Zygi Wilf finally and mercifully ended the Brad Childress era on Monday, and for that I am standing up and applauding him … with one hand.
And I'm using my other hand to hit myself in the side of the head, over and over, as I ask, What the hell took you so long?
As much as I admire the Minnesota Vikings' owner for his aggressive and inspired push to win a championship in 2010, I wonder how Wilf could have been so slow to respond to the obvious dysfunction in his midst. Though the Vikings were coming off a highly successful season, the relationship between Childress and quarterback Brett Favre(notes) was as polluted as the Minneapolis stretch of the Mississippi River.
Some of us, after all, predicted the type of disastrous sequel that would inevitably unfold in Favre's second season with his longtime rivals.
Yet Wilf, even as his franchise's freefall commenced, even as the warning signs of impending doom became more and more obvious, waited far too long to pull the ripcord and fire his head coach.
For all the promise of highly regarded defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's promotion to interim coach, there's nothing he can do to save the 3-7 Vikings from a lost season and an offseason of personnel upheaval. In addition to Favre's imminent departure, the Vikings have a slew of players headed for free agency, including wideout Sidney Rice(notes), defensive linemen Pat Williams(notes) and Ray Edwards(notes) and linebackers Chad Greenway(notes) and Ben Leber(notes).
Throw in the team's quest for a new stadium and, by extension, the organization's uncertain future in the Twin Cities, and you've got a purple-tinted mess of a situation.
The sad thing is, Frazier might have been able to salvage something out of this season and summon a rainbow, if he'd only had more time.
Wilf is a smart man, and it's not as if he was blindsided by the problems that ultimately led him to dismiss his head coach. Childress began losing respect in the locker room as far back as 2008, when during one regrettable speech he told his players, "I'm going to be coaching a lot longer than any of you will be playing."
His treatment of veteran quarterback Gus Frerotte(notes) also rubbed numerous veterans the wrong way. When the Vikings hosted the Eagles in a first-round playoff game, Childress chose to sit Frerotte, whose steady play early in the season had helped save his job, and start Tarvaris Jackson(notes). The result was miserable, with one Vikings player telling me after the defeat that our sideline was in total disarray."
Then came the organization's all-out pursuit of Favre, the former Packers great who'd just "retired" for a second time after a season with the Jets. Childress, for all his authoritarian bluster, essentially surrendered all juice to his quarterback by picking him up at the airport and driving him to the team's facility when Favre finally decided to sign with the Vikes in August.
The coach's groveling behavior was validated: Favre summoned a magical season and led the Vikes into Super Bowl contention, and a year and three days ago Childress – in another sign that Wilf wasn't paying close attention to what was really happening with his team – landed a contract extension through 2013 for a reported annual salary of more than $4 million per season. It was a terrible, premature move by the owner, and he will now pay for it.
Childress, upon signing the extension, could have exhaled, thanked the football gods and enjoyed the rest of the ride. Yet he continued to clash privately with Favre, who had little respect for Childress as an offensive strategist and sometimes coped with the problem by changing plays at the line of scrimmage. Things boiled over in December when Childress tried to yank Favre from an eventual defeat to the Panthers, only to have the quarterback overrule him, leading to reports that there had been previous benching attempts.
Even though the Vikings nearly went to the Super Bowl, suffering an overtime defeat to the Saints in the NFC championship game, Wilf could have justified cutting ties with his coach and giving Frazier the job. Sure, the owner might have gotten some grief from outsiders, but the Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season in '06 and advanced further in the playoffs the following season.
Instead, we were treated to another sycophantic Favre-wooing display, until the quarterback conveniently showed up at the end of training camp. His early season performance was not so magical this time, and after a defeat to the Packers in Lambeau last month Childress called out his quarterback in a postgame media session.
At that point, the coach had zero locker-room credibility. The Vikings were 2-4, and Frazier theoretically could have taken over and turned around the season. Wilf, however, sat back and waited.
The following Sunday the Vikes lost at New England to fall to 2-5. The next day Childress decided to cut newly acquired wideout Randy Moss(notes) – albeit after the player acted like a complete jerk – without bothering to inform his owner.
How did Childress not get fired the second Wilf found out? The owner had given up a third-round draft pick to acquire Moss from the Patriots, and his coach had committed an act of insubordination far worse than anything Moss has ever been accused of by any employer. And yet, somehow, Chilly survived.
A reportedly irate Wilf showed up at the team's training facility and began having private meetings with various players, none of whom likely could have told him very flattering things about Childress. The owner decided to wait to see how the team played against the struggling Cardinals at the Metrodome that Sunday, and when the Vikes eked out an overtime victory, with Favre throwing for a career-high 446 yards, the owner acted like the San Francisco Giants after the final out of the World Series.
Then Wilf left town, giving the impression that beating the Cards had solved all of the team's problems, and Childress, who'd taken a passive-aggressive shot at Favre in his news conference after the game, lived to coach another two weeks. One-sided defeats to the rival Bears and Packers finally sealed his fate, and that of Wilf's team: It would take a mathematical miracle for Minnesota to reach the postseason, much less make a Super Bowl run.
Childress was 40-37 (playoffs included) in four plus seasons with the Vikings.
(Bruce Kluckhohn/US Presswire)
This is not to suggest that the season is a total waste for Frazier, a Tony Dungy protégé known for his strategic acumen and even-keeled temperament who'll have a chance to show Wilf the type of leadership skills that could land him the job on a permanent basis.
With a potential lockout looming, Frazier's chances of getting the gig increase: Wilf will be likely to value continuity over the prospect of wooing a big-name replacement like Dungy, Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden. Given that Wilf must pay Childress the balance of last year's contract extension (reportedly somewhere in the range of $12-15 million), there's plenty of financial incentive to keep Frazier, too.
After the Vikes' defeat to the Patriots, I asked several players to assess Frazier's coaching credentials. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe(notes) said he admired Frazier's work with the defense, calling him "an intelligent guy, a passionate guy. He puts in a lot of hours and a lot of effort. He has a good temperament. He knows how to stay poised. He doesn't seem easily rattled to me."
Defensive end Jared Allen(notes) focused on Frazier's communication skills and integrity. "He provides a work environment that's comfortable for the players," Allen said. "He has an open-door approach. He's not always going to … make the changes you suggest, but it's an open-door policy, and at least he lets you have your say.
"Most of all, he's a great man. He's an honest man. He doesn't lie. And because I respect him so much as a man, I play hard for him."
These are the types of qualities the Vikings wish their head coach had displayed over the past several seasons. It's too bad their owner couldn't figure that out – and summon the will to act on that knowledge – a lot sooner than he did.