As soon as the words left Leslie Frazier's mouth on Wednesday afternoon -- that "you don't want to be talking people out of retirement" -- I had the same thought that most of you are probably having now: Boy, things sure have changed in Minnesota.
It wasn't so long ago that the Vikings were -- in fact, Frazier was -- doing exactly what he said they didn't want to do on Wednesday. In 2009, when Brett Favre was trying to decide whether to come out of retirement for a second time and join the Vikings, it was Frazier (then the Vikings' defensive coordinator) who first went to Hattiesburg, Miss., to talk to Favre about coming back. The Vikings were coming off a 10-6 season and a first-round playoff exit then, as they are now, and while it's tough to say a veteran defensive back could have the same kind of impact in 2013 as Favre had in 2009, there's little question about what Antoine Winfield meant to the team last year and how much a young secondary has to prove with Winfield gone.
But beyond a text message to wish Winfield well and offer his assistance if the 36-year-old wanted to talk about transitioning to life after football, Frazier said he hasn't had any contact with Winfield (though safety Jamarca Sanford did say he would try to talk Winfield out of retirement). And Frazier's quote in the first paragraph of this post was in direct response to a tongue-in-cheek question about whether he'd be dispatching a group of players to lobby Winfield, as the Vikings did with Favre in 2010.
"When a guy's retired, you've got to let him go through what he's going through," Frazier said. "[It's] just encouraging him to be what he wants to be. If retirement is what it is, good luck in retirement. If you want to talk, let's talk, about taking that next step after your career ends. It's a big difference, going from playing 15 years almost to going back and being a regular citizen. It's a transition, and a lot of players struggle with that transition. If he ever needed to talk about that, I'd be glad to have that conversation."
That exchange crystallized many of the differences between where the Vikings were four years ago and where they are now. Back then, they were built on a group of prominent veterans, largely acquired from other teams, and believed they needed a quarterback of Favre's stature to put them over the top. But when the bill came due -- figuratively and literally -- on many of their aging players, including Favre, the Vikings crumbled in 2010. Frazier replaced Brad Childress in the middle of that season, and the Vikings began a draft-and-develop plan in earnest that offseason, drafting quarterback Christian Ponder.
None of this is to say that Frazier wouldn't listen if Winfield called him tomorrow and said he wanted to talk about returning to the Vikings. Winfield is coming off one of his best seasons -- though he didn't make Seattle's roster this summer -- and would immediately return as one of the most highly respected players in the locker room. Few defended slot receivers better, or tackled more reliably, than Winfield.
But it's also worth noting how different the Vikings' role is in this situation than it was four years ago. Had they not released Winfield in March, choosing to put him on the open market rather than pay him the $7.25 million he was due to make this season, he likely wouldn't be retired. The Vikings' initial decision left Winfield surprised and hurt, and though Frazier led the charge to get Winfield to re-sign with the team in April, the cornerback ultimately decided to sign with Seattle for less guaranteed money than the Vikings were offering. Essentially, they were first the ones telling an older player that things had changed, not how much they wanted him to do what he'd always done -- at the same salary he was earning before.
Perhaps the lessons of 2009 and 2010 are still in Frazier's mind, or perhaps this situation doesn't compare because it involves a different head coach, a different player and a different team concept than the Vikings had back then.
But while Childress drove his SUV to the airport to pick Favre up four years ago, Frazier -- at least at the moment -- is only extending a text message with an offer to help Winfield adjust to his life after football.
That little exchange provides an interesting vignette of how the Vikings' way of doing business has changed. If Winfield wanted to return, the choice would be his, and Frazier, at least, won't be doing any cajoling.
"I'm trying to encourage him. I'm hoping things go well for him," Frazier said. "I have no idea [if he'd want to return at some point]. We haven't spoken, so I really have no idea."