EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — Hastily hired five seasons ago to bring order to a disheveled franchise, Brad Childress vowed to lead the Minnesota Vikings the only way he knew how — in case this was his only crack at being a head coach.
After an eventful and often tumultuous run marred recently by player unrest, livid fans and a boss angry about abrupt personnel decisions and a 3-7 start this year, Childress is out.
His conservative approach to offensive strategy and rigid communication style are gone, too, leaving behind a talented team that’s out of the playoff race and a leadership vacuum in an organization trying hard to rebuild public good will toward a new stadium.
Childress was fired Monday, one season after he famously picked up Brett Favre at the airport, got a contract extension and came within a field goal of reaching the Super Bowl. Owner Zygi Wilf read from a script and wouldn’t get into specifics about his decision a day after the Vikings were blown out at home by rival Green Bay.
“It’s often difficult to articulate one reason why change is needed,” Wilf said.
Wilf mentioned his “deep respect” for Childress, his hand-picked replacement for Mike Tice in 2006.
“He was an integral part of helping this franchise turn the corner and re-establishing ourselves as a force in the NFL,” Wilf said, “as well as bringing in players who did an excellent job representing themselves and our organization in this community.”
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who has interviewed seven times for NFL head coaching jobs, will serve as interim head coach for the remainder of the season. He wasted no time in answering a big question: The 41-year-old Favre is still the starting quarterback despite his 17 interceptions and looming retirement, whenever that may come.
“There’s no hesitation from me in that regard,” Frazier said, later adding: “I’m of the belief that Brett Favre is going to get it going and the turnovers are going to come down and we’re going to get going as a football team.”
Frazier wore a suit and a solemn look at the podium during a news conference, looking like he was already auditioning for the permanent job. He said he expected the full effort of his players for the rest of the season, despite the shattered title hope.
“The challenge our players have is to understand that other people around the league are taking a look at that tape, and you owe it to your teammates and your family to go out there and play hard every single snap,” Frazier said.
Childress is the second NFL coach to be fired this season after Wade Phillips was let go by Dallas.
“I am proud of our accomplishments and believe the foundation of this football team is stronger today than when I became head coach,” he said in a statement released by the team.
Childress went 40-37 with the Vikings, including 1-2 in the playoffs. He was all in with Favre, riding his incredible 2009 season to the NFC championship game and then going down this year under the weight of his struggles to regain that rhythm. But the team’s problems transcend Favre.
Asked if he’d give Favre more freedom to run the offense as he saw fit, Frazier laughed.
“If you ask Brett that question I’m sure he would say, ‘Give me all the latitude in the world.’ But we do have a system in place,” Frazier said. “There may be some tweaks to the system. We’re going to talk about that.”
Players had left the building by the time Wilf and Frazier finished with their news conference, but the team distributed statements from several players.
“Brad Childress is a good guy, a man with strong faith and a great family. I wish him the best in the future,” Favre said. “I think we all, starting with me, could have done more to make this a successful season.”
Later, wide receiver Greg Lewis used Twitter to call the NFL a “what have you done for me lately league.”
“And lately we have stunk. Coach Childress took the fall,” Lewis tweeted.
Childress took over in Minnesota after spending seven years with Philadelphia, including four as the offensive coordinator. He was chosen by Wilf to instill discipline and demand better off-the-field behavior from a team that was embarrassed the year before by a bye-week boat party gone bad and a number of other legal problems for players.
However, Childress stumbled in his first year and never fully gained the faith of the fans — or some of his players. The Vikings went from 6-10 to 8-8 to 10-6 to 12-4 in his first four seasons, but this year’s mess grew too big to salvage. According to an ESPN.com report last week, Childress’s contract — extended in November 2009 — had $6.6 million remaining on it for 2011 and 2012.
This season almost seemed destined for doom, given how smoothly it all went in 2009 until the very end and how well Favre played last year by taking care of the ball and making age-defying throws into the end zone. With Favre failing to commit until August and injuries throwing the wide receivers out of whack, the offense has never been never truly in sync.
The relationship between Favre and Childress, tense at times in 2009, seemed to sour further when Favre threw three ill-fated interceptions in the Oct. 24 game against the Packers, lost to his old team and was sharply criticized afterward by his coach.
Then the situation really worsened following a loss at New England when wide receiver Randy Moss, acquired in a trade for a third-round draft pick just four weeks earlier, went out of his way to praise the Patriots and criticize Childress in a post-game rant.
Childress got rid of him the next day, leaving Wilf reportedly angry that wasn’t in the loop right away. There were anonymous reports of growing dissatisfaction in the locker room, and Childress and Harvin got into a heated argument one day over an MRI test Harvin didn’t want on his sprained ankle.
Fans made no secret about their frustration, either, with thousands of “Fire Chilly” signs distributed on Nov. 7 outside the stadium before the Vikings played Arizona and several chants breaking out from the seats during the Packers game on Sunday.
“The challenge I have before me is to make sure that we’re going in the right direction and at the end of the year we’re not a 3-13 team,” Frazier said, adding: “I don’t think there’s anybody on our team that can stand back and say, ‘You know what? I’ve done my part. I’m not the reason we’re 3-7.’ And if we have a guy like that, that guy has been a selfish individual.”
Wilf said he’s not currently considering any structural changes to the front office, which has operated without a true general manager for years.
The lack of clarity about who makes the calls about the roster has been an issue many times since Wilf bought the team, most recently when Childress dumped Moss.
“There wasn’t one component that factored into this decision, just that we felt we made the best decision for the organization moving forward,” Wilf said. “We have high expectations for this team and wanted to capitalize on what is left for this season.”
AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.