Zulgad: Doubts were justified, but Leslie Frazier always remained positive
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Asked if the subject of a contract extension had come up when the Minnesota Vikings coach talked to owner Zygi Wilf following a 23-6 upset victory Sunday in Houston, Frazier simply smiled.
"We were celebrating that win," he said. "That's a time to celebrate. We all celebrated. It was a great day for our team. The funny thing about our business, though, you don't get to celebrate very long. We've got a big challenge ahead us, a big challenge. When you see a team score 55 points and you're ready to play them, you say, 'Man, we've got a challenge ahead of us.'"
This was Frazier at his finest.
Frazier has kept the Vikings focused on their next opponent all season long and he wasn't about to stop now. Plus, the topic of a contract extension for Frazier likely was broached weeks ago at Winter Park.
The Indianapolis Colts, coming off a 2-14 finish, qualify as the NFL's feel-good story this season. That was assured not just because the Colts are 10-5 and headed to the playoffs, but also because of the remarkable job interim coach Bruce Arians did while coach Chuck Pagano battled leukemia.
However, when it comes to turnarounds and feel-good stories, the Vikings aren't far behind.
A year ago, the Vikings entered their Christmas Eve game in Washington with a 2-12 record. They beat the Redskins that day but the price was a big one as Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee.
A week later, the Vikings finished the season with a 17-13 loss to the Chicago Bears.
Shortly thereafter, Rick Spielman was promoted to general manager and began to make wholesale changes to the roster. The decision to give Spielman control of the 53-man roster also cost Frazier some say in the makeup of the team.
All of this left one genius to note that Frazier appeared to be in a no-win situation entering the second season of a three-year contract. The 2012 season appeared to be one in which the Vikings would be looking to the future and that's never good news for the current coach.
But as Frazier stood at the podium Monday afternoon on Christmas Eve, he didn't have to answer one question about his job security. It seems a foregone conclusion that in the coming weeks he will stand at the same podium talking about having received a multiyear contract extension.
That's because the Vikings will take a 9-6 record into Sunday's game against the arch-rival Green Bay Packers at the Metrodome. The Packers, who beat Tennessee 55-7 on Sunday, stand between the Vikings and a playoff berth.
The sidebar story is that Peterson, who missed one regular-season game because of his knee injury, is 102 yards from becoming the seventh player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards. A 208-yard performance will enable him to break Eric Dickerson's single-season record of 2,105 yards, set in 1984 with the Los Angeles Rams.
No one in Winter Park would ever admit it, but there are plenty who work in the building who, if candid, would acknowledge they never thought the Vikings' regular-season finale would decide whether the franchise would make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
There is plenty of credit that must go around for the speedy turnaround. Spielman did a masterful job retooling the roster and his draft last April could go down as one of the best for a Vikings executive.
But credit has to begin with Frazier.
Frazier was named the Vikings' interim coach in November 2010 after Brad Childress was fired with the Vikings sitting at 3-7 and in the midst of a tumultuous season. Frazier went 3-3 in the final six games and was promoted to the full-time job in large part because of the way he was able to keep the team together though tough times.
This included the collapse of the Metrodome roof under the weight of a December snowstorm - the Vikings ended up playing a "home" game in Detroit - and a three-day stay in Philadelphia that was the result of a predicted snowstorm that caused the NFL to panic and push a Sunday night game to Tuesday.
The Vikings beat the Eagles 24-14 in their second-to-last game, impressing Wilf enough to reward Frazier with a three-year contract.
There were moments last season when one had to wonder if Wilf had made the right call.
That is no longer the case.
Many looked at the Vikings' rebuilt, and young, roster this offseason and said, "Good luck, Leslie." Frazier looked at it and saw something completely different. He saw the opportunity to get veterans like Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, Chad Greenway and Peterson to buy into what the Vikings were selling.
Frazier points to April 23 as the key date for the 2012 Vikings because that's when they opened offseason workouts with 95 percent participation. Frazier had discussed the importance of this during his initial press conference in January 2011 but that wasn't possible that year because of the NFL lockout.
Frazier also told his team in an initial training camp meeting last summer in Mankato that he didn't want them believing any of those who said they couldn't win. Turnaround could come quickly, no matter the outside world said.
"You would have to know me well enough, and some of you have been around me for a while, I never have doubted what we were capable of doing here," Frazier said. "I didn't doubt we could get it turned around. I just knew that certain things had to happen this past offseason, to give us the chance to be in the position we're in right now."
Even through the tough times, Frazier has managed to keep a sense of calm around his team. A 4-1 start was followed by a 2-5 stretch that dropped the Vikings to .500 after a Dec. 2 loss at Green Bay. Quarterback Christian Ponder struggled in that loss and there were some serious questions about his ability to guide this team near a playoff berth.
Frazier, though, never seriously discussed pulling Ponder or having a lack of confidence in the second-year quarterback. With wide receiver Percy Harvin battling an ankle injury, and perhaps becoming a disruptive influence, the Vikings simply put him on the injured reserve and sent him home. That ended that potential distraction.
Since the loss in Lambeau Field, the Vikings have won three in a row. A fourth win on Sunday will put them in the playoffs. Interestingly, Frazier points to the 23-14 loss at Green Bay as an important turning point.
"That game in Green Bay was a tough game," he said. "That game helped us in some ways. We found out a lot about ourselves on the road and I told our players after that game that I thought more than any point in our season, we had played as a team.
"I really felt like we were coming together at the right time. I'm sure when they heard me saying that, they were like, 'What's he talking about? We just lost to one of our rivals on the road.' But I saw some things in our team in that game that made me believe that we had a chance to really take off. And that's exactly what has happened. So as tough as that loss was, I saw some things in our team that made me believe we were headed in the right direction."
Greenway agreed with his coach's assessment.
"I feel like Green Bay the first (loss) was sort of that, 'Wow, we're really good, we've just got to figure out how to navigate those last two quarters and find a way to get a tough win.' I think these last two road games for us have been an indication that maybe we're starting to figure out how to play together for four quarters and put it all out there.
"That doesn't mean we're going to get a win this weekend just because that happens. It just means that hopefully we can remain consistent, keep doing that and we realize when we play our kind of football and don't make mistakes that we're pretty good."
That makes the Vikings a pretty good team that happens to be playing meaningful games in December for the first time in three years. But Greenway made it clear that isn't good enough for him with a response that has to bring a smile to Frazier's face.
"It's huge," Greenway said. "To go through all those tough times the last couple years to get back to where we were in '09 -- to a point, be in the playoff hunt and be on the doorstep now. I think the best part for us is, if you really want to prove it, you win this game, you're in. This is everything.
"All the chips are in now. We wanted this. We asked for it. Let's go. Let's not be scared of it, because there's nothing to lose at this point. We've had our chips in for a long time. Let's go play and have fun. It's going to be a great atmosphere."