Updated: January 8th, 2013 3:51pm
Zulgad: Vikings' success means expectations will be raised for 2013

Zulgad: Vikings' success means expectations will be raised for 2013

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier is in line to receive a multiyear contract extension because he got more out of his team than anyone could have expected coming off a 3-13 finish in 2011.

The Vikings won their final four regular-season games to finish 10-6 and qualify for a playoff berth for the first time since the 2009 season. Many scoffed when coaches and players had said in the Mankato heat that this could be a playoff team. Yet, that is exactly what the Vikings proved to be.

So when Frazier met with his players Monday during their exit interviews he delivered a message that reflected on their success but also looked ahead.

"(I) just tried to encourage them on what they had done this season, but also challenge them to come back with a similar work ethic to the one they had this past offseason," Frazier said. "To understand why every year is different. You can't rest on your laurels in the NFL, so for all we accomplished in 2012, 2013 will be much different.

"Our roster is going to be different, our schedule is going to be different. We're going to have to find a way to improve. And part of that will be through the draft and free agency and also the guys on our roster paying the price this offseason to improve. I just wanted to leave them with that challenge to come back with the commitment to improve."

Frazier did so because he knows that 2013 will be the real test of where this organization stands.

The success the Vikings had this season was unexpected and a breath of fresh air for those who were around for the combined 9-23 record posted in 2010 and '11. It also came with a minimal amount of pressure being applied.

That won't be the case next season.

If anything, the Vikings have accelerated the expectations for their improvement. There is no reason to think they can't compete for the NFC North title in 2013.

However, things will have to go in the Vikings' favor again. As much as it hurt to lose wide receiver Percy Harvin to a season-ending ankle injury in November and cornerback Chris Cook to a broken arm shortly before that, the Vikings had relatively good luck when it came to their health in 2012.

Cook was able to return late in the regular season and removing Harvin from the locker room seemed to be a plus in some ways. The Vikings went 5-2 without Harvin in the regular season, including 4-0 after he went on injured reserve and went home to Florida.

Frazier acknowledged Tuesday at his season-ending press conference that he had reflected on the fact his team was able to stay fairly healthy.

"When I looked at our secondary this season and most of you remember what it's been like the last couple years in '11 and '10 as well, where we were pretty much depleted when we get to December," he said. "This year, with the exception of Antoine (Winfield's broken hand), we pretty much were whole in the secondary throughout the year and we were whole most of the year at other positions as well.

"That's a big deal in our league. When you can keep your key players on the field late in the season, you have a chance because there is such a thin margin between teams when it comes to winning and losing. The fact that we were able to stay healthy this season definitely made a difference in our being able to finish the season strong.

"I don't know if that would have been possible if we had lost a number of guys in that month of December when we needed to get those four wins. So you don't know what 2013 is going to be like. I'm hoping that we're going to be healthy again throughout the season, but for sure this year was great in that regard. I think our numbers as far as guys on injured reserve were probably the lowest it's been in two or three years. So it definitely made a difference in our success."

That luck did end Saturday night in the Vikings' first-round playoff loss at Green Bay when quarterback Christian Ponder was unable to play because of a badly bruised triceps on his throwing arm. Backup Joe Webb struggled in place of Ponder in the Vikings' 24-10 defeat.

Frazier had told his players in their first training camp meeting last summer not to listen to anyone who doubted that they could turn things around in short order. Next summer, that type of speech will not apply. Instead, Frazier will have to remind his players that the bar has been raised.

Of course, the veterans already will know that.

"(This year was a) big improvement from last year, but we're not satisfied with just getting to the playoffs," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "We wanted to stay in longer and try to make it to New Orleans. But it's a step and we've got to keep improving.

" ... I think we're on the right track. To bring in the young guys we did and mix them in with the older guys, I think we had good success and can keep building. If we come in next year and bomb I think we'll all be disappointed. We want to build from that and I think we're on the right track."

There now will be breaks for members of the front office and Frazier and his coaching staff, but they won't be long. There is no offseason in the NFL and those who work the hardest often get rewarded.

The Vikings' success this season means they should have the advantage of stability with their executives and coaching staff - aside from those who might get better jobs elsewhere - but soon general manager Rick Spielman, Frazier and Co., will start looking at free agency and those they might want to pursue on the open market in March.

The Vikings also have to make decisions on their own list of potential free agents; there are 10 players set to hit the unrestricted market. Spielman and director of college scouting Scott Studwell long ago began preparing for the April draft and soon the coaches will be looped into that process.

There are definite areas of need.

Webb's performance made it clear the Vikings have to find a better backup to Ponder and wide receiver, linebacker and cornerback are positions of either dire need or areas in which competition should be increased.

All you need to know about the importance of the offseason is this.

Every time Frazier was asked about the Vikings' turnaround from 2011 to 2012, he brought up the date of April 23. That was the day that Frazier said 95 percent of the Viking' roster turned out for the beginning of the team's offseason program and thus put the wheels in motion for success.

He will be looking for a similar commitment this spring.

"I think we have a great foundation for the future," Frazier said. "We have some things in place that should help us long term and help us to improve as we go forward. We have a lot of work to do this offseason. We understand that. Our players know that.

"We had a good meeting on Monday talking about what we have to do when we get back in the building in April. They're enthused, they're excited, they weren't holding their heads down. We had a lot we wanted to get achieved, came up a little bit short. Our goal was to get to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl. We got a taste of what it's like to play in the playoffs and our guys are hungry to get back and finish the mission that's been put before them." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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