Minnesota Vikings surprise everyone but themselves; NFL notes

If you want the best understanding of how misunderstood the Minnesota Vikings were entering the 2012 season, you don't have to look any further than one of their brightest stars.

In June, the buzz coming out of Winter Park centered around the possibility Percy Harvin would hold out. Inside the building, coach Leslie Frazier was leaning on him as a leader.

Imagine that.

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"Our star players, they were walking with me," Frazier said this week, recounting the tumultuous rebuild of the post-Brett Favre Vikings. "Our key guys stood by me, and that gave me the confidence to keep bringing the message. And they carried the message to the locker room."

It wasn't just Harvin. Frazier also pointed to Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, John Sullivan, Chad Greenway, Phil Loadholt, Adrian Peterson, Antoine Winfield, Michael Jenkins and Chris Kluwe.

It is Harvin, though, that might explain Minnesota best: A little hard to understand, at first, and becoming harder to deal with by the day. An afterthought in the loaded NFC North a month ago, the Vikings are now in first place in what many regard as the league's toughest division.

Fully comprehending that requires understanding the long and strange route the Vikings took to get here, following a 12-4 season in 2009 that ended in the well-chronicled and still-topical NFC title game in New Orleans. The next year, Favre finally broke down physically, Randy Moss staged an ill-fated (and short-lived) return to town, Brad Childress was fired, and the team sunk to 6-10.

In 2011, the Vikings planned for transition. Inherent issues created by that turnover were compounded by the lockout, as Frazier tried to shape his program, and Minnesota bottomed out at 3-13.

"One thing I wished we could've had was the first-year head coach minicamp, so the new staff could view the players and get an idea of what we were working with," Frazier said. "We didn't have that, and it affected decisions. ... A lot of things were clouded. We knew there needed to be changes, but it was hard to play that into 2011, it was hard to put your hands around decisions."

That was the first thing Frazier did during this past offseason, having his coaches sit down with scouts -- before they hit the road in the late winter and early spring -- and provide absolute clarity on what the team was looking for at each position. It took about four or five hours per position, Frazier said, and the final mold included not just talent, but specific character traits.

The result, Frazier continued, is that "we approached rebuilding different than at any other time since I got here, and you're seeing the results in 2012. We had probably the best draft we've had in my time here as far as changing the culture. That's the difference, from our first year to our second year. There were so many unknowns before. We had to stay status quo to some degree. We knew we had issues, but we wanted to get by. No excuses, every team dealt with it, but it had an effect here."

That, of course, is not to say there weren't positives gleaned from the 2011 campaign, in which the Vikings had 11 games decided by a touchdown or less, losing nine. In fact, the struggles built strength, in Frazier's mind.

Reserve safety Andrew Sendejo was signed in late November, and told the coach after the season that he had expected a toxic atmosphere and was shocked by how focused the team was, long after it had been eliminated from contention. Special teams coach Mike Priefer told Frazier that the fight the team showed in December -- four of the team's final five games were decided by a touchdown or less -- reflected as good a job by a staff as he'd ever been a part of.

"Every Wednesday, we'd keep telling them to believe, and it wasn't easy; they kept fighting, and kept falling short," Frazier said. "But I learned about the team, about the players, and that helped as we set the schedule. It was a belief that one day it would change, as long as we stay true to what we believe. Our players trust me because of that. What we're saying now isn't different."

Plenty else is. Only seven players who started in Sunday's 30-7 dismantling of the Tennessee Titans started in the 2009 NFC title game. Over the course of the offseason program, the Vikings had 90 percent attendance, a number Frazier says was previously unheard of.

And the big visible change has come on game day, with the team 4-1.

"Our growth really goes back to this offseason; our guys worked their tails off, and the coaches did a great job," Frazier said. "That's where our greatest growth happened. It's a byproduct of (the 90 percent attendance figure), without question. Everything I've talked to our players about goes back to our preparation. As we're going through the season, we're referencing the stuff we experienced. That's what's allowed us to be a better football team."

