For the first time since 2010 and the third time since the Wilf family bought the franchise in 2005, the Minnesota Vikings are making a change at head coach.
On Monday, just hours after Minnesota finished the 2013 season with a disappointing 5-10-1 record, the Vikings announced that they had fired Leslie Frazier, who spent three years as the head coach and six games as the interim boss in 2010. He went 21-32-1 over his 54 games in charge.
“Unfortunately, we did not achieve consistent success and did not achieve the progress we expected,” general manager Rick Spielman said, via the team's press release. “We believe a coaching change is needed to help build a successful team moving forward.”
The Vikings finished the 2013 season strong, beating the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions, tying the Green Bay Packers and nearly knocking off the Baltimore Ravens on the road over the final six games. But the strong push to close the year wasn't enough to overcome a 1-7 start, the continuation of problems at quarterback and a defense that crumbled under its own weight.
How much Frazier was at fault for the numerous shortcomings can be debated. The team handed him a hot mess at quarterback—the game's most important position for short- and long-term success—and received predictably poor returns.
But a five-win campaign was never going to be enough to keep Frazier in place, especially when he would have entered 2014 on a lame-duck, one-year deal. The Vikings were in no position to extend Frazier's deal past next season, either.
Now, the Vikings are looking at another restructuring of the coaching staff, change at quarterback and a refurbishing of the defense.
Finding a new head coach will be the first step, and the Vikings should have a wide range of candidates available to fill the role.
A team that has struggled so mightily at the quarterback position since Brett Favre's departure would seem to be an ideal situation for a bright, young offensive mind.
The NFL has assistant coaches who fit that description, including Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who helped mold Andy Dalton; San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, a creative play-caller and designer; or even Darrell Bevell, Minnesota's former offensive coordinator, who has since developed Russell Wilson into a MVP candidate with the Seattle Seahawks.
According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase is another strong possibility, as the Vikings have already inquired about his availability. With Peyton Manning at the helm, the Broncos set the single-season record for points scored (606) this year.
College head coaches such as Penn State's Bill O'Brien, arguably the hottest name on the market this offseason, Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin and Vanderbilt's James Franklin are also candidates the Vikings may want to pursue.
All these names have something in common: a proficiency on offense.
More and more teams are leaning toward the route of turning young offensive assistants into head coaches, and it fits the Vikings' immediate need. Minnesota will pick No. 8 overall in next May's NFL draft, and it's widely expected that the Vikings will use that pick on a new franchise quarterback. Getting a coach with experience handling and developing the position should be paramount in the search.
Of course, identifying that quarterback would be the next step on the rebuilding plan.
Since Favre, the Vikings have attempted and failed with many different options at the position.
|In Need of Change: Vikings QBs Since 2011|
|*Started in 2012 Wild Card Round vs. GB|
Veteran Donovan McNabb arrived via trade during the summer of 2011 but lasted just six starts. He went 1-5 and was out of the league by 2012.
That same offseason, the Vikings picked Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder with the 12th overall selection. Viewed as a reach by some even back then, Ponder went on to prove his doubters correct, going 14-20-1 over 35 starts during the last three seasons. He has a career passer rating of just 77.3.
This season, Minnesota brought in veteran Matt Cassel to be the primary backup. He arguably played better than both Ponder and Josh Freeman, who was signed to a one-year deal and then played in only one game, an embarrassing loss to the New York Giants. It's certainly conceivable that of the three quarterbacks, only Cassel is back next season.
Frazier certainly deserves blame for failing to develop Ponder. The 2011 first-rounder always seemed to take one step forward and two steps back. That's on the staff.
But a team simply isn't going to win many games when McNabb, Ponder and Cassel start the majority of games over a three-year period. That's a failure of the men overseeing the roster.
Spielman no longer has any excuses. He must make the right calls on both a new head coach and franchise quarterback, or he'll be the next one getting a pink slip from the Wilfs.
However, Spielman must also attempt to remake a defense that failed on so many occasions in 2013 and is now looking at a major overhaul.
|The Worst of the Worst? Vikings Defense in 2013|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Despite Frazier's vast experience as an NFL cornerback and then assistant defensive coach, the Vikings defense finished this season dead last in points (30.0 per game) and passing touchdowns (37) allowed, and 31st in total yards (397.8) and passing yards (287.4) surrendered.
Four times Minnesota blew a fourth-quarter lead and lost; another time a blown lead resulted in a tie. That's a five-game swing that ended up being the difference between first and last place in the NFC North.
Change is in store for the unit.
Defensive ends Jared Allen and Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams are all free agents. Allen and Williams have been stalwarts up front for the Vikings, combining for 145.5 sacks over their time in Minnesota. Griffen is an explosive and versatile pass-rusher, and the best bet of the three to be re-signed.
The Vikings need talent at linebacker, where only Chad Greenway is a serviceable player. And speaking of talent, few secondaries in the NFL are as deprived of the currency as Minnesota's. Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes, two first-round picks, are locked in as starters moving forward, but the rest of the secondary needs a complete makeover.
On top of new players, the Vikings are also looking at a scheme change.
With Frazier's departure will likely go the Cover 2-heavy defense, which has slowly but surely started to exit the NFL landscape. The Vikings certainly didn't have the personnel to execute the defense in 2013, and a new defensive coordinator should mean a new scheme.
But not all is lost in Minnesota. The Vikings still feature pieces of the puzzle that will be attractive to a new head coach.
Minnesota has the generation's most talented and explosive running back. He's 28, an age when most backs typically begin to wear down. But nothing about Adrian Peterson's career arc suggests he's anything like most backs.
Around Peterson, the Vikings have a franchise left tackle in Matt Kalil, a mostly complete offensive line, one of the game's most dynamic rookie receivers in Cordarrelle Patterson, an accomplished veteran receiver in Greg Jennings and two threats at tight end in Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson. Throw a workable rookie quarterback and an offensive-minded head coach into that mix and the Vikings will compete on offense in 2014.
The defense will be harder to reconstruct, although big contracts are coming off the books this offseason. Spielman will have room to operate.
The future remains a bit cloudy for the Vikings, who are set to play two years at TCF Bank Stadium before moving into a new stadium in 2016. The next head coach will be tasked with rebuilding a team and preparing it to be competitive by at least that date.
Successfully grooming a franchise quarterback and overhauling the defense will be necessary for the Vikings to accomplish that task. While a daunting assignment overall, a young, eager candidate should be more than willing to take the job and run with it.
No matter how unfair his situation was, Frazier failed to get the Vikings back on a consistently successful path. It's a results-based business. It's now on Spielman and the powers that be to pick the right people to lead another process of starting over.