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Leslie Frazier: The Mild-Mannered Mastermind from Mississippi

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The Bills have had one of the best defensive units since Sean McDermott became head coach in 2017. But many forget about the silent mover who has made this defense a reality: defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier. But how did the 61-year-old help McDermott become a top-tier coach and help this team become a feared defense in the league? And how did this man go from a superstar cornerback into one of the best defensive minds in football?

Humble Beginnings

WhyLeslie Antonio Frazier was born on April 3rd, 1959, in Columbia, Mississippi. Growing up in the segregated south, Frazier was dealt a tough card. Newspaper headlines brought reminders of bigotry and hate, with instances like the Ole Miss Riot in 1962 filling Frazier’s mind.

The protest concerning the admittance of an African-American man into the University of Ole Miss turned violent. Two people died during the two-day riot.

But Frazier had greater concerns growing up. He and his two younger brothers grew up with little support from their parents. His mother battled substance abuse, and he never really knew his father.

But his grandmother (nicknamed “Big Mama”) primarily raised Frazier and his siblings. She was a cook at the Columbus Air Force Base, and Frazier understood the sacrifices his grandmother made.

“My grandmother did the best she could without having a lot financially,” he said in an interview with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

But his grandmother instilled more than hard work in Frazier. Every Sunday, Frazier was in the pews at St. James United Methodist Church in Columbus, Mississippi. Frazier talks about how an Easter morning sermon moved him to follow his faith in Christ.

“I knew I wanted to go to Heaven, but I wasn’t assured. When he explained it, though, I knew. I went forward and accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior, and I’ve grown over time,” he said. With Christ at his side, Frazier took his spirituality and turned it into fuel for his athletics.

High School Stardom

Falcons Logo
Frazier was a player for the now Columbus High School Falcons football team for three seasons. (Photo By Columbus High School)

Growing up in Columbus, Frazier attended Stephen D. Lee High School, now part of the Columbus Municipal School District. He used his determination to become a three-sport athlete. He played basketball and baseball, but when Fall rolled around, you know where you could find Frazier: lined up at wide receiver for the Generals.

Frazier made all the varsity teams in his sophomore year, earning nine total letters across the three sports. Once it was time to make a college decision, Frazier chose Alcorn State University, one of the historically black colleges.

Stardom at Alcorn State University

Frazier was recruited by Marino “The Godfather” Casem, who is the most successful coach in Alcorn State history (138-71-1). Casem was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003. Starting primarily as a wide receiver, Frazier decided to switch to cornerback, and it turned out to be a great choice.

Marino Casem and Leslie Frazier
Marino Casem and Leslie Frazier during Casem’s 2013 induction into the Mississippi State Hall of Fame.

In his first season for the Braves in 1978, Frazier recorded six interceptions and 62 tackles. His numbers earned him an All-Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) honorable mention. But the team struggled, finishing fourth in the league with a 5-4-1 record. With a breakout season, Frazier hoped to continue his defensive greatness in 1979.

Young Leslie Frazier
A young Leslie Frazier while attending Alcorn State University
(Photo provided by the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted Frazier in 2017)

Frazier continued his dominance in 1979 with nine interceptions and 26 pass breakups. He also had 44 tackles and two fumble recoveries, earning him All-SWAC first-team defensive honors.

The team also jumped to new heights, finishing 8-2 and sixth overall in the FCS AP Top 25. Frazier’s nine interceptions are also still the most all-time for a player in Alcorn State history.

In his final season for the Braves, Frazier’s year was cut short due to a torn hamstring. But he still recorded consistent numbers with five interceptions and 49 tackles. Frazier also earned second-team All-SWAC honors.

Once his college football career was over, Frazier had to make up his mind about going pro. Just a year earlier, his teammate Roynell Young went 23rd overall to the Philadelphia Eagles. But things did not pan out for Frazier … or did they?

Undrafted, Then Superstar

After 20 interceptions in three seasons, you would think NFL teams would circle Frazier’s name for the 1981 NFL Draft. But no one came biting, and he went undrafted.

However, the Chicago Bears signed him to a rookie minimum deal just days after the draft.

