Leslie Frazier has prepared for nearly a quarter-century for this shot, interviewed unsuccessfully (but impressively) seven times, and this is how his big chance comes?
The situation Frazier's inheriting now in Minnesota isn't exactly one a coach would dream of stepping into. A veteran team full of win-now type of players is 3-7, its quarterback is a 41-year-old whose mind is always prone to wonder back to the good life on that compound in Mississippi, its once stout lines have underachieved on both sides of the ball, and the locker room has been on the brink of implosion for much longer than most people realize.
And yet, maybe that's just what makes Frazier perfect for the job. No, it's not the way Frazier would've drawn it up, but his crisis-management chops are there.
That's the way Tony Dungy sees it, anyway. Frazier's leaned on Dungy, a mentor of his and the coach he's most compared to, in his first few days on the job, and Dungy sees a protégé ready for the challenge.
"I don't know that there's any formula to handle this situation," Dungy said. "You have six games left after a disappointing first 10, and a veteran team that came into the season with very high expectations. That's not easy for anyone. But the thing I think is good for him is he knows the situation, these are players he has relationships with, and his best attribute in communicating with people.
"He's very good at getting people on the same page. He's been a leader as a player and a coach, and I think he can do with an entire team what he did with the defense, which is get them playing as a unit. Really, that's all you can do with six weeks left, no training camp, no offseason to work with. It's just saying, 'Hey, we're working with what we have, everything that's done is done, but we can all be on the same page going forward.' "
That would be one heck of a positive step, considering all that's happened in Minnesota over the last five years, not just the last five months.
Childress' issues in that locker room extend all the way back to 2007, when the coach docked receiver Troy Williamson a game check for missing a Sunday to be in South Carolina following a death in the family. His handling of Tarvaris Jackson in 2008 -- swearing he was the guy, then pulling him after two games for Gus Frerotte -- ruffled more feathers. And following the first Favre circus, last summer, it took a 6-0 start to keep a lid on the problems bubbling underneath.
A 3-7 start forced that mess to the surface, and now Frazier's on clean-up.
But he's been part of fixing broken situations before. Dungy references the 2006 season, the latter of Frazier's two as his secondary coach in Indianapolis. That team, if you remember, crumbled down the stretch, a 44-17 beatdown in Jacksonville being the exclamation point on a 3-4 finish that followed a 9-0 start. That the Colts were able to summon the confidence to reel off four playoff wins right after that, Dungy thinks, had something to do with the calming influence Frazier had on the defense and the team.
"We weren't playing to our ability in November and December, with that downturn after a good start, but we kept the faith. That's big in this situation for him -- how do you re-create that confidence?' " Dungy said. "We had to re-create that feeling we could get the job done. That's right where they are here. They're still a good team, but can you re-create that energy? They can't get to the Super Bowl, but they can draw some positive from that situation."
The diversity of Frazier's experiences should help. Where many coaches are tied to one tree, most often headed by men like Bill Parcells or Bill Walsh, he's got some stickers on that suitcase of his. He played for Buddy Ryan and Mike Ditka as part of the 1980s Bears, and coached for Andy Reid and Jim Johnson in Philadelphia, and Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati before joining Dungy, and then Childress.
In other words, he's well aware there's more than one way to get the job done. He started Wednesday with some jarring change, ratcheting up the intensity at practice for that veteran group, a similar tactic to what Jason Garrett did in putting the Cowboys in pads on his first Wednesday as head man at Valley Ranch.
Garrett had some challenges that Frazier doesn't, but it seems like the rallying cry will be similar in Minnesota. Garrett asked his players to look in the mirror, and be accountable to themselves.
Frazier said it in a different way, that he needs his players to be "mentally engaged" on Sundays, implying that, somehow, they haven't been previously. That boils down to a message similar to Garrett's, which is to play at a level you can be proud of. It's obvious the Vikings haven't done that at all points this season, and maybe it wouldn't have mattered against the Packer juggernaut last Sunday, but it's fair to guess they wouldn't be 3-7 at full-go.
If Frazier can get the team going at that speed, then the possibility certainly is there that the job he's been chasing that came in a disjointed way becomes the position he wanted all along. Given the CBA uncertainty ahead, the big player decisions coming next year -- with Sidney Rice, Pat Williams and Ray Edwards among the team's free agents, and a clear need at quarterback -- if this team plays well for Frazier down the stretch, he could be around for awhile.
