Viking ship.
What has made Spielman’s brief tenure as the “big baller and shot caller” of the organization is that he cut ties with numerous players over 30 on the team. As it currently stands, of the 61 players on the roster – the 53-man roster, the four officially signed members of the practice squad, the three players on injured reserve and Jerome Simpson (on the reserve/suspended list) – only three are over the age of 30. All three are viewed as being needed for the team to succeed – defensive tackle Kevin Williams (32), cornerback Antoine Winfield (35) and long snapper Cullen Loeffler (31).
To say the Vikings are young is an understatement. Spielman is forging the franchise in his image. Unfortunately, that may be a double-edged sword in the world of NFL reality. Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris was heading into the 2011 season after being named Coach of the Year by many award-giving organizations. Five months later he was fired. That’s how the NFL works. Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.
So it is with Frazier. Coming off a 3-13 season, he got the vote of confidence from Zygi Wilf. Few coaches survive that sort of a scorched-earth season. But, given that the Vikings were installing a new offense with a rookie QB, Frazier and his staff were given a professional pass. This season? Not so much. The Vikings are predicted by almost nobody that doesn’t own purple and gold face paint to make the playoffs this year. Even hard-core Vikings fans would consider 8-8 an achievement and a huge step in the right direction. The goal to save Frazier is to avoid double-digit losses. Unless the Vikings go 7-9 or better, Frazier will have single-digit wins in his two seasons as a head coach. Almost nobody survives his first two years with single-digit wins these days. Frazier likely would be no exception.
Spielman’s youth movement is a process. The Vikings need to make significant improvement this season, but for the overall plan to succeed it needs to have time … which is something Spielman may not have.
The history of the Vikings franchise has been to give a head coach his first shot at the top spot. Only one head coach of the Vikings had previous NFL head coaching experience when he was hired – that being Hall of Famer Bud Grant the second time around after Les Steckel finished 3-13 and was banished from Minnesota for life (well, he might be let back in the borders for reunions). Other than that, check your history books. Head coaches with experience haven’t come to Minnesota.
Norm Van Brocklin was the first Vikings head coach. He played in the NFL Championship Game five months before being hired. Bud Grant was a known commodity in the CFL, but can you name more than a couple other CFL coaches? How about one? He wasn’t on the short list of many teams. Steckel remains in exile. When Grant bowed out after post-Steckel reclamation, longtime assistant Jerry Burns got the job. Denny Green came from Stanford. Mike Tice came from the office down the hall from Green. Brad Childress came from Philadelphia where he was the only offensive coordinator not allowed to call plays. Frazier came from Chilly’s staff.
The Vikings have had eight coaches in their 52-year history (nine if you count Grant twice). None of the eight had prior head coaching experience before they arrived in Minnesota. If and when the next head coach comes in, expect something different … very different.
Wilf has been committed to making the Vikings a winner. He ponied up half-a-billion dollars to pay more than his fair share simply to get the Vikings out of the landfill known as the Metrodome. He has shelled out hundreds of millions to lock down his best players to long-term deals to give the franchise not only star power, but stability. Unlike the old-school owners who viewed their football teams as part of the family business, his family owns the team, but it is all about business. He comes from the “bottom line” business world in which failure isn’t an option.
As a result, Frazier is most clearly on the hot seat. 7-9 likely saves his job. 6-10 gives him a two-year total of 9-23 in two years as a head coach, making a return 50/50 at best. Anything worse makes the decision inevitable. Spielman runs everything from the football side of the business, but the one area Wilf holds private domain is hiring and firing the head coach.
As a businessman, when the day comes that Wilf looks for a new head coach, he will look for someone who can energize a fan base. It’s not a unique approach. Bringing in a big name as head coach – whether from the NFL past or the college game – could be the elixir if the Vikings struggle in 2012. With a big name comes a big investment – both monetarily and in terms of power.
One name that looms on the horizon is Bill Cowher. Burned out, he headed to CBS to be a studio analyst. In something akin to boxer’s remorse, former head coaches that serve as talking heads and outside evaluators get the itch to get back into the game and, when the opportunity arises, they almost always do. What they bring that first-time coaches don’t is experience (often a Lombardi Trophy or two) and a list of demands.
The first demand on most lists is that they get the authority to pick the players that end up on the roster. As Parcells eloquently stated, how can a coach be expected to prepare the meal if he can’t buy the groceries to make it? A big-timer like Cowher would assure season ticket sales go through the roof. But, in order to attract such a big-time presence, it would not only come at the expense of Frazier and his coaching staff, it might come at the expense of Spielman himself, or least the power he has accumulated as general manager.
With his decision to go incredibly young with his roster, to use a Texas Hold ‘Em term, Spielman has gone “all in.” If the Vikings show marked improvement – shockingly, 6-10 would qualify as marked improvement because he can claim the team doubled its win total in his first year at the wheel – Spielman, Frazier and the coaching staff will have free reign to continue their rebuilding program unfettered. If the Vikings don’t fulfill that promise, change will come and the next regime may be very different.
Spielman and Frazier have both expressed supreme confidence that the 2012 Vikings will be greatly improved, with an admittedly low bar to clear. But perhaps never in the franchise history has the potential of bringing in a big-name coach loomed so ominously. It’s time, Rick. It’s time, Coach. Let’s see what you’ve got and how the vision is going to work out.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.