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Updated: December 15th, 2011 10:20pm
Pelissero: Dysfunction on defense has Vikings ripe for major changes

Pelissero: Dysfunction on defense has Vikings ripe for major changes

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- In many ways, Leslie Frazier's first season as Minnesota Vikings head coach was defined by his winning argument to acquire Donovan McNabb.

Frazier's second season may be defined by another debate that already has begun within Vikings headquarters.

Several NFL sources interviewed by 1500ESPN.com over the past week said there is support for switching to a 3-4 defense, with Frazier's close friend, assistant head coach/linebackers coach Mike Singletary, the most likely candidate for coordinator.

However, there also are strong concerns within the building about Singletary's aptitude for the position, and it remains unclear how open Frazier -- a longtime disciple of the Tampa-2 defense played out of a 4-3 front -- would be to making such a dramatic schematic shift.

"Really haven't thought much about that," Frazier said on Thursday, when asked about the possibility of staff changes. "It's so hard to win in our league, that has really taken up all my time and energy."

Any decisions are unlikely to be finalized before the season finale on Jan. 1, after which ownership will conduct its annual round of meetings to discuss the state of the franchise, the stadium push and a variety of other issues.

One thing that seems almost certain, though, is Fred Pagac will not return for a second season as defensive coordinator.

That much became apparent when Frazier took over defensive play-calling duties for a stretch last month. But problems surfaced months earlier.

According to two sources, a group of defensive backs raised concerns about Pagac's play-calling -- specifically, the timing and frequency of blitzes and man-coverage calls -- within the first month of the season.

At times, some players simply refused to play the defenses called, yelling out their own coverages as they broke the huddle. Tension mounted among players who felt the issues weren't run up the flagpole and coaches who disagreed on how to proceed with an increasingly depleted group.

"There's so many different ways to do it to protect themselves, especially with a beat-up secondary," a source said. "(Players) don't want to play some of the calls, just because they don't have confidence in it."

A pattern that developed in the Vikings first' three games was another red flag. They led San Diego, Tampa Bay and Detroit by a combined 54-7, only to give up 64 points in the second halves and lose all three -- collapses some within the organization blamed on coaches' inability to counter-adjust once offenses figured out how to beat them.

By the time Frazier seized the defensive calls in a loss to Oakland on Nov. 20, then again at Atlanta a week later, the Vikings were long out of playoff contention and the secondary had been decimated by the losses of Antoine Winfield (fractured collarbone), Chris Cook (felony domestic assault arrest) and Husain Abdullah (concussion).

They entered Thursday ranked ninth in the NFL against the run, 26th against the pass and 18th overall, almost ensuring they'll finish outside the top-10 in total defense for the first time since they were 20th in 2007. They're tied for 24th in take-aways, 27th in interceptions and 30th in scoring defense.

"Well, I hope I'm here," Pagac said when asked about his future. "I hadn't thought about that to this point. If you know something I don't know, go ahead."

No question, personnel was a factor in the Vikings' decline on defense. They moved on from four veteran starters (Ray Edwards, Pat Williams, Ben Leber and Madieu Williams) as they entered a rebuilding operation, and the combination of Cook's arrest, Winfield's injuries and Cedric Griffin's steep decline left no starting-caliber options at cornerback.

Still, the issues within the operation make it an extreme long shot the defensive staff returns intact. Some assistant coaches already have begun pulling materials together in anticipation of a job search beginning in January.

The only question seems to be whether Frazier will look outside the organization for new leadership or try to convince the Vikings' other power brokers to give his buddy Singletary a chance.

"I'll be asked at the end of the season, 'Do you want to make any changes? What changes do you want to make? Or do you want to stay status quo?'" Frazier said. "And then it's up to me to make that decision, what direction we want to go."

Singletary, 53, is respected for his playing history and as a motivator. He has experience with 3-4 defensive schemes from stints in Baltimore (as inside linebackers coach in 2003 and '04) and San Francisco, where he coached the linebackers in 2005 as Mike Nolan converted from a 4-3 and eventually succeeded Nolan as head coach three years later.

But Singletary never has coordinated a defense at any level, and his shortcomings as a strategist followed him after a failed head-coaching stint in San Francisco. A source familiar with the situation said there was an outcry by almost the entire 49ers roster about Singletary's authoritarian approach and lack of expertise when it came to Xs and Os.

Similar trepidation about Singletary has been expressed privately by some Vikings players, raising questions about the reaction if he were put in charge. That his top pupil, strongside linebacker Chad Greenway, has regressed this season is another reason to wonder what chances Singletary would have for success in a more prominent role.

"That would be bad for Mike," a source said. "That's the last thing (the Vikings) need, is somebody that doesn't know how to call plays or doesn't understand modern play-calling."

Another question about switching to the 3-4 is whether it would have the support of the Vikings' best defensive player. Right end Jared Allen would be asked to play outside linebacker in the 3-4 at a time he's also ripe for a restructured contract, with a scheduled cap number of $11,562,782 in 2012.

Scouts believe the Vikings have enough transferable personnel to survive while overhauling the roster to fit the 3-4, provided they play the sort of penetrating, one-gap scheme Wade Phillips has taken to a No. 1 ranking in his first year with Houston. But would Frazier risk growing pains as he enters the second of a three-year contract, fresh off one of the worst seasons in franchise history?

The safer play would be to stick with a 4-3 and scoop up an experienced coordinator -- perhaps Jack Del Rio, who was fired as head coach last month by Jacksonville, or Steve Spagnuolo if he's fired by St. Louis -- to inject some life into one of the NFL's plainest schemes.

Any new coordinator would want to hire his own staff, meaning other holdovers from the Brad Childress era probably would be looking for work, too. Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar and secondary coach Joe Woods top that list along with Pagac, who was an excellent linebackers coach but probably would be reluctant to accept a demotion.

It's also possible ownership will identify the core of the issue in the football operation and name a general manager to make all of these decisions instead.

Failing that, there's a good chance the Vikings' ability to take a step forward in 2012 -- and Frazier's hopes for a third season -- may hinge on whether this decision works out better than dealing a draft pick for a 34-year-old quarterback who had nothing left.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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