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The Vikings have plenty left to prove. Three of the team's four wins, outside of an impressive and convincing defeat of the San Francisco 49ers, have come against teams that enter Week 6 with one win. Frazier emphasizes that the defense needs to get better against the run, and the offense has to limit its turnovers better.

But considering where they've been, this hasn't been a bad start behind a young core headed by quarterback Christian Ponder, even if Frazier won't admit the rebuilding effort has been accelerated.

"We went in with goals, we thought we could win," Frazier said. "We never put a number on it, but we knew we were improved. I don't put limitations, so I don't want to say we're ahead of schedule. But the fact that they've been believing, buying in, the result is where we are now."

So many of us couldn't see that result coming. Conversely, to Frazier and everyone else in Winter Park, it makes all the sense in the world.

Players on the spot

Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson: With the roster solid in so many other places, there's a theory that Seattle should go to Matt Flynn, rather than ride the ups and downs of a rookie quarterback's development. Wilson gets a chance to blow that idea out of the water against the New England Patriots on Sunday. New England allows just 3.4 yards per carry, so chances are the ball will be in Wilson's hands, and he'll have to keep pace with Tom Brady and Co.

Houston Texans ILB Tim Dobbins: He'll be paired with Bradie James on the inside of the 3-4, as Houston tries to make up for the crushing loss of Brian Cushing. Dobbins has always been considered a quality depth guy and has experience with Wade Phillips going back to his rookie year in San Diego, but he's never been a full-time starter. He has big shoes to fill, and it starts against a Green Bay Packers team looking for a turning point.

Buffalo Bills DE Mario Williams: Fair or not, Williams has become the face of Buffalo's defensive collapse, which bottomed out with 90 points allowed over the group's last six quarters. Through five weeks, the big-ticket free-agent acquisition has 1.5 sacks. Not to mention, the Bills now will be without Mark Anderson for an extended period of time. No getting around it: Buffalo, facing the Arizona Cardinals' ragtag offensive tackles this week, needs more from Williams.

New York Giants S Antrel Rolle: New York, with Kenny Phillips out and Will Hill suspended, is paper thin at safety, and Rolle himself is nursing a knee injury. Not exactly the most opportune time to facing Vernon Davis, who scored both of the Niners' touchdowns against the Giants in last year's NFC title game (one for 73 yards, the other for 28 yards). The pressure is on Rolle to hold down the fort Sunday afternoon.

Coaches in the spotlight

Cleveland Browns head coach Pat Shurmur: The heat's been dialed up in Cleveland, and there have been public displays of frustration from Shurmur, who's in the midst of a 1-14 stretch. Yes, the Browns are relying on a lot of young players, and yes, they're just getting their best defender back in Joe Haden for Sunday's intra-state bout against the Cincinnati Bengals. But with new owner Jimmy Haslam watching, Shurmur's Browns must display signs of progress with this youthful roster.

Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham: The Lions are 1-3, and despite all the big names they've assembled on the defensive side of the ball, the unit has allowed an eye-opening 28.3 points per game against a slate that hasn't exactly been a murderer's row. Cunningham's crew struggled at the end of last year, as well, raising questions about how much the club is getting out of the talent on hand. A positive outing against the Philadelphia Eagles would quiet things a bit.

Something to spot on Thursday night

The Pittsburgh Steelers' depth on defense. General manager Kevin Colbert began turning over the defensive side this offseason -- something that happens every few years in Pittsburgh -- and this week should provide a good picture of the depth, with Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley out. We saw some of it with James Harrison and Ryan Clark both missing in the opener. More progression from younger guys is needed.

Spot check

The San Diego Chargers' secondary. After a potential game-clinching pick-six was negated by a roughing call on Melvin Ingram, the Bolts promptly crumbled under the weight of a New Orleans Saints offense it had contained for much of the night. San Diego's secondary is dotted with respected vets like Eric Weddle, Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason, and needs more from the group. Peyton Manning will provide a good litmus test Monday night.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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