NFL's Backward Thinking: Leslie Frazier, The Face Of A Failed System

Vikings coordinator Leslie Frazier is probably the most qualified head coaching candidate in the league... yet he's stuck assisting Brad Childress. SB Nation's Andrew Sharp explains why Frazier's plight is part of a much larger problem with NFL psychology.

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NFL's Backward Thinking: Leslie Frazier, Brad Childress, And The Face Of A Failed System

A few weeks ago, while canvassing the internet over the weekend, I noticed a writer from Sports Illustrated mention that Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was likely going to be named the head coach of the Buffalo Bills. As SI's Jim Trotter explained it, "He is said to be the leader in the clubhouse for the Bills job. Blew away [Bills' GM] Buddy Nix in interview." And that was the last I really thought of it. There's nothing really spectacular about the news; it just made sense. Frazier had been passed over for a few years now, and Buffalo was desperate for a injection of excitement.

It seemed like a perfect match, and a stroke of good luck for Frazier, who deserved it more than most. Just a day earlier, he'd been brought out to Seattle to interview for a job that'd already been offered to Pete Carroll. This was to satisfy the good ole Rooney Rule, of course—an NFL mandate that all teams must interview a minority candidate before hiring a new head coach—and Frazier never really had a chance at landing the job. In fact, the Seahawks had already chosen Carroll and reportedly agreed to contract terms. The only thing precluding a formal announcement was a token interview with Frazier, whereby the Seahawks would satisfy the Rooney Rule.

As I wrote then, "Because he’s black, Frazier gets to sit through an interview for a job that’s already been filled." ... Three cheers for Progress!

The only thing that mitigated the insult to Leslie Frazier was that he was reportedly going to be named head coach in Buffalo. It may not have erased the token interview with Seattle or rendered the Rooney Rule any less inane, but at least on some level, Frazier would be vindicated by getting a head coaching job of his own. And then Buffalo hired Chan Gailey.

Here's what we talk about when we talk about Chan Gailey. Simple and plain, he's one of the most unimaginative, painfully mediocre football coaches on the planet. Maybe not a full-on Herbert Hoover on the sidelines, but certainly a Gerald Ford. Did Buffalo not have the money to send for tapes of Chan Gailey in Dallas? Or even at Georgia Tech?

It's not like there were a whole bunch of "good years" and then his team tuned him out. There WERE no good years. He seems like a nice man and has proven himself a good coordinator, but as a head coach, the stats speak for themselves. He was 18-14 in two years with the Dallas Cowboys. That's doesn't look terrible, of course; but then you remember that he was working with players like Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, Emmit Smith, and Deion Sanders, and... well, yeah. Two wild card berths isn't exactly what the Cowboys were hoping for.

Then there was Georgia Tech, where the expectations aren't exactly on par with the Dallas Cowboys. He fared better at Tech, going to bowl games in each of his six years in Atlanta. But even those numbers are misleading. His most successful season at Georgia Tech came in 2006, when he went 9-5, and Georgia Tech wound up losing its final three games of the season.

Again, not quite Herbert Hoover, but definitely Gerald Ford. And this is Buffalo's bright future?

It's up for debate which incident was more insulting to Frazier—Seattle trotting him out for the sake of "diversity," or Buffalo passing him over for Chan Gailey—but either way, he's got legitimate cause for uproar. Buffalo had more problems on offense than defense, so perhaps that played a part in their decision. Maybe there was a dispute over salary. But even so, it's laughable that Frazier's not an NFL head coach by now.

Since entering the NFL in 1999 with the Philadelphia Eagles, Frazier's been successful everywhere he's been. Like, really successful. These are just facts:

  • During Frazier's tenure as defensive backs coach, the Eagles jumped from 15th against the pass to 7th, and then to 2nd.
  • As defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, he took a defense ranked 28th in total yards, and improved them to 19th, and 3rd in takeaways.
  • Then he was brought in by Tony Dungy as a "special assistant" to mentor a young group of Indianapolis Colts' defensive backs.
  • The core that Frazier fostered ultimately wound up winning the Super Bowl, as the 2006 Colts defense improved from 15th against the pass to 2nd.
  • With Minnesota, he's had the best rush defense in the league for two out his three years (the Vikings finished 2nd this year), and improved a pass defense that was dead last when he took over, and now ranks close to the middle of the league.

That's not bad, and as if we need any further proof that Frazier's really good at what he does, just look at the past two weeks. The Vikings completely shut down the Dallas Cowboys—as a Dallas fan, I was embarrassed—and then for an encore, went to New Orleans and contained Drew Brees and the Saints juggernaut. It was ultimately a losing effort, but Minnesota's six fumbles might have played a role in that.

And speaking of Sunday's Vikings loss... Do you ever watch NFL games and wonder how certain guys have managed to keep their job as long as they have? 'Cause that's what I think every time they show Brad Childress on the Minnesota sideline. There have been plenty of other instances, but Sunday night was his most egregious screwup of all time. It seemed impossible that anyone could botch a game like Childress did Sunday, but then ...


