What Do the Vikings Need in a Head Coach?

Frazier's time in Minnesota could be coming to an end. - Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

This article began with me wanting to write about Leslie Frazier's tenure as head coach over these past 3 and a half seasons and offer up a potential discussion of whether or not we should keep him or fire him heading into 2014 and beyond.  In the process of researching what goes into being a good NFL head coach and in what areas Frazier has been successful (and where he hasn't), it became abundantly clear that despite the fact that Frazier appears to be a good leader and has maintained control of the locker room, he's not cut out to be the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings due to a number of other glaring issues.  Combine this research with the leaked rumor of the Vikings reaching out to Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien, and it seems very likely that the Vikings will fire Frazier sometime in the next month despite the fact that they exercised the 1-year option on his contract last January, effectively extending him through the 2014 season.  Under the assumption the Vikings are indeed going to find a new head coach in 2014, what kinds of things should we look for in a new head coach?

As a music teacher I often find myself in "coaching" situations, and in fact one of my titles is a "brass ensemble coach."  Sure, music isn't a sport, but there are similar traits that a teacher and a coach possess.  In my opinion there are certain areas that all coaches, regardless of disciple need to have to be successful: knowledge of the specific skills involved with the particular discipline, ability to teach the skills involved, organization and planning ability, and leadership/motivational skills.  Having these more general skills goes a long way toward making any coach successful.  But for a head coach in the NFL there are four large scale areas that an NFL head coach is responsible for: hiring a staff, developing a practice/preparation schedule and routine (which includes off-season activities and training camp), teaching and developing players, and managing the team during actual games (which can include game-planning, play-calling, etc).  Let's go through each of them.

1. Hiring and Managing a Staff

This is a crucial part of the equation for an NFL head coach, and the Vikings will want to find someone well connected to the NFL coaching network.  Hiring a very successful college head coach can backfire if that college coach has no NFL experience and thus, no connections in the NFL world.  Coaches that have been around the league for awhile and have served on multiple teams will undoubtedly have a much larger network to draw on when developing a staff.  Recent head coaching hires like John Fox to Denver, Jeff Fisher to St. Louis or Andy Reid to Kansas City were all excellent moves from this standpoint.  All three of those coaches had previous head coaching experience and were able to bring along former coordinators and assistants that they've worked with in the past.

Leslie Frazier became the head coach of the Vikings without any previous NFL head coaching experience, and has had a difficult time finding a talented staff of coordinators.  Frazier promoted Fred Pagac to defensive coordinator during his first season, and he had no previous experience as a defensive coordinator (it failed miserably and Pagac was demoted the following season).  Then, when Frazier couldn't land well-regarded defensive coordinator of the Jaguars Mel Tucker (who ended up in Chicago) he had to settle for Alan Williams, a positional coach for the Colts with no previous defensive coordinator experience.  The results for Alan Williams have been mixed to say the least.  His hiring of Bill Musgrave was met with tepid approval, and keeping him into this season has since been questioned repeatedly here and among other media outlets.  The head coach can't be afraid to strip a coordinator of play-calling duties or recognize and fire an ineffective coordinator.  Frazier can be credited with demoting Pagac, but it's quite possible he stuck with Musgrave a bit too long.  It's worth pointing out that Quantcoach, a website that attempts to determine the extent to which a coaching staff affects the outcomes of NFL games, has Frazier and his staff ranked as the 7th lowest.

In my opinion, the ability to hire a good staff is perhaps the most important part of hiring a head coach as the coordinators and assistants are directly responsible for play design, play calling and teaching players.  This is why recent former NFL head coaches like Lovie Smith, Jack Del Rio, Norv Turner and Ken Whisenhunt should be very attractive options for the Minnesota Vikings.  Those coaches should be able to draw on their experience and professional network to hire an outstanding staff.

2. Developing a practice schedule and routine

There are a lot of different philosophies for handling practices, and the head coach is ultimately responsible for developing a routine and schedule that will produce results on the field.  This is an area in which Leslie Frazier has not necessarily done well.  Known as a "player's coach" Frazier often rewards his players with time off for wins (which is common in the NFL), and in the most recent training camp the players often requested to lighten up practices.  In his 3rd season he was lauded for making practices more efficient by having different phases practice at the same time.  But this seems so painfully obvious to me to set it up that way, it begs the question why wasn't he doing it sooner?

The recent collective bargaining agreement does dictate how much of the practices and training camps need to be run, but there is still room for a lot of creativity in this regard.  A good NFL head coach will structure practices and off-season activities in a way that makes the most efficient use of time, while also successfully preparing the players for the NFL season each and every week.  To his credit, Frazier had nearly 100% participation in the voluntary off-season workouts this past off-season.  While that didn't contribute to wins this season, it speaks to his ability to plan and organize, even if it the end result was negative.

3. Teaching and Developing Players

It is the General Manager's job to provide the head coach with talented players via the draft and free agency, but it is the head coach's job to ensure that the talent is developed and taught how to play whatever scheme and playbook has been installed.  It's rare to find a head coach that succeeds in developing players at every single position on both sides of the ball.  Many head coaches excel on one side of the ball, and leave the other side up to a talented coordinator.  Take Sean Payton for example.  He is an outstanding coach on the offensive side of the ball, and even calls the plays for the New Orleans Saints offense, but when they lost Greg Williams, their defense took a serious nose dive and it still hasn't recovered.  The same can be said of Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers.  Bill Belichek is known for his ability to take largely unknown players and turn them into superstars (see: Brady, Tom).  This is why former coordinators can potentially make great NFL head coaches.  Their experience developing players and teaching them the scheme and playbook often translates very well to the position of head coach.

