We can all understand why potential general managers were interested in the Minnesota Vikings job. The roster is stacked with Pro Bowlers. Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, and Danielle Hunter play critical roles at each level of the defense. Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and Dalvin Cook are dynamic offensive weapons. Kirk Cousins is a better quarterback than the incumbent in most other vacancies this offseason.
All this team needed was a change in culture and a modern offense, right?
GM candidates like Kwesi Adofo-Mensah probably looked at the Vikings’ roster like a supercomputer that was running Windows 95. But potential coaching candidates may have wondered what the hell was on the hard drive. Mike Zimmer had installed a 1990s offense and his complex defense. Could this roster undergo a memory wipe? Why not sell off the parts and build a different computer from scratch?
Well, Kevin O’Connell seems to believe he can maximize this machine’s potential. He took the job knowing Adofo-Mensah wasn’t going to sell off the graphics card and the central processor. The motherboard was getting a little touchup, but they weren’t going to be selling key components to Billy down the street. What he saw was what he was gonna get. Cousins is going to have to learn his terminology. Cook might be playing out wide. The defense will be moving from Zimmer’s 4-3 to Ed Donatell’s 3-4 system.
Anyone who knew anything about how tense things got under Zimmer last year wouldn’t be surprised that most GM and coaching candidates saw the culture as an easy fix. It was pretty bad, and a new regime benefits from a change in voice and approach. Plus, O’Connell is a culture guy. He comes from the new-school, Sean McVay-style approach to coaching. He’s not a sexagenarian curmudgeon like Zimmer. But did his players learn enough from his “class on the grass” in OTAs and minicamp to go into training camp without being completely befuddled?
First of all, O’Connell’s “class on the grass” is somehow perfectly new-age and also emphasizes how much he’s trying to install this summer. He’s the cool teacher who liberates his students from the dreary confines of the conference room and allows them to learn al fresco. But he’s also debunking the old-school mentality where players must lay each other out to ramp up the intensity. How the hell else are they going to beat the Green Bay Packers in Week 1?
Chill out a bit, says O’Connell.
We’ll have plenty of time to find out about our pass rush, to find out about our ability to protect full speed, and it’ll be great work because I feel really good about both the offensive line and our defensive front. So it’s really a matter of working the situations, working two-minute.
It’s reps for me, calling the plays and seeing our guys respond to the things that I’m calling, [defensive coordinator] Ed [Donatell] calling plays, and then all of those full-speed adjustments that take place on the back end.
Then the team periods … you can demonstrate [you] not only know what to do but how to do it, without that strain to finish where so many guys are lost this time of year because we are just wearing helmets.
You can say it’s football and you can say, “Go 11-on-11 full speed,’”but you’re putting your team at risk, in my opinion.
Oh, so it’s not a good idea to have the most athletic people in the world play a violent sport at full speed in June? Checks out.
We want to pretty much be above-the-shoulders emphasis. We want to see how we learn on the fly. How do we learn when it’s time to make a check? How do you adjust when offenses are shifting and you’ve got all the jet motions and things like that? This period was basically just a mental aspect of the game.
Still, he’s got to have Windows 11 installed by the time the Packers arrive in September. That’s a ways out. It’s June. But training camp is chaotic. There are 90 players on Day 1, and there can only be 53 when the games start. The NFL has reduced preseason from four games to three. Donatell is overhauling the defense. K.J. Osborn, or whoever the WR3 is, will have a more prominent role in the offense. Cousins will have to spit out play calls in a foreign language. He was using flash cards to learn the terminology earlier this summer!
Surprisingly, the defense seems ahead of the offense. The Vikings had joint practices with the Denver Broncos last year, and Denver used Vic Fangio’s 3-4 approach. Fangio’s defense has spread throughout the league and influenced Donatell’s scheme. It’s hard for quarterbacks to diagnose at the snap, and Cousins excels at reading the defense pre-snap and knowing where to throw the ball. However, he struggled against the Broncos last year and says that Donatell’s defense pushed him during minicamp.
“I just found myself saying, ‘This is so good to practice against something different,’” Cousins told The Athletic, talking about the sessions with the Broncos last year. “I think it’s a great scheme, and (our defense is) doing a good job — it just makes practice difficult.”
In some ways, practicing against the 3-4 should help Cousins. He’s going to see increasingly more of it. Eventually, a modern offense will help maximize Cousins’ arm strength, accuracy, and ability to progress through his reads. And the 3-4 may get more out of Minnesota’s defensive talent. But it all has to come together once the games count.
O’Connell doesn’t seem concerned. He needs a little rest. He went on a Super Bowl run with the Los Angeles Rams, interviewed for multiple head coaching positions, and took the Vikings job. Since then, he’s built a coaching staff, established a new culture, and installed new schemes on offense and defense. He’s earned a summer reprieve.
“It will be very nice to get some time with my family, rest, and make sure that I come back recharged and ready to go,” O’Connell said. “But I’m sure it’ll take about a week. Then I’ll be wanting to come back in here.”
That’s a good thing because August will be here before we know it, and a big matchup with the Packers looms on Sept. 11.