EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In any situation where a coach's job is presumed to be in jeopardy, there might be no greater death knell than the idea that he has lost his team -- that players care so little about him or what he has to say that they've stopped putting forth maximum effort, pulling back their intensity when a season goes awry.
It might not happen in the NFL as often as in other sports, since football players don't enjoy the job security of a guaranteed contract, but when it does happen, the results are striking. It happened the last time the Vikings fired a coach in November 2010, after a 31-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers where it was as apparent as ever that players had turned on Brad Childress.
Leslie Frazier succeeded Childress the day after that loss, and more than three years later, he's coaching through his second season where the Vikings have no chance of making the playoffs. He sandwiched a surprising 10-6 season and a NFC wild-card berth around those two losing seasons. But after Vikings ownership declined to give Frazier a contract extension last winter, choosing only to pick up his 2014 option, they effectively asked him to repeat a season where the Vikings had a favorable schedule, as few injuries as any team in football and a 2,097-yard rushing season from Adrian Peterson.
There is blame to be cast across the Vikings organization for a 3-9-1 season, and some of it certainly falls on the coaching staff after the Vikings' defense had been handed a last-minute lead seven times and could only protect two of them. Confusion reigned in Chicago the first time it happened, and frustration over defensive play calling cropped up when it happened in Dallas. Frazier has been working with an aging defensive front, an undermanned linebacking group and a young secondary that's often looked adrift. And while personnel decisions are ultimately the responsibility of general manager Rick Spielman, the five blown leads don't wear well on a former defensive coordinator like Frazier, especially when the Vikings are literally five defensive stands away from leading the NFC North.
But what's clear is, players haven't stopped trying hard for Frazier. The Vikings are 2-2-1 in their past five games, rallying for an overtime victory against the Bears two weeks ago and trading punches with the Baltimore Ravens in a wild fourth quarter last Sunday. Center John Sullivan backed the coach in a radio interview earlier this month, and Peterson has done so at different times this year. And on Wednesday, two 30-year-old players from two very different backgrounds -- Chad Greenway and Greg Jennings -- both said the Vikings' effort has still been there.
"Obviously, we've talked, it's not the effort," Greenway said. "It's not that. We're preparing well, we're practicing well. We're just not making the critical plays at that time to get off the field or to drive on offense or to whatever to win a game, basically. So I think we're all on board."
Greenway has spent his whole career in Minnesota, spanning both Childress and Frazier's entire time with the Vikings. Jennings, on the other hand, had only played for one coach in Green Bay's Mike McCarthy, and had experienced one losing season in seven years with the Packers.
Said Jennings: "[If a coach had lost the team], I think that you would see no fight in the guys within this locker room. The one thing I can say about guys in this locker room is we stick together like glue. No matter what the outcome has been, we fought. Last week after the game, hard loss -- some would say it's a devastating loss -- the vibe in the locker room amongst the guys that fought throughout that game, it wasn't like, 'Oh my gosh.' It was more like, 'Man, that one got away.' No matter what the outcome, we all take ownership in a loss or win."
That kind of support for Frazier has been readily available throughout the season, and though the coach's tenure has coincided with a rebuilding project, he's 19-31-1 as the Vikings' coach, and might not have the results to satiate an ownership group that hasn't shown much patience for long turnarounds in its time in Minnesota. But if Frazier is somehow going to save his job, the fact that his players still seem to believe in him might be his best play.
"He's definitely been holding things together," Jennings said. "As far as the future, I don't know -- just like from a player's standpoint -- we don't know, we don't control that. That all goes from upstairs, down. All we can do is control what we do and that's what he's been doing as a head coach. And making sure that he's been hitting the points of emphasis. It's about us executing."