EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Leslie Frazier’s admirers were all over the Minnesota Vikings locker room and throughout the organization.
Credited with keeping the team on an even keel and eliciting maximum effort through several rough stretches of his three-plus seasons, Frazier rarely spoke a pessimistic word. In the NFL, though, even the class acts have a hard time staying when the losses pile up.
The Vikings fired Frazier on Monday, one year after they made the playoffs and one day after they finished a 5-10-1 season.
“It’s a harsh business,” safety Harrison Smith said. “As a player, we all love coach Frazier, as a coach, as a man. You can’t meet a better guy. And also as a player, we didn’t make enough plays on the field. So you just feel like you let him down a little bit.”
After going 10-6 in 2012, the Vikings were done in by a leaky late-game defense and ongoing instability at quarterback. Frazier finished 21-33-1 in three-plus years. Speaking to the team shortly after his dismissal, he received a round of applause on his way out.
“It was a somber moment. Everybody was really kind of quiet and really just took it all in,” cornerback Chris Cook said. “I feel like everyone is sad to see him go.”
Frazier wasn’t immediately available for comment, but after the season-ending win over Detroit on Sunday he said he was proud of the job he’d done. Urging the front office to honor the remaining season on his contract, the 54-year-old Frazier made a point to mention the quarterback problem and how decisions related to that position required significant front office input. Frazier also pointed out the lack of depth the Vikings had this year.
“We have tremendous respect and appreciation for Leslie and what he has done for the Minnesota Vikings,” owner Zygi Wilf said in a statement distributed by the team. “He stepped in and established a strong positive culture here, and he has been the consummate professional as our head coach and in this community. Making this change is difficult but what we determined is best for the organization.”
Hired by Brad Childress to be the defensive coordinator in 2007, Frazier interviewed for seven head coach openings over a three-year span: Atlanta and Miami in 2008, Denver, Detroit and St. Louis in 2009, and Buffalo and Seattle in 2010. His opportunity came with the Vikings when Childress was fired in the middle of a messy 2010 season.
Frazier went 3-3 as the interim, enduring a roof collapse at the Metrodome that sent the last two home games elsewhere and guiding an improbable win at playoff-bound Philadelphia after the NFL postponed the game by two days because of a forecast snowstorm.
Frazier got the job for good in 2011, but after a lockout-shortened offseason, the Vikings went 3-13 behind an ineffective Donovan McNabb and then rookie Christian Ponder at quarterback. In 2012, they staged a remarkable turnaround, riding Adrian Peterson to a spot in the playoffs.
Childress had his contract extended in 2009 with the Vikings on their way to the NFC championship game, but they came unglued the following fall. Wary of a similarly expensive over-commitment, Wilf and the front office merely picked up a fourth-year option on Frazier’s deal last January, putting him in a prove-it situation for 2013.
Things got off to a rotten start. Ponder sputtered and produced three straight turnover-plagued performances. The Vikings lost all three games, including on last-minute touchdowns to Chicago and Cleveland.
They lost two other games and tied one in similar fashion, squandering leads inside the 52-second mark, so quarterback was far from the only problem. Though veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield was cut before the season to save space under the salary cap, the defense that has been Frazier’s expertise faltered badly.
Players, of course, weren’t picking apart any of that. This was one last chance for them to speak highly of the person who happened to be their coach.
“That’s a relationship I’ll remember and have the rest of my life,” Ponder said. “And I wish him luck. He’s going to be successful somewhere.”
With two years as an assistant under Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, Frazier came from the same mold, a soft-spoken man of deep Christian faith who has excelled at creating a culture of harmony and respect. So was Frazier too nice to thrive in this league? Defensive end Jared Allen scoffed at the suggestion.
“Don’t mistake kindness for weakness. Coach Frazier worked our butts off. Coach Frazier wasn’t always just smiles and everything like that,” Allen said, adding: “He helped me grow as a man, and for that I’ll always be thankful.”