That won't answer some of the bigger issues in Minnesota, however. The most important one, on the football side, will be creating a clear chain of command between coaching and personnel that hasn't existed in a long time. Beyond football, there's the team's survival in Minnesota long-term, with just 11 games left on the Metrodome lease.
But for now, Frazier can't worry about any of that. This Vikings team, to a man, believes it finally has a coach it can get behind. And Frazier's job is to deliver for those players.
"You never want to get the job that way," Dungy said. "It's not ideal. But Leslie's been ready. He's prepared to be a head coach, and he's prepared to make the best of this. He's got six games to do it, but he's a good leader and he'll have those players ready."
Dungy, of course, knew this day was coming for Frazier, saying, "There was never a doubt in my mind. You see him around people, the way he leads, the way he communicates, the way players gravitate toward him. I thought (it would happen). Really, it was obvious."
So he's good for this job. What the next six weeks should tell us is whether this job is good for him.
Most teams would have a heck of a time trying to navigate the deep waters that losing both your starting tackles would put you in. But the Steelers believe it can be done. And that's mostly because they've been through this -- not this exact situation, but something close to it -- before.
It's something Mike Tomlin was quick to remind his team in the days following the loss of Max Starks (which compounded the absence of Willie Colon) as he gathered the players to deliver the news. It was in 2008, just two years ago, the Steelers rode out the loss of longtime left tackle Marvel Smith and guard Kendall Simmons, all the way to a championship.
The combination of a short week coming off the Starks' injury (he was hurt on a Monday night), and Bill Belichick waiting at the end of it to exploit the weakness made for a rough first Sunday under the new conditions. But the Steelers came around up front on Sunday, gashing the Raiders for 162 rushing yards (4.9 yards per carry) and mitigated the sack damage (Ben Roethlisberger lost 6 yards on his two sacks taken). Four-hundred-thirty-one total yards later, Tomlin's message rang true.
"We're such a family-based program here that we always believe the next guy can step in," rookie center Maurkice Pouncey said, "and his performance will be just as good, if not better than the man before him."
Many expected right tackle Flozell Adams to flip back to the left side, which he manned in Dallas for 12 years, but instead, Pittsburgh has entrusted fifth-year journeyman Jonathan Scott with that assignment. Chris Kemoeatu is getting healthy, too, but the real revelation has been Pouncey himself.
He'd been in on every single offensive snap for Pittsburgh before getting nicked up against Cincinnati, and somehow, he's become the anchor, making the line calls for a group that has a lot of moving pieces. It's not quite to the level of what Sam Bradford's doing running an entire offense in St. Louis, but it's not an easy job for a rookie with so much upheaval around him.
"It's been tough, making all the calls, but I've got an advantage with my coaches talking with me about the plan and teaching me to be pro athlete," Pouncey said. "We go over the game plan -- pass pro, run-game stuff -- but we also talk about bigger stuff, like how to go about your day."
Pouncey has learned to used his days efficiently to shorten that learning curve, which isn't just making him a better player, but, by virtue of his responsibilities, making those around him more efficient as a group. He takes game video home with him each night, and watches it over dinner, to reinforce the lessons he learned during the day, because while he's at the facility, as a self-described "physical learner," his focus is a bit more on the practical side of learning.
"It helps so much," said Pouncey of that time. "When you know what's going on, you get to the line of scrimmage and you're ready to go. If you're wondering what the front is, or what the call is, you really can't play. Or you have to guess, which is worse."
So in short order, the rookie has become a leader for a Steeler line that's starting a couple of players casted off from Buffalo and Dallas at the tackle spots. Pouncey said he and his linemates "played with a chip on our shoulder" after the New England loss, and that might be tough to maintain, but they won't be lacking for confidence.
"We've got the potential to be the best," Pouncey said. "We have to keep working every day and build. But the potential is there."
I know this truth ...
The Super Bowl hangover is no crock. Honestly, I kind of thought it was a bunch of voodoo legend, but seeing a couple well-coached clubs with elite quarterbacks and established systems struggle early this year was enough for me to see the light.
