When the Minnesota Vikings gathered in Eagan for their minicamp this week, it looked like more of the same. Kirk Cousins was still under center. Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen were still catching passes. Dalvin Cook took handoffs while Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith anchored the defense.
Kevin O’Connell and his staff have high expectations in 2022. The Vikings missed the postseason last year but didn’t tear everything down. Instead, they relied on the same core that missed the playoffs the past two seasons, making O’Connell Minnesota’s biggest free-agent acquisition.
Is it too much pressure to expect a head coach to make the team “super competitive?” It depends on the case. But if recent history suggests anything, things won’t be easy for O’Connell.
There have been 32 coaching changes in the NFL since 2017. In their first year on the job, those coaches averaged 6.5 wins. However, seven of them made the playoffs. Having just under a one in four chance to make the playoffs isn’t a good situation, but first-time head coaches have had a higher ceiling than a retread hire.
Six of the seven teams that made the playoffs after a coaching change did so with a first-time head coach. Even better, three of those coaches won division titles, with Sean McVay (2017), Matt Nagy (2018), and Matt LeFleur (2019) experiencing massive growth in their first season.
It’s conceivable that O’Connell could follow in those footsteps. Two years ago, the Vikings ranked fourth in total offense with Gary Kubiak as their offensive coordinator. While the Vikings only ranked 11th in points scored, a lot of that could be chalked up to Mike Zimmer’s old-school philosophy.
Those problems shouldn’t exist with O’Connell. After learning under McVay, O’Connell brings an innovative scheme that Thielen told Pat McAfee “makes sense.” With a majority of that 2020 offense still on the roster, the Vikings could take another step on offense and force teams to keep up.
But there are different issues on defense. The core of Zimmer’s defense remains on the roster, and nobody has signed Anthony Barr yet. While this group ranked fifth in points allowed in 2019, several players are at or near age 30. Signing Za’Darius Smith added another player to that list of thirtysomethings, so this team could see critical players become less productive.
There is also an element to the coaching change that we don’t see. Zimmer lost control of the locker room, and the players turned their back on him and threw him under the bus once he was gone. An epic PowerPoint presentation saying it wasn’t his fault probably wasn’t Zimmer’s best coaching method, but there were reasons why he was upset.
Perhaps Zimmer was angered by the fact his job was always on the line after reaching the NFC Championship in 2017. Maybe he was bitter because the Vikings chose to pay Cousins over keeping his defense together. Or perhaps it was every man for himself during the final season.
The 2021 Vikings were not a cohesive unit. From their low vaccination rate to Bashaud Breeland calling out fans and reporters, they had a crabbiness that not even Bill Belichick could fix. Even if the scheme was perfect, Zimmer needed these players to buy in. Instead, he got a group of players who were willing to turn their backs when things went wrong.
Kris Boyd commended the new staff on Patrick Peterson‘s podcast, saying they were willing to shrug off a mistake. That may be true during OTAs, but what happens when he commits a 15-yard penalty during a game?
For a team that had nine games decided on the final play, a couple more losses could bring back that here we go again feeling. That puts the spotlight on O’Connell, whose previous experience has only been as an offensive coordinator. It’s a spot where O’Connell may have a disadvantage compared to Zimmer, who’s been a head coach or coordinator for 22 years. Zimmer could get the best out of his team – even if he didn’t say hello in the hallway.
He walked into an absolute mess in Minnesota and walked out with a pair of division titles and the third-best winning percentage in franchise history. Denny Green and Bud Grant are elite company to be in, and that’s exactly what O’Connell is chasing from the moment he walks into TCO Performance Center.
It’s not inconceivable for O’Connell to achieve success from Day 1. But it’s certainly a lot to ask for a team with many issues.