I keep hearing all this talk about the Cleveland Browns being a dysfunctional, hopeless, historically tortured team with a clumsy and possibly criminal owner that just fired a coach who had no chance to win, and all I can think is: "Why is everybody saying 'Cleveland Browns' when they mean 'Minnesota Vikings'?"
The Vikings are trying to hire a coach now. I don't know exactly what their recruiting pitch is, but I assume it involves 73 different pictures of Adrian Peterson's muscles. The Vikings do not have any other Pro Bowlers. They have no quarterback. They will play outside in a college stadium for the next two years -- in Minnesota, where the average temperature in December is negative-72 degrees. Good luck recruiting free agents.
Some franchises can talk about their enormous fan base or successful owners. That is hard for the Vikings because their owners don't seem to know any of their fans. Brothers Zygi and Mark Wilf fly to games from their New Jersey homes, then fly home. Their primary objectives, in eight years of owning the team, seemed to be getting a stadium built and playing with their franchise sporadically, like it's a toy.
This would all be OK if the Wilfs hired the right people to run the organization, clearly delineated responsibilities, then hung out in New Jersey because the pizza is better there. But that is not what they have done.
Mark Wilf is the team "president," yet he rarely spends any time in Minnesota. Rick Spielman is the general manager, and he has fought for full general-manager authority, but he doesn't really have it, because the Wilfs want input when they feel like giving it. Meanwhile, Spielman has botched the most important element of building a modern NFL team: finding a quarterback.
Spielman used the 12th pick in 2011 on Christian Ponder. (Second-rounders that year included Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton.) Ponder had a shaky rookie year, but Spielman, with the third pick in 2012, doubled down: Rather than try to trade up a spot for Robert Griffin III, he traded down a spot and took a tackle, Matt Kalil, to protect Ponder. (A third-rounder that year: Russell Wilson.)
The second-most important element of building a modern NFL team is hiring a coach. But the Wilfs never let Spielman do that. When Brad Childress lost the team in 2010, the Wilfs promoted defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. Then the players liked Frazier so much that the Wilfs gave him the permanent job without interviewing anybody else, against Spielman's wishes.
For three seasons, Spielman was forced to work with a head coach he didn't want. This week, Spielman convinced the Wilfs to fire Frazier -- ticking off Peterson and other players who still love him.
I won't make the case for Frazier as a Lombardi-like figure, and good coaches get fired all the time in the NFL, but honestly, who would have done better with this roster over the last two years? Frazier took a team with Ponder at quarterback to a 10-6 record and the playoffs. Then, this year, he went 5-10-1 with a combination of Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman. The Vikings brought Freeman in midseason, paid him $3 million, and shoved him onto the field. It was a debacle.
Now the Wilfs are joining Spielman on the coaching search. Spielman is a longtime fan of Seattle assistant Darrell Bevell, a former Vikings assistant, and was seen talking to Bevell at length on the field before a Seahawks-Vikings game in November. But Spielman will have to convince the Wilfs to ignore Bevell's connections to the Childress era.
Bevell (and other coaches) should be wary, anyway. Anybody doing business with the Wilfs should have their eyes wide open and lawyers at each side. This fall, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Deanne M. Wilson ordered the Wilfs to pay damages of $84.5 million for cheating their partners in an apartment complex. (Wilson called their conduct "grossly willful" and chastised the Wilfs for "bad faith and evil motive." You can read more about it here.)
The Wilfs built their fortune in real estate, and their whole ownership of the Vikings has amounted to a real-estate deal. They are getting their stadium, on favorable financial terms. But they don't pay enough attention to the people inside -- the players, the coaches and the fans.
This is a franchise without direction. You can't fly into town on Sunday morning and assume your team is in a position to succeed. You have to hire the right people, communicate with them face-to-face and make tough, pro-active decisions throughout the year. And if you aren't willing to do that, you have to hire a de facto owner -- a team president who will do the owner's work. The Wilfs have chosen, instead, to act like owners when it strikes their fancy.
When you wonder why some franchises lose so consistently, the answer often comes down to this: winning in the NFL is hard. It isn't like high school English class, where not everybody gets an A but everybody gets to pass. Every time somebody wins in the NFL, somebody else loses.