The good news for both the Saints and Colts is that each seems to still be standing going into the season's stretch run with a chance to catch fire. For the Colts, the problems have been mostly health-related, and they've been through that before -- the 2008 club survived a spate of early injuries and a 3-4 start to finish 12-4 -- so the roll could be coming for them.
For the Saints, it's been more intangible. Early in the season, the players may have reached for their old identity and, when it wasn't quite the same, went looking for a new one. That's tough to do when the opponent has you circled on its calendar.
"It's easy to sit around all offseason and say, 'We're going to be targeted, everybody's going to give us their 'A' game, it's going to be a new season,' " said linebacker Scott Shanle. "It's easy to say those things, but it's a lot harder to develop that chemistry and form the identity of who the 2010 Saints are going to be. I think for the most part we had a lot of the same guys coming back, so we might have taken for granted that we were going to pick up where we left off. Every year has new challenges, and we had to figure out who the 2010 Saints were going to be."
And it was different this time around. The Saints are better, at least statistically, on defense, ranking in the top 5 league-wide. But the offense lost key cogs Reggie Bush (he returned Thursday) and Pierre Thomas for extended stretches, and has just started rolling. So the formula's a little different, with the Pittsburgh win on Halloween being the perfect example of that (the defense held the offense in the game), and the adjustment has been, well, an adjustment.
"It was the first four or five weeks of the season, when we were trying to form our identity," Shanle said. "But now, it's not something we're even worried about. We don't care if a team's going to give us their best shot, because we're going to give them our best shot. And we're a confident team, we feel like our best shot is better than the other team's."
Lightning strikes again?
The Saints have won four straight after an uneven 4-3 start, and are showing signs of breaking out. The players see that, anyway.
Well, on Thursday, after they outlasted Dallas at Cowboys Stadium, several Saints players told me the idea of playing in the Super Bowl stadium (XLV will be held right there in Arlington) had come up again, and the players, again, tried to take everything in after scoring the knockout blow in order to visualize returning. After shaking off that hangover, they have a chance.
I don't know a thing ...
And that's because with the two teams sitting at 8-2 and the margin slim between them, a slip-up against this feisty bunch could make the difference. The Bills aren't going to be playing past Jan. 2, of course, but they do get the Jets and Patriots the last two weeks of the season, and that could make them a factor.
In the five weeks since the bye, the Bills have gone to the mat with the Baltimore Ravens, taken the division-leading Chiefs and Bears to the wire, and scored their first two wins of the season, over the Lions and Bengals, in dramatic fashion. Not bad for a team that had its will tested by an 0-8 start.
"It was a really tough thing for us," says quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. "We lost a lot of close games against good teams, and we couldn't get over that hump. But everyone stayed so professional, worked so hard, and it's nice to have it pay off. You start 0-8, and look at the Cincinnati game, we're down three touchdowns, no one's flinching. That was a testament to the guys in that locker room."
It's a testament also to Chan Gailey, who was hardly a popular choice to be head coach when joined up with GM Buddy Nix to lead the football operation. Gailey's won over his players the old-fashioned way -- by making them better.
Some of the guys benefitting -- like Steve Johnson, Paul Posluszny, Donte Whitner and Fred Jackson -- have jumped off the page doing it. But there's a belief that everyone's better for having Gailey, because he's been so adept at identifying players' strengths and adapting to accentuate them, rather than forcing guys into a system. And those individual strides helped the team ride out the winless stretch.
"It's real football," said Whitner. "It's seeing what the opposition is doing against other teams, and really making them play away from their strengths and to their weaknesses. ... Then, guys here have talent, it was putting guys in position to make plays. Then, it's up to the guys to do it. It's the sign of a good staff, playing to players' strengths."
Last week's comeback was the first real headline-grabbing moment for Buffalo, but the players swear this has been building for a while. Their goals, for now, are what Gailey's are, and that's simply to keep the new program moving forward, and that might create potholes for the East's beasts.
"You want to get hot going into next season, give yourself an opportunity to play in the big games next year," said Whitner. "That's why the second half of the year is so big for us. I don't know if people expected Chan to come in here and go 12-4, but the last five games, we lost the first three by a total of nine points, and then turned it around at the halfway point.
"The second half of the season, we want to go 8-0. We want to be the first team to start 0-8 and finish 8-8."
That's an outlandish goal. But then, so was surmounting that 28-7 deficit in Cincinnati.
