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Late-game collapses haunt Vikings

USA TODAY Sports Cincinnati defensive end Carlos Dunlap and defensive tackle Domata Peko sack Minnesota quarterback Matt Cassel on Dec. 22 in Cincinnati.

With five last-minute collapses, the Minnesota Vikings were a mere 2 minutes, 26 seconds from a 5-10-1 meltdown season being 10-6 and good enough to win the NFC North. But they weren’t close enough in general manager Rick Spielman’s mind to keep from blowing out coach Leslie Frazier and embarking on a new era that is sure to bring changes to the franchise’s core philosophies, including an eight-year devotion to the 4-3, Tampa 2-based defensive scheme.

Owners Mark and Zygi Wilf made the final decision on Frazier after consulting with Spielman. And although Spielman accepted blame for “not getting the quarterback situation right” for Frazier, it was his opinion that Frazier and his staff could have fared better even with the unstable and inferior quarterback play of the disappointing Christian Ponder, the woefully unprepared Josh Freeman and veteran Matt Cassel, who at least brought some competence to the position.

“You look at our division this year,” said Spielman, referring to an NFC North race that came down to Green Bay (8-7-1) beating Chicago (8-8) for the title in Week 17. “The time that (Jay) Cutler missed (in Chicago), the time that (Aaron) Rodgers missed (in Green Bay). Those guys had lost some games but somehow survived, and Chicago and Green Bay played for the division title.”

As Spielman embarked on a coaching search more than a week ago, he promised to be thorough, citing 13 different categories from which the future head coach could come from based on experience and background on offense or defense. To date, there have been five interviews held, five more interview requests made and one scheduled interview fall through when Jay Gruden took the Redskins job.

Spielman appears to be leaning toward the defensive side of the ball with Cincinnati’s Mike Zimmer and Arizona’s Todd Bowles, but offensive coordinators such as former Vikings assistant Darrell Bevell couldn’t be ruled out.

“There are so many (schemes) going out there,” Spielman said. “I am very excited about the process, just to learn and to talk to a lot of different people to see their philosophies.”

Clearly, Spielman seems determined to move away from the Tampa 2 scheme, which, critics argue, is antiquated and requires elite players at all three levels to play well. Where Frazier saw those 2 mintues, 26 seconds as a reason to maintain the status quo, Spielman saw it as an unacceptable trend established by a coaching staff that couldn’t protect leads.

Two minutes, 26 seconds was the combined time left on the clock this season when the Vikings blew last-minute leads in regulation against Chicago (:10), Cleveland (:51), Dallas (:35), Green Bay (:46) and Baltimore (:04). They went 0-4-1 in those games, losing leads because of an inadequate four-man rush and an overmatched back seven.

Spielman said he was excited about the possibility of changing to a 3-4 scheme or a hybrid 4-3/3-4. This would seem to be the year to make the switch since neither 4-3 end Jared Allen nor three-technique tackle Kevin Williams are expected to return. Only four core defenders will be back, and one of them, left end Brian Robison, has the skill set to play a 3-4 outside linebacker.

“I understand how difficult change is for people and how difficult change is because it’s the unknown,” Spielman said. “But I also know sometimes when you make that change it also can bring a spark as well.”

Although players were loyal to Frazier up to and through the end, some admit that perhaps a change in schemes could help.

“I wouldn’t just say it’s just the scheme,” said strong safety Jamarca Sanford, “but at the end of the day, we kind of need a change around here. I’ve been here for five years and we’ve been running the same thing. Not saying that it didn’t work, but a change can be for the good.”

Spielman also understands that he needs to enhance the talent level on the defensive side of the ball. One of the biggest disagreements between Frazier and Spielman came when Spielman released 36-year-old cornerback Antoine Winfield in a salary-cap move in the spring. Spielman felt it was time to move on, even though Winfield had been the team’s best defensive back the year before. Frazier practically begged for Winfield to return and was disappointed when Spielman chose not to re-sign a willing Winfield when the team returned from a win in London in Week 4.