Leslie Frazier rookie card
Leslie Frazier’s rookie card

For his first season, Frazier sat behind sixth-round pick, Reuben Henderson, on the depth chart at the cornerback position. But he had some time on special teams, returning six kicks for 77 yards.

With the Bears hiring Mike Ditka as their head coach in 1982, the defensive scheme changes benefited Frazier. Frazier overtook Henderson for the starting job and played well. In the 1982 Players Strike shortened season, Frazier had two interceptions and one fumble recovery in six starts for Chicago.

But, once Frazier got 16 starts under his belt in 1983, he arguably had his best season that year. Frazier led the team with seven interceptions, which was tied for third in the league. He also returned one for a touchdown against the Denver Broncos in week five. However, Chicago did not make the postseason, finishing 8-8.  

In 1984, Frazier stayed consistent with five interceptions, tied with Gary Fencik for the team lead. But nothing was going to prepare Frazier for the whirlwind 1985 season.

Frazier Flips the Script

Coming into the 1985 NFL season, the Chicago Bears and Frazier were primed to have their best season yet. But their trip to Super Bowl XX almost did not get off the ground.

In week one against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Bears had a 28-17 halftime deficit. And Frazier told ESPN‘s Melissa Isaacson in 2010 that he knew he needed to step up big time.

“I remember sitting in the locker room at halftime and thinking, ‘Man, we need something to jump-start us. Damn, I hope they throw a ball my way,” Frazier said.

Frazier in locker room
Leslie Frazier in the Chicago Bears locker room

And on the second play of the second half, the fourth-year corner got his chance. Frazier returned a Richard Dent tipped pass 29 yards for a touchdown, cutting the deficit to four. After Frazier’s interception return, the Bears went on a 21-0 run, eventually winning 38-28.

With this swing of emotions, the comeback set Frazier and the Bears on a roll. Eventually, the Bears made Super Bowl XX against the New England Patriots.

Super Bowl Shuffle

Now with the Bears’ dominant defense came the infamous Super Bowl shuffle dance of the G-Squad.

Despite not having a singing role in the video, Frazier told ESPN in 2013 that he wished he had a role in the vocals.

1985 Bears
The 1985 Bears: one of the best defensive teams in NFL history

“This is what you’re going to be doing: dancing in the background, which was fine with me. When it got bigger, I thought I wouldn’t have minded having a singing role, not that I can sing,” he said.

Looking at the video, he honestly does not look like he wants to be there. But he let his on-the-field play do the talking with six interceptions to lead the team. But in the biggest game of his career, Frazier suffered a major setback.

The Injury

In Super Bowl XX, Frazier lined up as the starting right corner for the Bears. But all season long, he was also a part of the return game. So, Chicago implemented a trick play on a punt, and it turned out to be disastrous for Frazier.

“We tried a trick play, a reverse on a punt return. The whole season, we never called it. I planted my foot in the artificial turf, and my knee exploded,” Frazier told the New York Times in 2004.

ACL tear in Super Bowl
Leslie Frazier’s career came to an abrupt end during a punt return in Super Bowl XX
(Photo by Sports Illustrated)

Deemed as one of the most graphic injuries in Super Bowl history, Frazier tore the ACL in his left knee. With today’s advancements in treating ACL injuries, Frazier quite possibly could have returned to the field. But he never did.

The injury still impacts Frazier today, as he cannot exercise the way he used to.

“As far as exercising, there is a problem because I never regained my full range of motion. That is really what kept me from playing, not the injury itself but regaining my full range of motion. If I am playing basketball or some sport that involves quick bursts or sprints, I am not able to do that,” Frazier told the Chicago Tribune in 1992.

Yes, Frazier did win a ring, as the Bears won 46-10. But with his playing career over, it was time to jump into the workforce. Surprisingly though, one of the brightest minds on defense almost did not throw on the headset.

Coaching Career?

Just a year after his horrific knee injury in Super Bowl XX, Leslie Frazier left the sport that engrossed him since high school. But one man saw the opportunity of a lifetime for the former standout corner.

Dr. Ken Meyer, then the president of Trinity College in Chicago’s northern suburbs, sent a letter to Frazier. The message: asking him to launch a football program at the tiny NAIA Christian school.