... there he was on the sideline, staring blankly forward through it all, as the Vikings pissed away a chance at the Super Bowl.

It started at the 2:37 mark, when he called for an Adrian Peterson run (went for two yards) and then allowed the clock to run down to the two-minute warning. Apparently, he didn't think his offense was good enough to move the ball against an average Saints defense. After another run by Peterson, the Saints took a timeout, and finally, Childress took some shots down the field. Two Brett Favre passes brought the Vikings into Saints territory, and a Chester Taylor run brought the ball to New Orleans' 33 yardline, forcing the Saints to burn their last time.

Keep in mind, the Vikings had just moved the ball 30 yards with ease—another 10-15 yards, and the game would be over. But rather than continue trying to move the ball, Childress went with the most gutless strategy possible. He ran the ball twice to bring the clock down to 19 seconds, apparently content to pin his team's hopes to 50-yard field goal in a deafening road atmosphere, during a playoffs when kickers have been atrocious. This was stupid.

And then—you really can't make this up—after he called a timeout with 19 seconds left, and with his offense coming out of a timeout, the Vikings were called for a penalty for having 12 men in the huddle. That's pretty indefensible, no? When Brett Favre threw an interception on the following play, a nation of Favre-bashers were quick to pile on and pin the loss on Favre's shoulders. And he deserved some blame, of course, but the lion's share belongs with ole Chilly on the sidelines. Favre's INT may be the play that we remember, but Brad Childress meekly running down the clock until that two-minute warning is a more fitting emblem of what went wrong with the Vikings.

So why bring up Childress? Because he's simply not a good coach. He has proven this over and over and over again during the past three season. The Vikings would be better off firing Childress and giving Leslie Frazier a shot. But they won't.


This is a problem with the NFL. You'd think that in a league where the rate of schematic innovation rivals that of the pentagon, owners would be more liberal about choosing the people that lead their teams. But you'd be wrong. Too often, someone like Brad Childress or Wade Phillips or Chan Gailey keeps his job "because he's done it before."

Does it matter if they've done it successfully? Well... define "successful."

Again, the NFL's by far the most innovative of all four pro sports, yet consistently, potential innovators are passed over for coaching retreads like Chan Gailey, Mike Shannahan, and Pete Carroll. This isn't necessarily about race, you see; that Leslie Frazier is a black man may or may not be a factor in his lack of success at landing a head coaching job. But even among white coaches, isn't it peculiar that the "best available" coaches this offseason were a bunch of 60 year-old guys that had dominated during the 1990s? And Pete Carroll? The Seahawks know you can't recruit in the pros, right?

It's all disturbingly conservative in a league dominated by creativity. It makes no sense logically, but even worse, isn't it sort of insulting to fans? Like, as a Cowboys fan, why should I be excited about two more years of Wade Phillips? He's proven that he's a decent coach, capable of making it to the playoffs, and incapable of going any further. We know this with Wade. Why not try something new? Same with the Eagles. Andy Reid has coached the Eagles for more than a decade, and they haven't won anything. As I wrote when news of his contract extension broke:

Tying your future to Reid ... who’s never won a Super Bowl, and finished last in the NFC East two of the past four years, just smacks of laziness. ... it’s easy to criticize a coach for mismanagement; they make roughly 500 difficult decisions a game, and nobody’s perfect. Again, we all make mistakes. But Andy Reid has proven, time and again, that he makes the same mistakes.

Despite consistently talented teams — and the mastery of his legendary defensive coordinator, the late Jim Johnson — Andy Reid has yet to deliver on the promise of his rosters. At some point, it’s time to switch things up and see what happens. How many times can you go 10-6 and lose in the NFC Championship game before someone steps up and says, "Why don’t we try it with someone else?"

Maybe that's it. Laziness. Either that, or it's lack of perspective, as these people forget that there are, in fact, other people that can succeed as head coaches in the NFL. Andy Reid, Wade Phillips, Brad Childress, Norv Turner—just look around at all the contenders with coaches that have consistently managed to fail one way or another. It's not to say they don't deserve second chances, but just... It's insulting when NFL teams only give chances to that group of coaches. I mean, teams were falling all over themselves to give Mike Holmgren a $30 million contract to come out of retirement. Is coaching that impossible? There's no assistants anywhere that might get it done? Come on.

It's insulting to the intelligence of fans and other coaches in equal measure, and more important, it's just ignorant. It's impossible to prove that it's racism, and we'll never know, but it might be. Even if it's not, though, it's self-evident that NFL owners are terrified of trying something new. Call it laziness or lack of perspective, but it's there.

How do we fix it? It'll probably take some time to completely abandon the perspectives that got us here, but a team hiring Leslie Frazier would be an excellent start.

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