By Joseph Gunther
The Minnesota Vikings entered the 2013 season with high expectations after making the playoffs the previous season.
Head Coach Leslie Frazier left the team with a message following their Wild Card weekend playoff loss to the rival-Green Bay Packers in January.
“(I) just tried to encourage them on what they had done (in the 2012 season), but also challenge them to come back with a similar work ethic to the one they had this past offseason,” Frazier said in the team’s exit meetings last January. “To understand why every year is different. You can’t rest your laurels in the NFL, so for all we accomplished in 2012, 2013 will be much different.”
He was right as the team finished with a disappointing 5-10-1 record and fourth place finish in the very winnable NFC North Division. The Vikings had their sights set on a run at the division title and possibly a deeper run through the playoffs.
The Vikings added quarterback Matt Cassel to the roster along with Greg Jennings and three first round draft picks in the offseason. The team traded Percy Harvin and released popular veteran Antoine Winfield.
The loss of Winfield left a big hole in the Vikings secondary. His presence in covering slot receivers and helping in run support was irreplaceable. The Vikings had Josh Robinson try the role, but he struggled to adjust after playing on the outside throughout his amateur career and first season in the NFL.
The Vikings pass defense was shredded for 291.125 yards per game through the first eight games of the season, including three games over 300 passing yards allowed. The secondary was also victimized for five game-tying or game-winning scores in the final minute of the game.
The Vikings began the season 1-7 through the first half and could not right the ship enough to get out of the NFC North cellar.
Christian Ponder began the season as the starting quarterback. He finished the season with nine starts. His backup to open the season was Cassel. He finished with six starts, including the last four games of the season. Josh Freeman was signed midseason and received one start.
Frazier said all season long that Ponder gave the team the best chance to win. After the season ending victory over the Detroit Lions at Mall of America Field, he admitted the decision whom to start at quarterback was not his choice alone.
“In this position, when you’re talking about the quarterback position, you don’t make these decisions alone,” Frazier said. “The quarterback position, this is a franchise position. It’s a collective decision. At the end of the day, I’m the head coach, but when it comes to the quarterback, it’s not like inserting an offensive guard or a wide receiver or tight end. That’s a completely different matter, so believe me there were discussions in each one of those situations.”
Ponder was replaced as the starter by Cassel for two games in Weeks 4 and 6. But after Freeman struggled in his only game time with the Vikings in Week 7, the team turned back to Ponder until a concussion sidelined him in Week 13. Ponder was the starter when healthy despite having just one win and one tie in his eight decisions this season.
“When we made the decisions early in the season regarding our quarterback, you’re making decisions based on – in my mind – the short term and the long term,” Frazier said. “When we decided to stay with Christian, there was a reason why we did that at that time. Now in retrospect, you can look back and say, ‘Well, maybe you should have done this.’ But we’ve talked about why we did what did and if it worked out there would be no second-guessing.”
Ponder remains the only quarterback on the Vikings roster that is completely under team control heading into the offseason.
Even though Cassel signed a two-year contract during the offseason, he has the ability to opt out of the second year. He would not reveal his intentions for that provision with the season freshly ended.
“It’s way too early to think about that, but at the same time, I love playing for the Vikings,” Cassel said. “The fan base here is absolutely amazing. The team was special. It was a great team to play for. I really enjoyed my time with my wife, myself, my kids, a great community and everything else that goes along with it. So, would I love to be a Minnesota Viking? Absolutely, without a doubt.”
The odds of him winning the starting job next season would depend heavily on the draft and the next head coach of the Vikings.
Frazier compiled a 21-32-1 record in three-plus seasons as the head coach of the Vikings. One playoff appearance was not enough to overcome the two sub-.500 seasons he had.
“Just going back and looking from when he took over,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “We went 3-3 I think his interim year. We were 3-13 the following year. There are some things that pop up when you look. Our road record has not been the best. The way we’ve lost some games this year, as well, but I think it’s just taking that whole body of work and digging down and analyzing everything to try to make this difficult decision.”
All the players expressed their gratitude toward Frazier in an emotional exit for the former head coach after speaking with the team.
“(Frazier was) very disappointed, as anyone would be,” Spielman said. “I know he spoke specifically to Mark and Zygi (Wilf) today. But it’s hard, it’s extremely hard, it’s not only hard to get the news, but it’s hard to give the news as well.
“I think Leslie was a great man. He did a very good job while he was here. I know he was well respected in the this building. That’s what makes the decision so difficult.”
Spielman will begin the search for his first head coaching hire as the general manager of the Vikings immediately. He expects to start to conduct interviews in the coming days.
For more Vikings news and updates, visit Vikings Central.
Joseph Gunther is an avid fan of Minnesota sports, including football, hockey and baseball. He covered a wide variety of sports while attending Hastings College in Hastings, Neb. While at Hastings College, he was a part of the first collegiate media group to broadcast a national tournament via television, radio, internet and newspaper at the 2004 NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament. He grew up in the Twin Cities playing three years of varsity football in high school. Joseph is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.