To Meyer’s dismay, Frazier threw the first letter in the trash in August 1986. However, Meyer continued to push Frazier into considering the opportunity laid out in front of him.

And in 1988, Frazier accepted Meyer’s request. Frazier already knew some of the board of directors at the college, as he lived in nearby Hawthorn Woods. He told the Chicago Tribune in 1990 it was a challenge he was willing to take.

Video Courtesy of Trinity International University Archives

”But that was one of the things that got me interested in the job–the challenge of starting a new program. I didn`t have to come in and repair the damage done by another guy. And I would be the head coach of a college football program at 29 years of age,” he said.

His Christian beliefs also drew him to the school, but it was a tough task in the recruiting process. The school had a strict policy for its athletes, including no drinking or dancing and attending chapel three times a week.

Trinity College (1989-1996) and University of Illinois (1997-1998)

Despite these strict regulations, Frazier led the Trojans to a 3-4-1 record in 1989. With the team at his control, the Trojans enjoyed some success (8-2 in 1993) and struggled at times (3-7 in 1996). In seven years as head coach, Frazier led Trinity to a 38-37-3 record, winning two Northern Illinois Intercollegiate Conference titles.

Also, the stadium was dedicated in Frazier’s name for his determination in building the program from the ground up. But after a 3-7 season in 1996, Frazier moved on to the University of Illinois, become their defensive backs coach.

Football Field
Leslie Frazier Field at Trinity International University
(Photo Courtesy of Trinity International University Athletics)

In two years on the sidelines for the Fighting Illini, Frazier’s defensive backs recorded 22 interceptions. The team struggled mightily in the Big Ten Conference, going 0-11 and 3-8 in the two years Frazier was there. 

Even though Illinois struggled, one of the most successful coaches in NFL history began to take notice in Frazier. That coach was Andy Reid.

Philadelphia Eagles (1999-2002)

With the Eagles hiring former Green Bay Packers QB coach, Andy Reid, in 1999, he needed to fill his staff. So, he called on Frazier to be his defensive backs coach. Frazier told the Associated Press that his mentor knew how to run a tight-knit organization.

“Andy was good at handling situations and presenting those situations to the players where they really understood with great clarity the direction we wanted to go as a team,” Frazier said.

With Reid’s trust, Frazier began to tinker with the Eagles defensive back scheme, one that included Troy Vincent.

Frazier Turns Troy Vincent Into a Superstar

Troy Vincent
Leslie Frazier helped CB Troy Vincent become one of the best defensive players in Philadelphia Eagles history (Photo by the Philadelphia Inquirer)

Vincent had some flashes for the Miami Dolphins in the mid-1990s, including back-to-back five-interception seasons in 1994 and 1995. But he never made the Pro Bowl until Frazier helped him craft his defensive style.

1999 was a highlight year for Vincent, recording seven interceptions, 19 passes defended, and 81 total tackles. These stats earned the seven-year vet his first Pro Bowl nod.

But it was not just a fluke season for Vincent. His 1999 performance sparked four straight trips to the Pro Bowl and 17 interceptions under Frazier’s watch.

Meanwhile, the entire defensive back unit benefited from Frazier’s presence. The Eagles improved from 19th in passing touchdowns given up to three straight appearances in the top ten. Their highest was second in 2000.

The entire defensive unit also reaped the improvements as well, becoming a top-five defensive unit in three out of four years.

The Eagles also reached consecutive NFC Championships (2001-2002), losing to the Rams and Buccaneers.

This performance solidified Frazier’s ability to coach at a high level under a coach expecting a lot from his defensive unit. Plus, he coached with someone I will get into later. But Frazier’s performance made him a hot commodity for a defensive coordinator position.

Cincinnati Bengals (2003-2004)

With the Bengals firing Dick LeBeau after the 2002 season, former Ravens Defensive Coordinator, Marvin Lewis, was hired as the 9th coach in franchise history. In Baltimore, Lewis ran a defensive scheme like the 1985 Bears, full of hard-hitting linebackers and a strong defensive back core.

So, who better to hire than one of the former Super Bowl Shuffle superstars, Leslie Frazier?

Frazier inherited the worst defense in the 2002 NFL season (456 points against according to Pro Football Reference). The defense also gave up 30 passing touchdowns (2nd worst) and had only nine interceptions (T-worst).