It's Thanksgiving, which means the bellyaching over Detroit and Dallas being grandfathered games was heard again. Enough. First of all, the NFL, with all its flexibilities and progressive nature, has very few traditions that date back like this one does. And second: The games work in those cities because those cities are used to having them.
Got a story for you here. My buddy Scott Isaacs, who works at the ABC affiliate in Boston, inherited Jets season tickets from an uncle this year. Because of work and other commitments, he decided to sell four of the eight sets. Three of the sets sold for well above face value before Week 2 was over. But the Thanksgiving tickets remained. This week, he dropped the price down to just enough over face value to cover the service fee. Nothing. On Tuesday, he went below face value, to $100 a ticket. Still no dice. Remember, this is a 9-2 Jets team that sits in the largest metropolitan area in the country, and Scott couldn't sell them. But he had no problem getting rid of the other three games.
Bottom line: People in Detroit and Dallas go to the Thanksgiving Day games because that's what you do on Thanksgiving in those places. And their support of the games shouldn't go unnoticed either. So please, NFL, keep those two places as sites, and ignore the complaining that seems to come every year.
... and 10
1) The Vince Young situation will most certainly make for some tough decisions for the Titans going into the new league year, which won't begin until after the potential work stoppage ends. Young is due a $4.25 million roster bonus, and while the feeling is Titans owner Bud Adams plans to pay it, a lot can happen between now and then. First, coach Jeff Fisher's future will have to be worked out, and the question of whether the two can co-exist will have to be answered. Want an example of the crux of the matter? From what I heard, Young was given full permission to leave during the club's bye week, along with the rest of the players, and that's just what he did, bolting to Austin, Texas, as he usually does. He came back on time, and was still dealing with the ankle problem that held him out of the Eagles game just before the bye. So technically, Young really didn't break any rules. But what the people in that building saw was a regression to the player who so often was unwilling to go that extra mile, and after Young had such a strong offseason, there were plenty of folks disappointed there. Now, it wasn't like that was the kerosene for the Young-Fisher relationship, but the chain of events does underscore the divide between the player and his coach.
2) It's hard not to think the absence of Randy Moss is starting to bring out the best in Tom Brady. There was no question that when the trade was made there would be a period of adjustment for everyone. Brady had been used to having that toy on his playground (ask Daunte Culpepper about losing it) for three-plus years, and there were a handful of young skill players on the club that had never operated in an environment without Moss dragging defenders downfield with him. But the Patriots stud has always been at his best playing point guard, keeping all five of his skill guys alive on every play, and forcing the defense to account for every area of the field. Moss, great as he is, isn't conducive to that. The Patriots have worked through it, adjusted, and it's safe to say Brady's come out the other side good as he's ever been. His lowest quarterback rating the last three weeks has been 117.4, and over that time, his TD-INT ratio is 9-0, he's completed 74 percent of his passes and he's run up 877 yards of offense. As for spreading the ball around, he hit eight receivers against the Steelers, six against the Colts, and seven against the Lions. Safe to say, when it comes to Moss, Brady is probably over it.
3) Interesting, sometimes, how officiating can be reactionary. Go back two weeks, to Roddy White's 33-yard touchdown catch-and-run to beat the Ravens. Remember the blatant offensive pass interference on play, which White later admitted to? When White decked Josh Wilson? Well, maybe it's a coincidence, but it seemed like there were plenty more offensive pass interference calls in Week 11 than I can remember seeing. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was flagged for one against the Colts. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten drew one against Detroit. St. Louis' Brandon Gibson and Atlanta's White each were flagged for it in the Rams-Falcons game. And Moss had a touchdown called back because he pushed off. A big part of it, probably, is human nature, and the referees were likely looking for that kind of foul. I'd bet, on truth serum, most defensive players would say, "Finally."
4) Very interesting nugget from one of those Sports Illustrated polls this week; it showed that 21 percent of players casting ballots in a league-wide survey would most want to play ball for Jets coach Rex Ryan. That would seem to indicate that Ryan achieved the desired result of "Hard Knocks," which was to make Gang Green a destination for free agents by giving them an inside look at a player-friendly environment. But perhaps more powerful is the success the Jets have had taking on reclamation projects like Santonio Holmes, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Cromartie, each of whom had different circumstances forcing them out of previous homes. Those guys play starring roles now, and that sends a powerful message that Ryan and his staff get the most out of players. Which is a very sellable thing. After Ryan on the list were the Steelers' Mike Tomlin (12 percent), the Saints' Sean Payton (9 percent), Fisher (8 percent) and the Patriots' Bill Belichick (7 points), which proves a winning track record certainly doesn't hurt.