The last-minute collapses this season weren’t just the result of a defense that ranked last in points allowed and 31st in total defense and pass defense. The four-minute offense also failed to run out the clock, which put the defense back on the field.

Part of that was poor quarterback play, particularly on Ponder’s behalf. Another part was offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s wavering lack of commitment to the run despite having reigning league MVP Adrian Peterson at running back.

Musgrave also erred in an even more egregious manner by taking too long to incorporate electrifying rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson into the offense. Patterson was an immediate smashing success and NFL record-holder as a kickoff returner, but Musgrave babied him on offense, waiting until it was far too late to showcase the playmaking skills that highlighted the final five games of the season.

Although the offense will still revolve around Peterson - whose supposedly “down” year still included 1,266 yards and 10 touchdowns in 14 games - the new coordinator or head coach will likely be more creative and more willing to incorporate some of the new spread philosophies that the Vikings ignored despite Ponder’s athleticism.

“Usually, (philosophies) have trickled down, where the NFL systems kind of went down to college,” Spielman said. “Now, it seems with the type of athletes coming out in the draft that it’s trickling up to the NFL. Like the Philadelphia Eagles, which is a little bit of a spread offense, yet they had the leading rusher in the league. I’m looking forward to getting educated as well about a lot of different philosophies.”

It’s an uncertain time in Minnesota. The franchise said goodbye to the Metrodome this season and will play the next two seasons outdoors at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. Some core talent is in place, particularly on offense at many positions except quarterback, of course. But where this franchise goes after going 3-13 two years ago and 5-10-1 this season is anyone’s guess at this point.

“Yeah, it’s a nervous time,” Robison said. “Change can always be good. But there’s also a saying that goes around, too. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. I guess we’ll find out.”

Notes, quotes

n During a 5-10-1 meltdown season, backup quarterback Matt Cassel went 3-3 as a starter and also rallied the Vikings to an overtime win over the Bears while in relief of the inconsistent and injury-prone Christian Ponder.

Logic suggests that the new staff and general manager Rick Spielman would start off with Cassel at the top of the depth chart and work from there either through the draft or by any other means necessary to land a young franchise quarterback. However, Cassel might not give them the opportunity.

Cassel can opt out of the final year of his deal and no doubt has a lot to weigh this offseason. He can’t be happy about how he was handled and obviously will have some reservations about a new staff. And the Vikings are likely to hit the draft once again in hopes of finding a quarterback. So there’s no guarantee that Cassel will be given a fair shot to start in 2014.

“It’s way too early to think about that, but at the same time, I love playing for the Vikings,” Cassel said after leading the Vikings to a season-ending 14-13 win over the Lions. “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.”

n General manager Rick Spielman promised to be thorough while spearheading the team’s search for a new head coach. He’s living up to that promise and appears set to explore each of the 13 different categories from which he said Leslie Frazier’s replacement could come from based on several variables involving experience and backgrounds in offense or defense.

Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was scheduled to be the latest to interview on Thursday in Cincinnati. But Gruden backed out after accepting the head coaching job in Washington.

Cincinnati’s other hot assistant, Mike Zimmer, has appeared to move to the forefront of the favorites now. He was interviewed Wednesday and will reportedly be interviewed for a second time this week.

49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula were interviewed Saturday, while others who already have been interviewed are Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton, Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell.

Meanwhile, interviews have been requested for Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase, Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman and Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

Strategy and personnel


Scheduled to be unrestricted in March

n DE Jared Allen

n DT Kevin Williams

n LG Charlie Johnson

n RB Toby Gerhart

n CB Chris Cook

n WR Jerome Simpson

n DL Everson Griffen

n C-G Joe Berger

n LB Desmond Bishop

n LB Marvin Mitchell

n OT J’Marcus Webb

n WR Joe Webb

n DT Fred Evans

n QB Josh Freeman

n DE Justin Trattou

Unit-by-unit analysis

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Matt Cassel. Backups - Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman.