In Frazier’s first season as DC, the team had shown improvement on the interception side (14, 20th in the league) and passing touchdowns gave up (23, 11th worst). Despite the positives, Cincinnati gave up 384 points (5th worst) and 4.8 yards per rushing attempt (3rd worst).

Frazier as Bengals defensive coordinator
Leslie Frazier was the Bengals defensive coordinator from 2003-2004
(Photo by Tom Berg/Getty Images)

It is tough to place all the blame on Frazier for Cincinnati’s lackluster defense, as he did not have a superstar to build his scheme around. Despite the circumstances, Lewis wanted Frazier to raise the bar in 2004.

And Frazier did his best with his defensive arsenal. The team improved seven spots in total defense (21st) and forced 20 interceptions (8th best in the league). With these improvements, you would think it would pay dividends for the team.

But the Bengals finished 8-8 for the second straight season, and the divide between Lewis and Frazier widened.

Frazier Canned by Lewis

Three days after the Bengals’ Week 17 win over Philadelphia’s second-string offense, Lewis canned Frazier. Lewis told the AP he credited Frazier for leading the defense, but the team needed to go in another direction.

Throughout the 2004 season, there had been claims that Lewis took over defensive play-calling abilities, but these are disputed. Looking past the rift, Frazier said years later that there was no grudge between him and Lewis.

“It was a long time ago, and so much has transpired since then in both of our lives. 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,” he said.

Lewis took much of the blame for firing Frazier: “A difficult thing transpired then and probably more my fault than Leslie’s–it was my fault more than Leslie’s, but he’s gone on to do great,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2013.

But with Frazier out the door as DC in Cincinnati, another coaching legend gave him a ring.

Relationship With Tony Dungy

Leslie Frazier has credited many for helping him along in his coaching journey. But he says no one has been more influential than Tony Dungy.

“He was a guy who I looked at and said, ‘OK, I’m going to see how he does things,’ because I sensed that our beliefs were similar,” Frazier said. “So I followed him from a distance,” Frazier said in a 2008 interview with the Twin Cities Pioneer Press.

Frazier had been following Dungy since his stint as head coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996-2001. He was fascinated by his defensive schemes and being a successful minority coach in the NFL.

Also, both had another connection: each of them went undrafted and won Super Bowls. Dungy won one with the Steelers in 1979 and Frazier won with the Bears in 1985.

But Dungy knew Frazier was watching. Once Frazier came into the league in 1999, the two exchanged phone numbers. They frequently chatted about football and their families.

Special Connection

Specifically, Frazier remembers a conversation he had with Dungy after the Eagles lost to the Arizona Cardinals on a late touchdown pass in 2001.

This is what Dungy said: “Hey, Leslie, I just called to pick you up, man. Don’t feel like you’re the only secondary coach that’s gone through this, now. This is the NFL.”

This strong bond paid dividends down the road for Frazier. In 2005, Dungy brought Frazier onto his coaching staff as the defensive backs coach for the Indianapolis Colts.

With Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis headlining Indianapolis’s defensive unit, the Colts were a force to be reckoned with. They finished second in total defense while the offense fired on all cylinders with their second-ranked attack led by Peyton Manning.

Despite this superstar power, the Colts were upset by the eventual Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional round. Putting that aside, there was an incident that brought Dungy and Frazier closer than ever.

Dungy Tragedy

On December 22, 2005, Dungy’s son James hung himself in his Tampa-area apartment. With his death coming two days before their matchup against the Seattle Seahawks, many did not think Dungy would coach.

But Frazier was by Dungy’s side throughout the entire process, praying for the healing for the entire Dungy family.

“That was a very, very tough time, but I thank the Lord that I could be there in person,” he said.

With understandable grief, Dungy did not coach in the game. But the Colts honored Dungy’s son with JD decals on their helmets and a moment of silence was held.

Being devout Christians, Dungy and Frazier had the connection of faith, leaning on each other when Dungy needed it most.

Frazier Wins Against Former Team on Big Stage

With the playoff loss in his rearview mirror, Frazier and the entire Colts organization geared up for the 2006 season.

