MINNEAPOLIS -- The last time Leslie Frazier was something other than the Minnesota Vikings' head coach was a game not unlike this one. It came on Nov. 21, 2010, when the Vikings lost 31-3 at the Metrodome to the Green Bay Packers. The loss was the Vikings' fifth in seven games, dropping the team to 3-7 in a season that had begun with high expectations after a trip to the NFC Championship Game the year before. Coach Brad Childress was fired the next day.
The circumstances three years later are somewhat different -- the 2010 Vikings were built for one more run at a title, while the 2013 Vikings are an amalgam of young draft picks and veteran players, and Frazier is eminently more popular with players than Childress was then. But Sunday night's 44-31 loss to the Packers had a familiar sting -- a lopsided loss at home to the Vikings' biggest rival, the sense of finality that comes with a season that won't include a playoff trip -- to the one that ultimately cost Childress his job three years ago.
And with the Vikings at 1-6, you start to wonder how many more defeats like this Frazier can survive.
In their past three games, the Vikings have sandwiched two blowouts at home (they dressed up Sunday's final score with two touchdowns in the final five minutes) around a road loss to the previously winless New York Giants. The past two defeats have been on national TV, and the Vikings have now given up at least 31 points in five of their seven games -- an especially harmful statistic for Frazier since (A) he is a former defensive coordinator and (B) it is outside the purview of the Vikings' three-man weave at quarterback. There are issues on special teams, as well. The 93-yard punt return the Vikings allowed to Micah Hyde effectively nullified Cordarrelle Patterson's 109-yard return of the opening kickoff. Even though the Vikings have three return touchdowns this season, they've also allowed three returns of at least 75 yards.
It's tough to blame the Vikings' issues just on their cycle of quarterbacks, though that hasn't helped to set a direction for the team, and when wider issues crop up, the head coach often pays the price.
The blame for the Vikings' season certainly should not fall solely on Frazier or his coaching staff. General manager Rick Spielman chose to spend the team's offseason money on the offense, letting cornerback Antoine Winfield go when right tackle Phil Loadholt's contract got more expensive than the Vikings initially thought it would. In a passing league, the Vikings' roster looks ill-equipped to win, with an inexperienced secondary and no coherent plan at quarterback. But unless the Vikings' owners step in and order a complete overhaul of the front office, Spielman might stay on the grounds that he hasn't gotten to pick his head coach; Frazier was the Vikings' interim coach, and became the head coach, before Spielman's title changed from VP of player personnel to general manager in 2012. Whether or not that's fair, or the correct strategy, it's often how the business works, and it might be how things play out in this case.
Frazier might have more time largely because there's not an obvious interim candidate on his coaching staff -- there's no Leslie Frazier waiting in the wings, so to speak -- and the Vikings' coordinators have struggled in their own right this season. Several veteran defenders voiced frustration Sunday night, but no one has suggested the Vikings have stopped playing for Frazier yet, and owner Zygi Wilf said after the Giants game that he wasn't considering any staff changes, adding, "This is our team. I'm sticking with it."
But now the Vikings are 1-6, with three of their next four games against teams currently in playoff position: Dallas, Seattle and Green Bay. They are scheduled to move into a new stadium in three years, and the further they get from respectability this year, the more work their owners might believe needs to be done to open the stadium on a wave of positivity. Frazier took the Vikings from 3-13 in 2011 to 10-6 last year, but in doing so he raised expectations for this year, and a winning season became even more important for him when the Wilf family decided to pick up Frazier's 2014 option instead of offering him a long-term extension. The Wilfs might have still been gun-shy from firing Childress the year after they gave him a contract extension, and while those circumstances helped Frazier get the job, they may have also made his long-term security susceptible to more risk.
At this point, the conditions appear to be gathering for a change. Games such as Sunday's loss can be a body blow for an unstable coach. Frazier got his current job after one like this in 2010, and on Sunday night, even he seemed to know these types of losses can't continue.
"It just seems like we have strong-enough character and strong-enough leadership on this team that the guys will come back," Frazier said. "We've just got to find a way to give them some hope."