Back in late July, Minnesota Vikings owner Zigy Wilf said, apparently without irony, "I expect to be division champs. I want to be able to fight for the division, as we always did every year, and get better for years to come. That's always been our goal and it's been the goal since the first day I came here." (h/t 1500ESPN.com)
At the time most NFL observers, including yours truly, thought this was mostly hyperbole with a dash of motivational ploy by an owner looking to put pressure on his second-year head coach.
That coach, Leslie Frazier, has not only answered the call, but also he has done so by staying true to his identity as a coach and by sticking with philosophies that were shaped throughout his coaching career. While lesser men would panic following a 3-13 season, chase ghosts and "fix" things that were not, in fact, broken, Frazier has done a magnificent job of sticking with what he always knew would work.
After Sunday's big divisional win, Frazier stated in his press conference, "I still believe...you win on defense. We have some players with a lot of pride who want to set the table of defense."
That has been Frazier's M.O. since becoming head coach, "setting the table" so to speak, with a defense that was always going to have to be the strength of a team that was climbing out of the wreckage of the Childress/Favre debacle.
That defense looked, to put it charitably, like a train wreck at times last year, especially a secondary that gave up yardage in huge chunks. It's to Frazier's credit that, at least early on, a few new parts and an emphasis on technique and playing the defense correctly has spurred a turnaround, rather than wholesale changes. That's good coaching.
The Vikings now sit alone atop the NFC North. Obviously there's a lot left to play out in 2012, but this is not a fluke. Minnesota is playing smart, disciplined football, and it is doing so in a decidedly old-school way.
Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave have started to see their patience with Christian Ponder pay off. The former first-round pick won't be confused with Joe Montana any time soon, but he is playing within the offense, making plays when he needs to and, most importantly, not turning the ball over.
Coupled with Adrian Peterson rounding back into form and the increased involvement of Percy Harvin, and the offense is doing enough to not only keep the Vikings in game, it's actually helping to win them. That sounds simplistic, but anyone who watched this team last year knows how often the offense put the defense in bad positions. So far this year, the offense is holding up its end of the bargain.
One of the best things Wilf did as owner was to recognize the failure the "Triangle of Authority" was and to promote Rick Spielman into an actual general manager's role. The moves Spielman has made in his short time with final say over the roster, most importantly drafting Matt Kalil and Harrison Smith, have given Frazier the tools he needed to improve on the structure he had in place.
Yes, it sounds odd to think of a 3-13 team as having structure in place, but that's exactly what Frazier knew he had. So far in 2012, he has built on that and it is producing victories on the field.
Now, as I wrote above, there's a whole lot to play out yet this year. The Packers and Bears still have to be reckoned with. But this start isn't a mirage. It's the Minnesota Vikings playing the way Leslie Frazier knew they could...and would.
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