Imagine a day in the life of the Minnesota Vikings when:
Serenity and symptoms of love reign in the locker room; the coach and the quarterback are on speaking terms; the Vikings win on the road with Adrian Peterson taped and hobbling on the sideline; and Brett Favre runs 10 yards like a resuscitated Rip Van Winkle to clinch the game.
Welcome to Leslie Frazier’s Minnesota Vikings.
Did somebody say interim coach? Well, yes. That is Leslie Frazier’s formal ID on the Viking flow charts, but there’s more than a remote chance that this could change sometime in January, because his resume to qualify for the full cloak of command in 2011 looked tantalizing in his first game running the team.
At 17-13 the Vikings’ victory over the Washington Redskins before a crowd of 83,000 in the Redskins’ stadium in Landover, Md., went down to the wire. And why should anybody be surprised that it was the 41-year-old Brett Favre running out the time? Call it the stroke from grandfather’s clock, a 10-yard rollout and rumble for a first down near the Washington goal line, ending the Redskins’ final chances.
It took a while for Favre to reach the first down marker. His ailing ankle and wheezing lungs made his run more an expedition than a dash. After the game, in fact, he made those raspy lungs sound like something close to life-threatening. But this is the way of Brett Favre. Let no passing ailment shrink from the level of intensive care. This is a warrior and a self-promotion agency rolled into one. And he made the first down with an inspired low-level dive that lacked style points but did have the virtue of bringing the Vikings back into the ranks of the living in the National Football League.
And when the time ran out Favre went to the sideline and handed the ball to the interim head coach, surrounded by cheering and yelling players and coaching assistants.
Was this just an episode or a beginning again, if not for the Vikings than for the interim coach?
The game may have had more romance than significance. With four wins and seven losses the Vikings still need to run the table in their last five games to hope seriously for any entry into the league playoffs. But they play their next three games at home, starting with often-beaten Buffalo Sunday and graduating to the contending New York Giants and the North-leading Chicago Bears. After that: The Philadelphia Eagles of Mike Vick and then battered Detroit, both on the road.
Aced his first test
But the center of the speculation among the Viking audiences today, and possibly its ownership, is the early entry of Leslie Frazier into the ranks of candidates for the head coaching job vacated last week by the dismissal of Brad Childress.
It’s one game. But Frazier aced his first test. There was his handling of a difficult week, his outreach to the players, his willingness to bring players as well as coaching assistants into more of the decision-making on strategies and play-calling. That road can be chaotic if overdone, but it clearly wasn’t in the week’s preparation for the Washington game.
Frazier came across to the public as a man with his feet on the ground and his eyes on something bigger. The respect he had acquired from the Viking players and from the national football community in his years of playing and coaching was clear. He had applied for a number of head coaching jobs with impressive credentials and a stable personality that reflects both confidence and patience. In short, he struck almost everyone in the business as a potential winner.
Like the performance of the Dallas Cowboys’ Jason Garrett of the past two weeks, Frazier’s midseason takeover of a moldering football team gave it a shot of adrenalin yesterday. It pulled the team out of the ignominy of losing chronically after being hailed as a Super Bowl contender. Like Garrett, his chances of being elevated to the head coaching job may be better than it first appeared, depending on the team’s performance the rest of the season.
This is the Vikings’ ownership situation: The National Football League is headed for long and potentially bitter negotiations on the basic player-ownership agreement. The threat of those negotiations going deep into the spring is real. A team owner looking for a new coach will consider carefully before negotiating with a man not now on the club’s payroll. By the time that contract is in place, any coach bringing in a new system and staff may be hopelessly behind the rest of the league.
Right now, Leslie Frazier is a promising fit, attractive as a personality and admired for his performance as a defensive coordinator and rapport with the players without sacrificing leadership. Much of that, of course, can change in three or four weeks. How he reacts under fire is another matter. The Viking defense was back, capably handled by the assistant coach, Fred Pagac. Brett Favre threw no interceptions. The Vikings committed no turnovers. Favre’s numbers through the air were modest, and the Vikings discovered that those early jitters about the second round draft choice from Stanford, Toby Gerhart, were misplaced. So was his roasting treatment at the hands of the Viking veterans in the first week of training camp.
A limping Peterson
On Sunday, Adrian Peterson started with his usual gangbuster verve. He slashed and banged, shifting direction in midflight — in short, the Peterson everybody in the NFL dreads to face. But he came out limping badly in the first half, gone for the day with a twisted ankle that will be evaluated today. By then, Peterson was basically the Viking offense against a Washington defense that wasn’t giving them much through the air.
Gerhart is unglamorous but tough and Stanford bright, with a low level of gravity that keeps pushing the pile. He did it enough in 22 carries Sunday to bang out 76 yards, one touchdown and first downs when his team needed them. The Redskins took an early lead on Donovan McNabb’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Fred Davis, Peterson tied it from five yards out and Gerhart scored in the third quarter followed by Ryan Longwell’s second field goal for a 17-7 Viking lead. Two field goals by Graham Gano brought the Eagles closer but a dumb blocking-in-the-back penalty on Perry Riley nullified a 77-yard punt return by the Redskins’ Brandon Banks.
Favre threw conservatively, avoided interceptions and turnovers and managed the offense shrewdly on the final drive that sent him airborne and ended the Vikings’ eight-game losing streak on the road stretching back to last year. But while the celebration was real and general, the Vikings had to know this was a Washington whose ground game had been wrecked by injuries.
When it was over, Frazier congratulated the team. “It was a tough week for our players,” he said later. “I just feel so good for them and for the organization. And when Brett made that run, it was a great thing to see.” He congratulated his staff and particularly Pagac’s handling of the defense.
Favre smiled in the glow of relief. Somebody told him his critical first down run at the end was for 10 yards. “It seemed,” he said, “like 50.”
Outlooks tend to change when you reach 41.