The root of the Vikings’ inability to consistently compete and maintain continuity on the coaching staff is the continued absence of a franchise quarterback to lead the way with skill and poise when things break down. Ponder, the 12th overall pick in 2011, was supposed to be that person. He’s not. He has the athleticism to make plays with his feet, but lacks the arm strength and, more importantly, the poise under pressure to reach the level needed at quarterback in today’s NFL. He’s under contract through 2014, but giving him another chance under a new coaching staff is an invitation for further heartache. Three years of evidence should be enough to determine that his glimpses of competence are unlikely sustainable. Matt Cassel came in as a backup last offseason and ended the season as the best quarterback on the roster by far. He can opt out of the second year of his contract, but general manager Rick Spielman and the new coach would be wise to sweet-talk him into returning as a near-term future while a high draft pick is groomed for the long term. Freeman was signed in October when the Bucs released him. He started and played only one game - a 20-for-53 fiasco in a Monday Night Football road loss to the Giants - and is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The Vikings might pursue him in free agency, but a reunion seems unlikely.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Adrian Peterson, FB Jerome Felton. Backups - Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata.

For the first time since 2009, the Vikings are in the market for a backup to Peterson. Peterson, the 2012 league MVP, remains the best running back in the league, even though he finished fifth in rushing with 1,266 yards, a 4.5-yard average and 10 touchdowns in 14 games. But Gerhart is an unrestricted free agent and will no doubt be looking for a chance to finally start after four years in Peterson’s considerable shadow. Gerhart will be a prized free agent for some team this year. A second-round pick in 2010, Gerhart is a powerful and deceptively agile big back who is only 26 years old and has just 276 career carries. Peterson turns 29 this spring, but he should remain in his prime. But hamstring, groin and foot injuries that nagged him this season should serve as a reminder that Peterson may look invincible, but he’s not. Asiata started two games and proved to be a decent battering ram to keep defenses honest. But the former fullback is more suited as a special teamer and No. 3 back than Peterson’s main backup. Felton didn’t repeat as a Pro Bowl fullback, but that’s mostly because Peterson’s numbers dipped this season. But Felton is a keeper for as long as Peterson remains a focal point of the offense.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Kyle Rudolph. Backups - John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Chase Ford.

Rudolph missed half the season because of a broken foot. But how he broke the foot is a reminder of his value to the offense. It came in the eighth game at Dallas as he was crossing the goal line on a long touchdown reception. Rudolph enters his fourth season with 15 touchdowns in 32 starts. He’s not a Gronkowski or a Graham, but he’s close enough. It also will be interesting to see what he could do with more consistency at quarterback. Carlson is a very similar player, but not quite as big. A history of concussions has him contemplating retirement this offseason. Ellison is a grinder, a solid special teamer who can provide extra blocking from the tight end, H-back and fullback positions. Teams need hard-nosed worker bees like Ellison. Ford, a former practice-squad player, showed tremendous upside when injuries ravaged the position late in the season. But he’s likely to be caught in a numbers crunch unless Carlson chooses to retire.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson. Backups - Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright, Joe Webb, Rodney Smith, Greg Childs.

Patterson is a superstar in the making. With a quality quarterback, he will be something special. The recently-fired coaching staff, particularly offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, erred woefully in waiting much too long to incorporate Patterson into the offense. Patterson proved early in the season that he was a record-setting kick returner who would go on to lead the league in that category. But he continued to be nearly invisible on offense and didn’t start until the 11th week of the season. Patterson’s performance in the wild, back-and-forth loss in Baltimore was a prime example of what he could be on a consistent basis. He had five catches for 141 yards and an electrifying 79-yard catch-and-weave for a touchdown in the closing minute. Jennings needs another year and more stability at quarterback to prove whether he can be what he was in Green Bay when he was playing with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Jennings’ numbers - 68 catches, 804 yards, four touchdowns - were average at best, but the quarterback play was consistently below average.

