EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- For Leslie Frazier, the path to this point has seemed preordained since last winter, when Minnesota Vikings ownership decided to pick up his 2014 option, but not offer him a contract extension, after he led the Vikings to a surprising 10-6 season. That essentially meant Frazier would spend 2013 in the same situation as 2012: needing to prove himself with one guaranteed year left on his contract. The Vikings finished 5-10-1, in a year defined by a quarterback carousel and deficiencies in the secondary. In the end, the Wilf family decided to hold Frazier, not general manager Rick Spielman, responsible for those holes in their roster.
There were valid reasons to fire Frazier, but the roster holes will likely remain for a new coach, and the Vikings will have to find the right man from a pool of candidates that figures to be thoroughly dissected by a half-dozen or so teams. The new coach will have to work with Spielman to chart a path forward at quarterback, and he will either have to be able to develop a quarterback or find a good offensive coordinator who can do the job. He will likely be asked to remake an aging defense and move the Vikings forward from Frazier’s Tampa 2 defense that now looks archaic, and he’ll have to do all of it without final say on personnel matters, which will still belong to Spielman.
In exchange, the Vikings have this to offer: an offense that includes Adrian Peterson, a talented set of receivers (Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson and possibly Jerome Simpson), a talented tight end in Kyle Rudolph, a left tackle fixture in Matt Kalil and the ability to construct a scheme around a new quarterback. They’ll also offer two years in a college stadium, playing outdoors in Minnesota’s frigid December weather before moving into a new home in 2016, and it remains to be seen if the Wilfs will pay top dollar for a coach when they’re on the hook for $100 million from a New Jersey lawsuit.
It’s a mix that will be at once enticing and combustible for a new coach, considering the Vikings already have been through three coaches in the Wilfs’ nine seasons of ownership, and if Spielman is able to pull a top-level coach out of that mix, he will and should be rewarded for it. The Vikings are at a crossroads, partly of Spielman's own making, but they also have enough pieces in place to move forward quickly if they get things right this offseason.
So whom should the Vikings consider for the job? The buzz in league circles this season has had them focusing on an offense-minded coach, and coordinators such as San Francisco’s Greg Roman or Cincinnati’s Jay Gruden figure to be in play. Seattle’s Darrell Bevell could be another option, though it would require the Vikings to offer a head-coaching job to an offensive coordinator they dispatched two years ago. A proven coach such as Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden would likely want control over personnel decisions, so the Vikings seem likely to favor a coach who could work under Spielman. The Vikings already have been linked to Penn State’s Bill O’Brien and Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, though O’Brien is reportedly deep in negotiations with the Houston Texans. Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a former Vikings linebacker, and offensive coordinator Adam Gase are on the Vikings' radar, a league source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
One thing that seems likely about the search is that it will be exhaustive. Spielman hasn’t had a chance to do a full search before as GM, and the general manager's style of operation tends to be detailed and deliberate. The Vikings' search could look something like the Chicago Bears' process last year, where general manager Phil Emery brought in handfuls of candidates simply to build his knowledge base and list of contacts. Spielman might find it wise to do the same thing, which could mean the Vikings don't have a coach until sometime later in January.
But when they do, they'll have to hope the coach can make the best out of a situation filled with both promise and peril. It's a big opportunity for the Vikings, and it's an important moment for them to get it right.