As one of Marvin Lewis' first hires after becoming a head coach in 2003, former defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier helped improve Cincinnati's scoring defense that finished dead last in 2002 (456 points allowed) to 21st in 2004 (372 points). Despite Chuck Breshnahan's defense being known as an opportunistic bunch, it was during Frazier's tenure when Cincinnati began forcing turnovers with some regularity. Prior to Frazier, the defense went from 20 turnovers in 2002. By the second year as the team's defensive coordinator, Frazier's defense forced 36 turnovers, including 20 picks (which was the most by the Bengals since 1996).
Yet the relationship soured towards the end. Cincinnati was allowing over 341 yards per game in the final six games of 2004, and the opposing offense scored 30 points or more three times in the same span. By his own admission, Marvin Lewis, only in his second year as a head coach, wasn't supportive. If anything, he was already feeling the pressure as a former defensive coordinator with a historic pedigree in Baltimore that failed to promote a shutdown defense. So he took over the play-calling and learned a valuable lesson that's translated into his relationships today with his coaches.
"A difficult thing transpired then, and probably more my fault than Leslie’s – actually it was all my fault more than Leslie’s, but he’s gone on to do great," Lewis said via the Cincinnati Enquirer, who admitted this week that he wasn't very supportive of Frazier. "I’m very happy for him. I can’t say enough about what he’s done and the opportunity he’s earned himself and he’s done a great job of. It’s unfortunate what happens in coaching."
Frazier has enjoyed a great career since leaving Cincinnati. He was an assistant for two years in Indianapolis, earning a Super Bowl ring with the Colts in '06. He was a defensive coordinator in Minnesota for three years ('08-10) when the Vikings sported a defense that ranked in the top-eight during each of those seasons. When Minnesota fired Brad Childress after a 3-7 start in '10, Frazier took over as the interim coach and won three of six games. After a 3-13 season in '11, Frazier took the Vikings to the postseason in '12 but lost a Wild Card game to the Green Bay Packers. He is signed through 2014.
Now Frazier returns to familiar stomping grounds in Cincinnati this weekend as the head coach for the Minnesota Vikings. It will be the 21st time in franchise history that a former Bengals assistant or head coach faced the Bengals as a head coach with another team.
Bill Walsh is the most famous. A former offensive assistant to Paul Brown and arguably the innovator of the eventual west coast offense (though some will dispute that it was actually Don Coryell), Walsh, as the San Francisco 49ers head coach, won all five games against his former team. After leaving Cincinnati, both Super Bowl coaches (Sam Wyche and Forrest Gregg) would coach against the Bengals with Wyche beating Cincinnati as the head coach with the Buccaneers and Gregg losing by six when the Bengals visited Green Bay.
Publicly, Frazier isn't holding any grudges.
"It was a long time ago and so much has transpired since then in both of our lives," Frazier said earlier this week. "I’m happy for the success the Bengals organization is having. I appreciate Marvin and the Browns. In that period of time, I learned a lot, I’ve grown a lot. It was many, many years ago, but I’m thankful for every situation I’ve been a part of. Everything I’ve been a part of has helped me to get to where I am now."
Due to his team being 4-9-1, Frazier appears to be on a volcanic seat. Ian Rapoport reported last week that Frazier's chances to return in '14 are "grim". Cincinnati can claim the division championship and a possible No. 2 seed (with help) by closing out the regular season with wins over the Vikings and Baltimore Ravens. With recent victories against the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles, and a near-win over the Baltimore Ravens, the Vikings are playing well and should be considered a threat.
"Well, we don't use that word 'spoiler' in our conversation," coach Leslie Frazier said via the Star Tribune. "We're trying our very best to work as hard as we can to get a win for our team, and it's nothing to do with the impact it would have on any other team."
And if the Bengals sleep-walk, like they've done more than a few times this season, the concluding regular season games could be disastrous if they're not careful.
This one is personal.