While the defense slipped to 23rd overall, Frazier kept his defensive backs in check. Veteran cornerback Nick Harper excelled for the Colts with three interceptions and 75 total tackles. And the passing defense for the Colts excelled, giving up only 16 touchdowns (5th best).

The Colts were firing on all cylinders rolling into the 2006 playoffs. The team ripped off three straight wins against the Chiefs, Ravens, and Patriots. With momentum on their side, the Colts reached Super Bowl XLI against the Chicago Bears.

On the biggest stage of professional sports, Frazier’s defensive back unit showed off. Bob Sanders had an interception and a forced fumble while Kelvin Hayden had the game-clinching 56-yard interception return. When the clock struck zero, the Colts were victorious, 29-17.

Super Bowl Interception
CB Kelvin Hayden’s 59-yard interception return sealed Frazier’s second Super Bowl title and his first as a coach.
(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

As he celebrated his second Lombardi Trophy, Dungy took some time to honor Frazier for his contributions at the time.

“He came with us for two years and helped us win a Super Bowl. So, on top of personal friendship, I’m always going to be grateful for his role in helping us get to the top,” Dungy said.

With another championship ring on his finger, Frazier could have retired and walked off in the sunset as a winner. But with his heart and soul still committed to football, he left Indianapolis for a bigger opportunity.

Vikings Defensive Coordinator (2007-2010)

There was an opening to become the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator, as Mike Tomlin left to become the head coach of the Steelers. With the opening available, Frazier jumped at the opportunity.

With an impressive resume, Vikings head coach Brad Childress hired Frazier as defensive coordinator in 2007. Coming into an already stable defensive unit in Minnesota (14th in total defense in ’06), Frazier got to work.

Leslie Frazier and Brad Childress
Brad Childress hired Frazier to fill the Vikings defensive coordinator position after Mike Tomlin left to become head coach of the Steelers.
(AP Photo/ Jim Mone)

Frazier’s first season as DC was a success. Minnesota improved to 12th overall in total defense. The team also had the best rushing defense in the league (1,185 yards given up). And there was little drop off in defensive takeaways (36 in ’06 vs 31 in ’07).

But like in Cincinnati, opposing passing attacks ripped the Vikings’ defense apart. They were the worst in the NFL with 4,225 yards given up. And much like the record in Cincy, Minnesota missed the playoffs win an 8-8 record.

Defense Turns Corner Under Frazier

In 2008, however, the Vikings turned the corner with a 10-6 record and an NFC North Division Title. Much of the success landed on Frazier’s defensive shoulders.

Despite dropping to 13th in total defense, the Vikings still held onto the NFL’s best rushing defense (1,230 yards). They also gave up only 4.9 yards per play, which was fifth best. Plus, Frazier had one of the NFL’s best pass rushers in All-Pro Jared Allen, who had 14.5 sacks.

With the NFC North title, the Vikings hosted the Eagles in the Wild Card round. The Vikings defense did their job in the first half, holding the Eagles to three field goals, but a 71-yard touchdown pass from Donovan McNabb sealed their upset win, 26-14.

The season ending was a let down for Frazier, but the best was yet to come for his defense.

Paired with a 12-4 record, the Vikings had the 10th best defense in the NFL and were second in rushing yards given up (1,394). And Jared Allen once again played out of his mind with 14.5 sacks.

Jared Allen
Jared Allen emerged as a superstar pass rusher under Leslie Frazier.
(Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

With Brett Favre and Jared Allen leading their respective sides, Frazier was primed to appear in his third Super Bowl. But the New Orleans Saints had other plans. After a Favre interception in overtime, the Saints kicked a game-winning field goal to eliminate the Vikings.

It was a tough task for Frazier against Drew Brees and the Saints, as they were the NFL’s top offense. He did everything he could, though, holding them to 265 yards of total offense, but it was not enough.

It was another disappointing exit in the playoffs for Minnesota. But as the team was exploring options to move on from head coach Brad Childress, Frazier was waiting in the wings.

2010: Frazier Steps in as Interim HC

As the 2010 season rolled around, Frazier hoped his defense would keep the momentum they established in 2009. But things did not work out as planned. After a 31-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers, owner Zygi Wilf had enough, firing Childress after a 3-7 start.