Jennings was at his best with Cassel, but he also went long stretches when he was practically invisible. Drops in the loss to Cleveland and the overtime tie at Green Bay also hurt his image. He’ll also be 31 next season. Simpson had a bounce-back year on the field, but more trouble off the field and another probable suspension related to a DWI arrest could leave the Vikings unwilling to enter into a third season with a promising talent that can’t be trusted to stay out of trouble. Wright is a sleeper to keep an eye on. He’s deceptively fast and an excellent route runner who is capable of consistently fooling defensive backs with double moves. Webb is just a big body. The former quarterback and one of the best athletes on the team was never used for much more than a blocking receiver and special teamer this year. The next staff is unlikely to see much value in him. Smith is basically a practice body. Childs looks like a the prototype modern NFL receiver, but he’s also trying to beat the unlikely odds of coming back from rupturing the patellar tendons in both knees in training camp in 2012.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Matt Kalil, LG Charlie Johnson, C John Sullivan, RG Brandon Fusco, RT Phil Loadholt. Backups - RT J’Marcus Webb, LT Mike Remmers, C-G Joe Berger, G Jeff Baca.

A very disappointing season went relatively unnoticed because of the issues at quarterback and in the secondary. The offensive line didn’t play with the cohesion one would expect from a line that had been together for two seasons. Kalil, the fourth overall pick in 2012, took a step back in the consistency department, but remains a reliable blind-side anchor for years to come. Johnson struggled all year and is likely to leave via free agency. Sullivan had a down year, but will return as a leader up front. Fusco is on the bubble. He played more consistently than he did in his first year as a starter in 2012, but the new staff is likely to think it can do better. Loadholt was the best lineman in 2013. He’s prone to lapses in pass protection, but is the team’s most consistent run blocker. Remmers, who was picked up during the season, is a potential swing tackle. Webb, who is an unrestricted free agent, can’t be trusted as a backup. He’s just not quick enough. Berger is an excellent backup who can play all three interior spots. But he’s also a free agent. Baca, a rookie in 2013, was groomed to take Johnson’s spot. But that now will have to be determined by a new coaching staff.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - RE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams, NT Letroy Guion, LE Brian Robison. Backups - E-T Everson Griffen, NT Fred Evans, NT Chase Baker, DT Sharrif Floyd, RE Justin Trattou.

Although Jared Allen still reached 11.5 sacks, this unit showed its age and will be significantly altered for the first time since Allen joined the team in 2008. Allen, who will be 32 next season, will leave in free agency. So, too, will 33-year-old defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who has anchored this unit since 2003. Robison, who signed a long-term deal during the season, turns 31, but is coming off his best season. He had a career-high nine sacks, applied consistent front-side pressure and was a solid run stopper. He also has the skill set to make the transition to a 3-4 defense if that’s the route the new staff chooses. Switching Guion from three-technique to the nose never panned out. He needs to be replaced or used as a backup to Floyd. Evans isn’t starting caliber and isn’t likely to return, so the team needs to find a nose tackle. Floyd, the 23rd overall pick this year, wasn’t given a full opportunity to live up to his draft pick. That will come this year when he replaces Williams. Griffen is the team’s top target among its unrestricted free agents. He’s the heir apparent to Allen and he’s versatile enough to rush from the inside in the nickel or play linebacker should the Vikings switch to a 3-4. Baker and Trattou are just practice bodies who saw limited action.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Erin Henderson, MLB Audie Cole, SLB Chad Greenway. Backups - SLB Larry Dean, MLB Michael Mauti, WLB Gerald Hodges, WLB Marvin Mitchell.

