Leslie Frazier is a name that elicits groans from most of the Lions faithful. He's an assistant, and moreover not a 'hot' assistant--he's moved both up AND down the coaching ladder in his career. He's currently coaching for the Minnesota Vikings, which causes a little division-rival bile to rise in the throats of Lions fans--as well as conjure nasty thoughts of the ineffective milquetoast currently wearing the whistle there. The final nail in the coffin is Fraizer's coaching of the Tampa 2 defensive system, made infamous by Rod Marinelli's implementation of it over the past three seasons. Leslie Frazier, it's assumed, must be a washed-up retread, brought in just because he fits the 'system' so lamely in place. Don't be so sure.
Leslie Frazier broke into the NFL as the defensive backs coach for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, coaching under coordinator Jim Johnson. While there, Frazier coached Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Brian Dawkins, Al Harris, Lito Sheppard, and Sheldon Brown--all of whom but Brown have been Pro Bowlers either during or since Frazier's tenure (and he's arguably been snubbed a few times).
After three years of being a top assistant on one of the best defenses in football, Frazier got his big break: being hired away to be Marvin Lewis' defensive coordinator in Cincinnati. Who did the Eagles promote from 'defensive assistant' to take Frazier's place? None other than Candidate 1A himself.
In Cincinnati, Frazier came in with Lewis to turn the Bengals around--and that they did, immediately elevating the Bengals to two straight 8-8 seasons after over a decade of sub-mediocrity. Rookie DE Robert Gaithers, rookie S Madieu Williams, and rookie OLB Landon Johnson all stepped in and not only started, but played like impact players. It seemed as though Frazier's guidance of the defense was going to give the increasingly explosive offense the compliment it needed to be a real power in the AFC.
However, cracks in the relationship between Frazier and Lewis became apparent almost immediately. The two came from different defensive philosophies: Lewis ran a coventional two-gap 4-3 base defense in Baltimore, but Frazier was a disciple of Jim Johnson's aggressive one-gap 4-3 scheme, which calls for a lot of outside linebacker, corner, and safety blitzes mixed with an agressive upfield push from the line.
This was very similar to the dichotomy between Rod Marinelli's Tampa Two, which relied on a one-gap front four and rarely blitzed, and Donnie Henderson's blitz-heavy 4-3, which led to Henderson's dismissal after just one season. Not only that, the two men's coaching styles were different as well: Frazier favored the stoic, walk-softly/big stick approach, but Lewis liked to get fired up. This all culminated in Lewis wresting playcalling duties away from Frazier during an embarassing 2004 loss to the rival Browns.
After the '04 season, Lewis chose not to renew Frazier's two-year contract; the fast-track career of Leslie Frazier was derailed. Interestingly, former Cincy LB phenom Landon Johnson was just released this offseason, and now plays a backup role with Carolina. Robert Gaithers has managed only six sacks in the last two seasons combined. After being forced to play linebacker due to the position being mauled by injuries last year, Madieu Williams left Cincy and signed a big free agent deal . . . to play for Frazier in Minnesota. Marvin Lewis is now on his third defensive co-ordinator, and likely won't get the opportunity to hire a fourth.
Tony Dungy immediately saw the value in Frazier, and signed him to coach DBs in Indy. Frazier was also given the title "Special Assistant to the Head Coach"--presumably he was a sounding board for Dungy in gameplanning and defensive strategy--and during this time learned the Tampa 2 defense from the master himself. While in Indianapolis, Frazier guided Bob Sanders to the 2005 Pro Bowl in his rookie season. In the playoff run in 2006, with Sanders back from injury, the Colts defense had the swagger and mojo to match its offensive firepower--and Leslie Frazier earned a 2006 Super Bowl ring.
When Tampa 2 disciple Mike Tomlin was hired away from the Vikings, they hired Leslie Frazier to step in and run the defense. That he did, and more. After the '07 season, Frazier had the responsibilities and title of "Assistant Head Coach" added to his nameplate. His mission for 2008 was maintaing the defense's effectiveness against the run, while improving the pass defense. He did that, bringing in fearsome DE Jared Allen and mixing in more man-to-man coverage to maximize CB Antoine Winfield's considerable shutdown skills. The results in 2008?
- The Vikings ranked 6th in yardage defense, with 292.4 yards allowed per game.
- The Vikings ranking 13th in scoring defense, allowing 20.8 points per game.
- The Vikings had the stingiest rushing defense in football, allowing only 1,240 yards (3.3 ypc).
- The Vikings racked up 45 sacks, fourth-most in the NFL.
It's true that a lot of this production comes from the monster DT team of Pat and Kevin Williams. And yet, everywhere he goes, we see a pattern: young players bloom quickly, defenses get nasty, safety play is top-notch. Cincinnati observers see that they missed out, and Broncos fans want him. Keeping the T2 (or a more agressive hybrid of T2 and the blitzing 4-3 style) would save having to turn over quite so much of the roster, and allow more of the 'foundation' Marinelli laid to stay in place.
While Spagnuolo is still my favorite candidate, he is definitely the belle of the ball right now. Frazier--to me--is a candidate with an equally impressive resume, who would probably already be a head coach if it weren't for the clash with Lewis. If the Lions "settle" for Leslie Frazier, we might just end up with one hell of a coach.