Wilf opted to promote from within, giving Frazier the keys to finish the season. Frazier excelled for being in a tough spot, going 3-3 to finish the season as interim head coach, but his defense was starting to show signs of instability.

Overall, his unit dropped to 18th in the league, and Minnesota’s rushing defense dropped to ninth (1,635 yards). They also forced only 26 turnovers (19th in the league) but were eighth overall in total yards given up (5,002). Plus, Jared Allen’s overall sack count dropped to 11.0, which was 39 percent of the team’s total sack count.

With the negativity surrounding his defense, it did not help that the Vikings had an aged quarterback under center and a struggling offense. Frankly, the offense fell off a cliff, from second in 2009 to 29th in 2010.

Given the benefit of the doubt, Frazier was hired by the Vikings as head coach on January 3rd, 2011. He was one of eight head coaches who were of minority descent, the highest it has ever been.

Vikings Head Coach (2011-2013)

During his introductory press conference, Frazier said he had a hunger to win in Minnesota.

“To now stand before you as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, my desire and hunger to bring a world championship here has increased exponentially. And that’s what I want to bring to this organization and for our fans.”

Leslie Frazier introduced as HC
Leslie Frazier is introduced as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in 2011.
(AP Photo/Andy King)

Well, 2011 did not pan out like Frazier had hoped. The Vikings had the second worst defense in the league and finished dead last in the NFC North. But considering the team was going through some growing pains at quarterback, it was not all on Frazier.

There were some shining moments, such as Jared Allen finished 0.5 sacks from Michael Strahan’s 22.5 record set in 2001. Also, 10 of their 13 losses were by one score. So it was not about the effort; it was about finishing when it mattered most.

Turnaround?

With a rocky start to his NFL coaching career, Frazier hoped for more stable ground in 2012. And he earned it all, posting a 10-6 record to finish second in the NFC North.

The defense saw a major improvement, finishing 14th in total defense and 11th in rushing defense (1,692 yards). On the flip side, Frazier’s offense was spearheaded by AP MVP Adrian Peterson, who rushed for a career-high 2,097 yards.

With the Vikings locked into the Wild Card round, they had to play the Packers in back-to-back weeks. The momentum did not carry over, though, as the Vikings turned the ball over three times in a 20-17 loss.

It was another blow for Frazier and the Vikings, but nothing could prepare him for the 2013 season.

Dissapointing 2013 Season and Firing

With his background in defense, there was hope Frazier would keep the Vikings’ defensive momentum going. However, the Vikings sank to the worst defensive in the NFL. The biggest problem was their passing offense, which gave up 4,595 yards (2nd worst) and 37 touchdowns (worst).

At the end of the season, the Vikings had a 5-10-1 record and wanted to go in a different direction. But once Frazier was fired, his former players talked about his impact on their careers.

“He helped me grow as a man, and for that, I’ll always be thankful,” Jared Allen said.

Despite his firing, Frazier’s coaching career was littered with success. He turned around a sub-par defensive unit and worked with what he had. He also helped Jared Allen become one of the best pass rushers of the 2000s.

Overall, Frazier finished with a 21-32-1 record in about four years under the helm for the purple and gold. But his defensive mind did not stay unemployed long.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2014-2015)

With the Bucs firing Greg Schiano after a 4-12 season in 2013, the team hired Lovie Smith in 2014. And the former Bears head coach had nothing but positives to say about his new defensive coordinator.

He transformed Minnesota’s defense into one of the league’s elite units during his time there, and I look forward to working with him to do the same here in Tampa Bay,” Smith told WCBI in 2014.

Leslie Frazier Buccaneers
Leslie Frazier had a short stint as Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator

Frazier took on a defense that had little proven talent, and it showed in 2014.

His past failures in the passing game followed him, as Tampa Bay finished fifth-worst in yards (4,084), and the Buccaneers were third-worst in first downs given up with 353. The team finished 2-14 overall.

2015 was not any better for Frazier’s defensive unit. Despite Gerald McCoy leading the team with 8.5 sacks, the Buccaneers had the 26th ranked defensive unit in the league, and their pass defense gave up 31 touchdowns, which was seventh-worst.

Do Not Point the Finger at Frazier

Yes, Leslie Frazier’s defense was abysmal in Tampa Bay, but you cannot point the finger at him for the failures.