Another element that ties in to teaching and developing players is inspiring and motivating them as a leader.  There was an interesting article that was recently published in "The Technician" which is a soccer coaching newsletter from the Union of European Football Associations or UEFA.  In this article the author discusses how players tend to evaluate their coaches, but he uses a study done with NFL players to prove his point.  According to this article, based on a survey of 1,400 NFL players they found the following results:

  • 90% of players respected their head coach
  • 79% of players said their coach was "top quality."
  • 75% of players confirmed they trust their head coach
  • More than 50% of players said their professional coach was the most influential person in their lives
  • Desirable coaching attributes included: communication skills, motivational ability, approachability, management acumen, and a capacity to lead by example

So being able to earn the respect of the locker room is definitely an important attribute for an NFL head coach, as least from the player's perspective.  If there is one area that Leslie Frazier truly excels in, it is in his ability to motivate and inspire.  His players continually speak very highly of Leslie Frazier and not once have the players "quit" on him, despite an overall losing effort in 2 of his 3 full seasons as head coach.  As I pointed out in another article over the weekend, the Vikings have the 4th best depth in the NFL, and that speaks highly of Frazier's ability to develop players.  So in the teaching and developing area (with the exception of the quarterback position), Frazier appears to be doing very well.  And it makes sense that this would be his strength, seeing as how he was a former defensive coordinator.

But in looking around the NFL at current coordinators who could take a Vikings team that needs help developing at the QB position, and who also needs an overhaul on defense, I would take a long look at Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer or Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael.  Both have proven track records of developing players and have a track record of success on at least one side of the ball.  Neither has head coaching experience, so they could end up just like Frazier in that they could find it more challenging to hire a staff and setup a practice routine.

4. Managing In-Game Decisions

If there is one area where Leslie Frazier has repeatedly made mistakes during his tenure as head coach, it is here.  From questionable time outs, to strange decisions to go-for it or not on 4th down, to throwing the challenge flag on a play that isn't challengeable, he often seems lost or despondent on the sidelines.  And his explanations after losses to the press leave a lot to be desired, "Missed some opportunities, we'll look at the tape and get it corrected."  This is where having previous head coaching experience (preferably in the NFL) comes in handy.  Leslie Frazier did have head coaching experience on his resume, but it was in division II college ball.  He did not have any prior NFL head coaching experience before becoming head coach in 2011.

We need a coach that understands late game time management, and can quickly make a decision on when and where to punt the ball versus when to go for it or kick a field goal.  It would be excellent if the head coach had a strong understanding of the offensive side of the ball to be able to better manage play-calling if/when the offensive coordinator is ineffective.  Bill Musgrave's play-calling has been brought into question here many, many times, but I'm not convinced that Leslie Frazier would do a better job with offensive play-calling, since his experience not only as a player, but as a coach has been primarily on the defensive side of the ball.  But a head coach should be able to make good decisions during the course of the game and that includes overriding coordinators in crucial moments.  This Vikings team had so many late game collapses, that if the team only had to play 59 minutes, we'd be 9-5 instead of 4-9-1.  And that falls on late-game management of both the offense and defense.

Conclusion

Hiring an NFL head coach is not an easy thing.  In fact, if this chart of head coaching success is any indication, many coaches aren't even given enough opportunity to find out if their success or failure is due to their own abilities or just random chance.  A coach needs more than 1 season in order to determine if they can be effective, and they need closer to 50 games until a true assessment can be made.  Why 50 games?  As the chart shows, that is the cut-off point to know if the wins and losses can "return to the mean" so to speak and do better than a coin flip towards winning and losing.  So far, Leslie Frazier has coached the Vikings through 51 games and to a 0.391 winning percentage.  This is pretty far beneath the standard deviation line, and into Romeo Crenel/Marty Mornhiweg territory (which is real bad if you don't know who they are).   While you can explain away some of the losses to injury in 2013 and the lockout with a depleted roster after the failed Super Bowl run in 2011, the fact still remains, he's well below the proverbial bell curve here.  For more on coaching win probabilities, check out the entire article over at advancednflstats.com.  But the point is, we've seen enough of Leslie Frazier for the past 3 and a half years and the end results are not great.

What it boils down to for me is that Leslie Frazier tied a franchise record for worst season in wins and losses AND worst start to an NFL season for the Vikings.  And after 3 and a half years, he hasn't' been able to turn around the franchise.  It's not been all bad though.  We had a nice little run to close out last season (although that could just as easily be a string of luck), and Frazier still hasn't lost the locker room.  But, there are enough other glaring issues in practice preparation, game management, and staff management that his tenure in Minnesota has to be labeled a failure, and therefore he should be fired.

So where do we go from here?  Well, I don't have all the answers, but I can share my list of head coaching wants.  These are all guys that I think can succeed in the 4 areas above as a head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.  In no particular order:

-Mike Zimmer, DC Cincinatti Bengals
-Bill O'Brien, HC Penn State
-Pete Carmichael, OC New Orleans Saints
-Jack del Rio, DC Denver Broncos
-Lovie Smith, former HC of Chicago Bears
-David Shaw, HC Stanford

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