By JON KRAWCZYNSKI
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Vikings trudged out of Lambeau Field, their season slipping away after a nasty skid of four losses in five weeks dropped Minnesota to 6-6 and essentially turned every game from there on into a must win.
Fans were clamoring for Christian Ponder’s benching. The coaching staff was catching heat for a perceived inability to make in-game adjustments. There was growing concern that Adrian Peterson’s brilliant comeback season was being wasted by a team heading nowhere.
Through it all, Leslie Frazier never wavered.
For a coach who inherited a team in turmoil in 2010, presided over the end of Brett Favre’s celebrated consecutive games streak, and had to navigate the collapse of the Metrodome’s roof and the lockout in his first six months on the job, a little losing skid seemed trivial in comparison. He never bowed to public pressure to make a quarterback switch and never changed his message to his team.
Now Frazier’s Vikings are riding a three-game winning streak into the regular season finale — and a victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday puts them into the playoffs.
“Just his voice and what he has brought to this team and the locker room, it’s been huge,” Peterson said. “Guys really connect with him on that level. Just feeling his presence through his words and the confidence he has in us. Everything he speaks out there, we embrace and trust in his word.”
In the middle of one of the most chaotic seasons in franchise history in 2010, Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf were searching for a calming presence and a steady hand to quiet things down. A team that started the season with Super Bowl aspirations saw Favre’s skills diminish greatly amid a tabloid scandal surrounding his time with the New York Jets, Randy Moss come and go in the span of just a few weeks and Brad Childress get fired less than a year after signing a contract extension.
Frazier took over with six games left in a lost season, then had to hold the team together after the Metrodome’s roof collapsed under the weight of heavy snow — forcing the Vikings to play one home game in Detroit and another at the University of Minnesota’s stadium — and Favre’s streak came to an end.
Then came the lockout, which prevented his newly assembled staff from working with the players all summer long. The Vikings went 3-13 in his first full season, yet avoided the implosion that often comes with so many losses. Now, the unflappable Frazier has guided the team to a 9-6 record in what many expected to be a rebuilding year.
“Leslie’s the kind of guy, ‘We’re still in this thing. We’re fighting. We’re together. We’re all in,’” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “And his approach is perfect, in my mind, for what an NFL coach needs to be. He’s really consistent. He knows what he wants from his players. He hires high-character guys to have in the locker room and it seems to be working pretty well.”
That’s always been Frazier’s nature, dating to his playing days under fiery coaches such as Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan.
“Just going back to my playing days and just being around coaches who sometimes, they could be so up and down, you just didn’t know when you walked in the building what you were going to get from day to day and that’s hard,” Frazier said.
“That’s hard on a team over the course of a long season. There are so many ebbs and flows during a season and as a player, if you’re not certain what your leader’s message will be or how he’s going to react in certain situations, you can be walking around on pins and needles and be more concerned about how he’s going to deal with certain situations as opposed to focusing on the task at hand, which is your next opponent.”
While Childress occasionally clashed with some of the team’s biggest stars, Frazier has worked hard to form a tight relationship with his team leaders. He and Peterson are particularly close, and the two are often seen exchanging long hugs after victories.
“I’m not the type of person that I really talk a lot about what’s going on with me,” Peterson said. “He’s the kind of person that I can give bits and pieces to and I know that he’s not going to judge. He’s going to give me some great advice. He’s going to shoot it to you straight. I can’t help but respect a guy and love him for that.”
Developing that trust has also helped Frazier make sure the veterans on the team’s leadership council — Peterson, Greenway, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, Charlie Johnson — continue to do work for him in the locker room long after the coach has left.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter what I say if they’re not repeating the same message in the locker room,” Frazier said. “To their credit, I told each one of them I’m very thankful for the leadership they’ve provided throughout the season.”
Frazier has one more season left on his contract, and after improving by at least six wins over his first full season is expected to soon receive an extension. As usual, Frazier isn’t spending too much time worrying about that right now.
“He’s pretty much the same day-in and day-out,” defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. “Even in his angriest moments, you don’t really realize it. He’s been steady with us, preaching the same thing, telling the guys the same message so we won’t get off track. It’s been good for us.”