For starters, the organization did nothing to help him on defense. Take the 2014 NFL draft for example.

With a defense-stacked draft filled with future superstars in Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald, the organization instead picked wide receiver, Mike Evans. It seemed like the front office wanted to see Frazier fail from the start.

But nonetheless, the Buccaneers chose not to pick up Frazier’s 2016 option on January 7th. Once again, the former cornerback wasn’t unemployed for long and went back to his bread and butter.

Baltimore Ravens (2016)

In 2016, the Eagles connection continued to pay dividends for Frazier. John Harbaugh, who was Philly’s special teams coordinator from 1998-2006, chose Frazier as his secondary coach.

In an interview with the Ravens’ television crew, Frazier said he hoped to turn the team’s turnover woes around as they had only fourteen in 2015.

Frazier with the Ravens
In just one season in Baltimore, Frazier made significant changes to the Ravens secondary.

“We are going to have some drills where we are taking the football away in practice with defensive backs coming in and punching the ball out, trying to catch balls in the air and aggressively pursuing the football,” he said.

Well, those practice drills must have lit a fire underneath the Ravens defense. In 2016, the team had 22 total turnovers, with 14 of those being interceptions.

The improvement also benefited the whole team, as Baltimore improved from 5-11 to 8-8. However, Frazier still wanted to be a defensive coordinator. And the Buffalo Bills gave him a ring after the 2016 season.

McDermott and Frazier Connection

Remember I said earlier I would bring up someone that coached with Frazier in Philadelphia? Well that person was Sean McDermott.

Back in 2002-2003, Frazier and McDermott worked side by side. Frazier was the defensive backs coach and McDermott was a rising defensive assistant. So it was not a coincidence that Frazier was hired as defensive coordinator in 2017.

Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier had coached with one another before meeting up again in Buffalo in 2017.

Frazier told the Buffalo News that he was appreciative of the hire and wanted to do everything he could to help the first-year head coach.

“One of the first things that went through my mind was, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to help Sean not make some of the same mistakes that I made as a first-year head coach,'” Frazier said.

Coming into the 2017 season, Frazier finally had some superstar defensive players to build around. The Bills had one of the best linebackers at the time in Lorenzo Alexander and a proven pass rusher in Kyle Williams.

But with Stephon Gilmore leaving Buffalo to chase money in New England, the Bills needed to ramp up their secondary talent.

Significant Changes in Secondary

So what did he and McDermott do? For starters, they drafted LSU CB, Tre’Davious White, with the 27th pick in the draft. And they added a veteran presence in ball-hawking safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer.

Tre'Davious White
One of Frazier’s first moves at defensive coordinator was drafting Tre’Davious White 27th overall in 2017. It turned out to be a great pick.

There were some growing pains, though, as the Bills defense finished seventh-worst in total yards (5,682) and had the fourth-worst rushing defense (1,994 yards). But the team drastically improved on their takeaways (18 in ’16 to 25 in ’17) and their passing touchdowns given up (19 to 14).

And, of course, we all know what happened after their Week 17 win over the Miami Dolphins: Frazier helped to end the drought!

Frazier was an important part of this defensive overhaul in 2017. He helped turn a subpar defense into a rising contender.

But before he started the 2018 rebuild of the Bills offense, one of his former employers came calling.

Colts Interview Frazier

In the months leading up to the 2018 season, Frazier was a hot commodity for a head coaching position. And a former AFC East rival wanted a shot to interview him.

On February 8th, 2018, the Indianapolis Colts requested and interviewed their former defensive backs coach for their head coaching vacancy.

It was rumored that owner Jim Irsay was a “big fan” of Frazier, as he has a serious commitment to his craft as a football coach and a leader.

Despite being high in the selection process, the Colts hired former Bills QB and Eagles offensive coordinator, Frank Reich, as their head coach. This was the only vacancy Frazier interviewed for.

But Frazier’s rejection turned out to be a positive one, not only for him but the Bills as well.

2018: REBUILD

After the highs of the 2017 playoff appearance, the Bills decided to move on from QB Tyrod Taylor and draft Josh Allen 7th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. Make no mistake; 2018 was a rebuild year for the team.

