On Sunday, Minnesota coordinator Leslie Frazier’s defense produced the most dominating performance of the NFL playoffs. Monday, rumors emerged that Frazier had been passed over for another head coaching job -- the seventh such instance in the past three years.
And on Tuesday it became official: Buffalo hired coaching retread Chan Gailey to replace the fired Dick Jauron. Frazier interviewed two weeks ago for the job, but the Bills reportedly preferred a candidate with an offensive background. Unless another job opens this offseason, Frazier will remain the NFL’s most qualified head-coach-in-waiting.
In a league that covets hot coordinators, it’s difficult to understand why Frazier has yet to take that final step. He has overseen a defense that finished among the NFL’s top 10 for consecutive seasons, the first time that’s happened for the Vikings in nearly two decades, and has classic head-coaching credentials with Super Bowl championships as a player (Chicago, 1986) and assistant coach (Indianapolis, 2006).
Former Colts coach Tony Dungy, in fact, is said to consider Frazier his likely head coach if he re-joins the NFL as a team president. Until then, however, the Bills’ loss is the Vikings’ gain. Frazier said recently he has too much on his plate to be either disappointed or to be anticipating his next opportunity.
“I’d like to get a third ring,” he said, “and it’s not hard for me to move on beyond that. It’s not hard at all. I promise you. These opportunities are so rare in the National Football League for players and coaches and for me. Just to be in this situation and know that we’re just a couple games from reaching our goal as a team, no, it’s not hard.”
Frazier will spend Tuesday crafting a game plan for the NFC Championship Game, one he hopes will slow down New Orleans the way his team dismantled Dallas last Sunday. The Vikings’ “Maul of America” defense (Thanks!) held the Cowboys to a season-low in points (three), yards (248) and first downs (16) in a 34-3 victory at the Metrodome.
While Frazier works out those details, let’s take a moment to understand how he’s impacted the Vikings' run to the brink of Super Bowl XLIV.
Sometimes I think the perception of Frazier’s role gets diminished in the star power of Minnesota’s personnel. The Vikings, after all, have an elite defensive line and, when healthy, one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Antoine Winfield.
And it’s true: Frazier makes no attempt to be a mastermind schemer, the type that plays a 4-3 one week and a 1-5 the next. The Vikings mostly employ Cover 2 in the back end and occasionally mix in a blitz. This season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings sent at least one additional pass-rusher on 30.1 percent of their defensive snaps. That figure was the 10th-lowest in the NFL.
“The key is small menu, big understanding [from players],” coach Brad Childress said. “That is the thing we pride ourselves on.”
Still, Frazier’s strategic fingerprints can be seen if you look closely enough. Last season, he made a subtle change in the way his defensive backs lined up pre-snap during a game at Arizona. The shift befuddled Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, who threw an interception, took four sacks and finished with a 78.9 passer rating in the Vikings’ 35-14 victory.
Against the Cowboys, Frazier extended the Vikings’ time window for getting lined up before the snap to enhance their ability to disguise coverages. According to several players, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo repeatedly waited for the Vikings to “show” before typically snapping the ball in frustration and panic. Romo committed three turnovers in the game.
“Our coaches did a great job of getting us ready for this game,” Winfield said. “We knew what they were going to do more than [the other way around].”
Assisting the head coach
Childress made Frazier his assistant head coach in 2008 after he made positive impressions during job interviews with Miami and Atlanta. That title is typically ceremonial, but Childress leans on Frazier for advice and counsel more than you might realize.
When the Vikings were having trouble signing a veteran quarterback to pair with Tarvaris Jackson two years ago, Childress honed in on the nearly-retired Gus Frerotte. Before pursuing him, however, Childress asked Frazier to evaluate game tape to determine whether Frerotte’s arm strength made him a viable candidate for the job. Frazier concurred, and Frerotte led the Vikings to an 8-4 record as a starter last season.
Childress and Frazier can occasionally be seen huddling on the sidelines prior to a significant game management decision. And when Childress was recruiting Brett Favre last spring, he sent Frazier to Mississippi for a quiet one-on-one meeting with Favre. It isn’t often that a defensive coordinator gets involved in signing free agent quarterbacks, but at the time Frazier said: “It was to answer any questions he had, and for him to hear from a different voice, that wasn't offensive-oriented and could come at him from a different slant and try to convey to him a different message.”
The Vikings were the NFL’s sixth-ranked defense in each of the past two years despite losing middle linebacker E.J. Henderson to season-ending injuries. Frazier navigated the loss by elevating a backup (Napoleon Harris in 2008, Jasper Brinkley in 2009) but shifting play-calling duties to outside linebacker Ben Leber.
Winfield, meanwhile, missed six games because of a sprained foot and was not 100 percent upon returning last month. After watching Winfield struggle to chase receivers for two games, Frazier made the difficult decision to shift him to nickel back and use Benny Sapp as his starter on the outside.
It all came together Sunday at the Metrodome, where the Vikings defense turned in a performance better than any other this season.
“We’ve had some good outings on defense,” Frazier said. “But the setting and the scenario made this the best. … A lot of things went right. You want it to go right another week, and then another week, and then we’ll be some pretty happy dudes.”
Head coach or otherwise.