5) You don't need me to tell you the Chargers could be really gearing up to take off here in the season's final six weeks. But it's pretty staggering to think how good Philip Rivers has been, and how much better adding Vincent Jackson (16 TDs, 2,265 yards the last two years) might make the San Diego offense. More bad news for opponents: Norv Turner was pretty bullish on Jackson's prospect when I talked to him about his star receiver last week. "It's always different getting a guy in a game, it's a different speed," said Turner, "But Vincent has looked awfully good in practice. And Philip has thrown a lot of balls to Vincent over the years." The implicit message there is that it won't take long for Jackson and Rivers to re-ignite their old relationship, and once that happens, the league's top-ranked passing game gets better.
6) There might never have been a bigger poster boy for patience with a quarterback quite like Matt Cassel, who waited through eight years of backing up at the major college and professional levels to get his first opportunity to start, then had people calling for his head almost immediately after he was handed his first team, following his trade from New England to Kansas City in 2009. From 2009 to 2010, Cassel's completion percentage has gone from 55.0 to 59.5, his TD-INT ratio has gone from 16-16 to 18-4, and his quarterback rating has skyrocketed from 69.9 to 96.2. He's also on pace to throw for 3,318 yards, which is nearly 400 more than he threw for last year. Too many quarterbacks get tossed overboard too quickly. Cassel's development is a good example of what happens when a player gets a chance to learn, grow and ride out his mistakes.
7) Even though the Cowboys lost on Thursday to the Saints -- and did so in devastatingly painful fashion -- and play in a market where there aren't silver linings to defeats, there are good signs for Jerry Jones to see in Garrett stemming from the game. Namely, that had this club fallen behind 17-0 or 20-3 in that fashion a few weeks back, it seems like there's a better-than-good chance the final would have been something in the neighborhood of 48-3 or 41-10. That it wasn't, and that the Cowboys carried a 27-23 lead into Roy Williams' big gaffe, shows a fight that hasn't always been there. "There are a lot of things to be proud of when you watched our football team play today," said Garrett. "Guys played with great emotion, passion and enthusiasm. We didn't get the job done." That's the bottom line, of course. But Garrett's succeeding where Wade Phillips failed. And Jerry Jones is looking for reasons to keep Garrett in charge with the labor unrest looming. Garrett seems to be doing a good job accommodating him.
8) Saw this the other day: Matt Forte is just 45 yards away from passing Bronko Nagurski on the Bears' all-time rushing list. It made me think about just how insignificant statistics are in football, because contexts continually change over the years, vs. other sports. Forte's a nice player and all, and his 2,734 yards are a good start to his career. But the Bears rank 20th in the NFL in rushing, and ranked 24th and 29th in his first two years. Nagurski's a Hall of Famer. Hardly lines up, right? Now, if there has been one significant benchmark passed in Chicago this season, it has to be Brian Urlacher getting by Hall of Famer Mike Singletary to become the Bears all-time leading tackler. That one actually means something.
9) All the best to Mike Heimerdinger, as he enters a fight for his life. In my few dealings with the Titans offensive coordinator, I found him to be engaging, informative, and genuinely passionate about the subject matter he was discussing. I spoke with him in the spring about building an offense for Young, and he explained to me, in great detail, how Young's legs affect a defense's coverage and how he thought the Titans could exploit the advantage. It was so clear I could actually visualize the 11-on-11 playing out in my head. To me, that's the sign of a great teacher, someone who can explain a concept to anyone well enough that they can later relay that concept just as clearly. Get well, Mike, and good luck.
10) Finally, two excellent pieces ran during Thursday's pregame shows, and each deserves its due. So kudos to the folks that put together the CBS piece on Chris Henry's mother donating her fallen son's organs, which was such a powerful story that anchor James Brown was overcome by emotion when it ended. And excellent work, too, by my NFL Network colleagues on the story they did on everything that Mike Zimmer's family has been through in the last year.