But even though the Bills finished 6-10 that season, their was plenty of defensive positives because of Leslie Frazier.

Buffalo finished 2018 with the best passing defense and seventh in interceptions with 16. And their 88 tackles for loss were the highest since the team had 89 in 2014.

Also, they had a young MLB in Tremaine Edmunds calling the on-field defense. And to be fair, he did a damn good job for being only 20.

Nevertheless, analysts seem to only care about records, as ESPN labeled McDermott as having the hottest seat in the NFL going into 2019.

With the media doubting, this lit a fire under Frazier and McDermott. And it was time to make the national media pay.

2019: Shot to the Top

2019 was a magical season for the Bills, and I would argue it was better than them breaking the playoff drought in 2017. Here’s why: Buffalo’s defense was put on the map.

With the players in the right defensive alignment, Frazier had his best year as defensive coordinator. Overall, the team finished second in total defense.

The last time Buffalo finished that high? It was during the 1999 season, a season marred by flashbacks of an illegal forward pass in the Music City Miracle.

Leslie Frazier
Leslie Frazier was a major piece in the rise of the Bills defense in 2019

You have to give Frazier a ton of credit for revamping Buffalo’s 2019 defense. His ability to flip the script for a team that was predicted to finish 4-12 is outstanding.

Take the Bills’ win over the Steelers in Week 15 that clinched their second playoff birth in three years. Even though Ben Roethlisberger was not under center for Pittsburgh, the Bills still forced five turnovers. And they held one of the best young running backs in the game in James Connor to rush for fewer than 50 yards.

And I don’t want to bring this up, but I kind of have to. In the 22-19 Wild Card loss to the Texans, Buffalo’s defense had seven sacks. The last time Buffalo had that many sacks in the playoffs: the 1993 AFC Divisional Playoff against the Steelers, which they won 24-3.

The Bills defensive performance finally put Frazier on the map as one of the great defensive minds in the NFL.

The national media began to tab him as a hot commodity for a head coach vacancy. But nobody came calling, which has been something Frazier has been outspoken about.

Lack of Head Coaching Minorities in NFL

The lack of minority head coaches in the NFL is nothing new. Over the past decade, the NFL has tried to regulate diversity in the league with the Rooney Rule.

The league has updated its terms this past spring. According to NFL.com, “The league will require clubs to interview at least two external minority candidates for head coaching openings and at least one minority candidate for any coordinator job.”

Also, teams must interview at least one external minority candidate for front office operations openings. But this has not helped the diversity in the league.

Field
Frazier has been very outspoken about the issues minority coaches have had in the NFL.

Currently, the league has four minority head coaches and and two minority general managers. And Leslie Frazier has been very outspoken about this problem, who was the 13th minority head coach hired in the history of the league when Minnesota hired him in 2011.

“I hope we get to a point where people just do the right thing, as far as hiring the best candidate and not look at the color of that person’s skin. So, I hope it doesn’t come down to where you’ve got to incentivize people to hire minorities. It shouldn’t happen,” Frazier told the Buffalo News.

It is a shame that Frazier has not been given a chance to show his true ability as a head coach. He should have been a hot commodity after the 2019 season, but nobody came around.

I do not want to speculate if Frazier will leave Buffalo to fill a coaching vacancy. But if the Bills make a deep playoff run, it may be a matter of time Frazier gets another crack.

Frazier Has Beaten the Odds

From the start of his life, Frazier had the odds stacked against him. With his parents not around, he leaned on his grandmother’s support and faith to become the man he is today.

His passion for football is nothing short of extraordinary. From winning a Super Bowl as a player and coach to rebuilding lackluster defenses into powerful units, Frazier has done it all.

He has earned the title of assistant head coach and the accolades that have followed him. And I firmly believe Buffalo would not be the position they are now if Frazier was not on this coaching staff.

Thank you for reading. What are some of your favorite Leslie Frazier moments as the Bills defensive coordinator? Do you think he has what it takes to lead this defensive unit to a Super Bowl championship? Let me know by connecting with me on Twitter @BenBlakely18.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    January 17, 2021 at 4:07 pm

    He played at S.D. Lee High School GENERALS!!!!! Columbus High School Falcons didn’t exist then!

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