This unit also could look significantly different whether the team sticks with a 4-3 or shifts to a 3-4. Greenway is the only player who basically is guaranteed a spot on the team next year. His role could change however as he hits 31 years of age. Placing Greenway in coverage as often as the team has since 2007 is an increasingly risky venture. The team won’t maintain its longtime loyalty to the Tampa 2 scheme, so Greenway won’t be set up to fail quite as often as he was this past season. Henderson won’t be back. He lost his job in the middle and then let the team down with a DWI late in the season. Another DWI arrest after the season pretty much sealed his fate as the team looks to upgrade a position in decline. Cole is an intriguing prospect. A seventh-round pick in 2012, he was so little thought of that the Vikings actually released him before the Redskins game to make room for a backup tackle. They signed him right back, but obviously were willing to lose him. Then, later in the season, when given a chance to start in the middle, he seized the opportunity with a standout game in the tie at Green Bay. He opened that game with a vicious blitz that resulted in a sack. He finished the season on injured reserve, but his active feet, unusual height and instincts give him a chance to impress the new staff. Mitchell is a free agent who won’t return. Dean is a special teams leader, but too undersized to trust at linebacker. Mauti also is a special teams standout and a potential challenge to Cole in the middle. Hodges has the skill set to play the weak side and will at least be given a chance to start there.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - RCB Chris Cook, LCB Xavier Rhodes, FS Harrison Smith, SS Jamarca Sanford. Backups - CB Josh Robinson, CB Shaun Prater, CB Marcus Sherels, S Mistral Raymond, S Andrew Sendejo, CB-S Robert Blanton.

This unit never recovered from the team’s decision to release Antoine Winfield in a salary-cap move in the spring. Robinson was handed Winfield’s role in both the base defense and in the nickel as the slot corner. He was too slow to develop and never reached a high level until ending up on injured reserve because of a fractured sternum. Winfield was 36, but he also was the team’s best defensive back the year before. Cook had another injury-marred, underperforming season and will move on as a free agent. He leaves as a disappointing former second-round draft pick that missed more games than he played and never recorded an interception. Rhodes turned out to be the team’s best corner after an understandable rookie adjustment period. He set a rookie record for passes defensed, but also caused some concerns that he’ll be injury prone. Smith missed eight games because of turf toe, but showed again in his second season that he’s a future Pro Bowler if not All-Pro. He has it all, including size, speed and instincts.

Sanford is a career overachiever who didn’t have as good a season as he did the year before. The Vikings will look to upgrade there. One possibility there is Sendejo. He began the season as a decent special teamer on the bubble, but flashed signs of being an impactful safety given multiple opportunities to start for Smith and Sanford. He can hit and he has good instincts. Speed would be the main concern with him though. Prater proved to be a solid in-season waiver claim. He showed decent instincts and has a chance to stick. Sherels, the team’s punt returner, is a scrapper. He’s always there when the injuries pile up at corner. And he holds his own. Raymond won’t be back. He suffers from the double whammy of safeties: A lack of instincts and poor tackling skills. Blanton will be given a chance to make the team. He ended up being the team’s nickel slot corner after Robinson was injured. A college corner who was switched to safety as a rookie in 2012, Blanton is not the guy you want at the slot corner. But the Vikings were hurting without Winfield.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Blair Walsh, P Jeff Locke, PR Marcus Sherels, KR Cordarrelle Patterson, LS Cullen Loeffler.

Walsh wasn’t the All-Pro kicker he was as a rookie in 2012, but he was still pretty good. After making 35 of 35 field goals as a rookie, he made 26 of 30 this year. He wasn’t nearly as good from 50 yards and beyond. He made an NFL-record 10 of 10 as a rookie, but only 2 of 5 this season. Walsh, however, will get that figured out and will be a long-range threat for years. Locke, a rookie, was inconsistent but got better as the season went along. Replacing Chris Kluwe, the best punter in team history, wasn’t easy. Where Locke struggled most in that regard was hang time and pinning the ball near the goal line. Sherels set a team record and was third in the NFL in punt-return average (15.2). He continues to defy the odds and prove that people once again were wrong to put him on the roster bubble back in training camp. Loeffler heads into his 11th season as a rock at long snapper. And, last but not least, Patterson set team and NFL records during a season of consistently explosive and fearless kick returns. His 109-yard return for a touchdown was a league record. He added a 105-yarder to tie a league career mark with most touchdowns of 105 yards or longer. He also led the league with a franchise-record season average of 32.6 yards.