EDEN PRAIRE, Minn. -- The look on Leslie Frazier's face is half cringe, half smirk, all happy it's in the past.
The 2010 season was just raised as a conversation topic to the Minnesota Vikings head coach. The memories haven't dulled much, even in light of the sweeping change in the two years since.
"Oh, man," Frazier said, when asked to recall the time. "Tough year, brother. Tough year in so many ways, as you recall. Having the (satellite) trucks here all the time, all the controversy. That was a tough year. Tough year."
Frazier spent the first 10 games of 2010 as the team's defensive coordinator, the final six as interim coach. He had the "interim" removed from his title at season's end.
As the Vikings prepare to return to the playoffs after a three-year absence, Frazier's fledgling program is still marked by what it went through back then. Only seven starters remain from the team's last postseason game, the 2009 NFC Championship Game, and that's just the beginning of the change here.
Put it this way: Outside of the mind-blowing, precedent-destroying exploits of Adrian Peterson, the Vikings probably have generated the least buzz of the 12 teams still playing, and that's no accident. (In fact, only one of 18 NFL.com and NFL Network analysts picked Minnesota over Green Bay in the wild-card round.)
If Frazier didn't live through it, he'd probably be able to laugh at the absurdity of 2010. There was the Favre Watch of the summer, and the will-he-or-won't-he-play storyline late in the season. There was the Randy Moss trade, the star receiver's subsequent displeasure with team-approved catering and his resulting release. There was the in-season firing of coach Brad Childress. And if that wasn't enough, the team's home collapsed. Literally. But just as he lived through it, Frazier learned from it. He thinks everyone else did, too.
"It taught you some things about drama and what it can do to a club," Frazier said. "Your focus in our league, it is so important, being able to focus on your opponent. And it was hard to just focus on your opponent during that season, there were so many things that were going on. I think we all learned some things, players and coaches. You really don't want to repeat it, you try to guard against it in some ways."
So upon being elevated to head coach, Frazier set about effecting change.
He and general manager Rick Spielman tore down what was an aging, win-now roster. They rebuilt with young players and, also, rebuilt with a new ethos.
The facility, in different ways, had become a country club for stars, which is fine when the team is stocked with veterans who can be self-motivated. The trouble was, for Frazier, that when the stars get old and can't carry a team anymore, what's left is an atmosphere that isn't ideal for guys in their developmental years.
Changing that wasn't easy. The lockout, which started two months after Frazier got the job, made it even more difficult.
"Changing the culture -- and there needed to be a culture change, because of what you said, it was a different atmosphere -- and not having that offseason to create that change was hard," Frazier said. "There were still so many residual effects from that 2010 season that we couldn't get to, because we started playing football without a real offseason. Now, we've had an offseason, to taking another step to changing the culture, and getting it to where it needed to be for us to have a chance to win."
One thing Frazier was sure to do in building a team that he wanted to be more business-like, less bombastic and very task-oriented was form a leadership unit that includes that quartet. Every Wednesday, he sits down with the group -- a setup that isn't unusual in the NFL, but was very much needed in Minnesota -- to get the pulse of the locker room and ensure everyone is moving in lockstep.
Those guys, Frazier says, were key to the all-important 2012 offseason, Frazier's first in charge. He and Spielman set specific molds for the draft and emphasized developing young players. And, in the coach's words, got "our veteran guys to not say, 'Oh man, what are we doing? A youth movement? What am I doing here? Year 8 or 9 of my career and we're rebuilding?' Had to get them to believe our intentions were to win our division, get to the playoffs and win a championship."
The message, as a result, was clear: The Vikings weren't going back. And it was getting through thanks to the investment of those vets.
"If I don't get them echoing my concerns and my sentiments to our team in the locker room, I have no chance," Frazier said. "The fact that they have been a sounding board for me, plus they take the message back to the locker room, then you have a chance to change the culture. And that's the reason we're in the playoffs, that type of leadership."
As has been the case all season, plenty of folks are overlooking them. Which, after what he's been through, is just fine with Frazier.
"Oh, yes. No question," he says, cracking a smile. "Don't mind being an underdog. I've been on the other side of that. This doesn't bother me."
And you can understand why.
Players on the spot
Green Bay Packers RT Don Barclay: When I asked about Marshall Newhouse vs. Jared Allen being a problem for the Packers, one AFC scout pointed to the matchup opposite that as a bigger mismatch. In his fifth NFL start, Barclay will have to deal with strong-side end Brian Robison, who told me this week he views himself as the most important defensive player for Minnesota because Aaron Rodgers is so good rolling and scrambling to his right. So that makes Barclay pretty important, too.
Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco: After a really bad five-week stretch, the fifth-year signal-caller came out like gangbusters in Baltimore's Week 16 beatdown of the New York Giants. He only got a cameo last week, so it'll be on him to build off the turnaround from two weeks ago. Chances are, the Indianapolis Colts will find a way to score on Baltimore's defense. So Flacco and Co. must do the same against a suspect Indy D. This is a big postseason for Flacco, personally, with his contract expiring after the season.
Houston Texans C Chris Myers: If a struggling Matt Schaub's going to have any chance, his line must find a way to slow down the aggressive Cincinnati front and solve what Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer will throw at it. That, of course, starts with Myers as the captain of the group. And Myers also, on occasion, will be charged with blocking Cincinnati's bull of a tackle, Geno Atkins, whom the Houston center really struggled with last season.
Coaches in the spotlight
Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak: Maybe we in the media read too much into trends, but it certainly looks like Houston's been on a downward one since getting shellacked in Foxboro four weeks ago. Schaub hasn't been the same, the defense isn't dealing with its injury problems as well, and the club looked flat and emotionless in losses to the Vikings and Colts. Kubiak's not coaching for his job on Saturday, but I bet he will be next year if the Texans don't beat the Bengals.
Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers: Capers has done a fantastic job breaking in young players this year and working around the lengthy absences of Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, but there's no question that his kryptonite -- and his defense's kryptonite -- wears No. 28. Adrian Peterson rushed for 409 yards in his two games against Green Bay this season. Mike McCarthy told me his D's done a good job attaining leverage, but not maintaining leverage, against Peterson in those contests. And so Capers' job this week was to get his group playing with more discipline.
Washington Redskins' offensive line: The group's done a real nice job -- with left tackle Trent Williams making the Pro Bowl -- to help fuel a running game that's among the best in the league. The challenge this week will be daunting, though. First, that running game has to be working to avoid the long-yardage spots that allow Seattle to pin its ears back. Second, when those long-yardage situations do arise, and the hope would be to minimize them, the line has to keep Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin off Robert Griffin III. Not an easy task.
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