The Vikings’ pursuit of Harbaugh was the most thrilling moment of the offseason. When he interviewed for the job, his melted face flooded social media, and fans were excited about what could be. But after nine hours, Harbaugh decided to return to Michigan and the Vikings hired O’Connell.
The presumption at the time was that the Vikings wanted to build a long-term vision under O’Connell. But with most of the offseason in the books, this spring would have been tailor-made for Harbaugh.
With his Wolverines coming off an appearance in the College Football Playoff, it wouldn’t make sense for Harbaugh to leave and take charge of a full rebuild. In his first season with the San Francisco 49ers, he took a six-win team and led them to 11 wins. If he was coming to the NFL, he was coming to win now.
That matches the ethos of the Vikings’ offseason. Kwesi Adofo-Mensah could have stripped down the roster to build a contender in 2023. Instead, he did everything in his power to keep this group intact.
It began with the decision to extend Kirk Cousins. Trading Cousins would have given the Vikings some draft capital and precious cap space to build a dominant roster. Instead, the Vikings gave Cousins a one-year extension and a no-trade clause. Even with quarterbacks falling to the third round of this year’s draft, the Vikings didn’t even bother to take one, cementing Cousins’ position as the starter.
The Vikings could have continued a long-term approach by dealing several of their veterans. Jason La Canfora even reported that Minnesota was eager to move most of their big contracts. Instead, the Vikings played financial gymnastics, shuffling money into the future to keep Adam Thielen, Harrison Smith, and Danielle Hunter.
The fun didn’t stop in free agency. The Vikings added several win-now players to help their defense, including Za’Darius Smith and Harrison Phillips. They filled the rest of the offseason with depth signings to create competition and fill immediate needs.
The Vikings had one last chance to build for the future in the draft. But instead of leaning into their strengths, they acted quickly to shore up their weaknesses on defense.
That meant passing on Jameson Williams and selecting Lewis Cine. It meant two trades with divisional rivals to stockpile picks on the second day of the draft. And it meant selecting several players, including Andrew Booth Jr., who could contribute in short order instead of long-term projects.
These moves mean good things for O’Connell’s first year in Minnesota. After a two-year stint in Los Angeles, O’Connell has everything he needs to turn a team that has missed the playoffs in the past two seasons into a one that should contend for a wild card berth or a divisional title.
But that’s not as much of a guarantee as it would have been if the Vikings hired Harbaugh.
Harbaugh would have brought added credibility to the sidelines. He had a 44-19-1 record in four seasons in the Bay Area and even took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. It would take a lot for fans not to be excited about Harbaugh — so why did the Vikings go in the opposite direction?
A big part of this could be the difference in coaching style. After the chaotic end of the Zimmer era, O’Connell brings serenity that the Vikings needed in the locker room. It can be seen during offseason team activities, where players have seemed looser and more relaxed when talking to reporters.
With Harbaugh, it might have been more of the same. Although he is framed as a player’s coach, his intensity may have rubbed some the wrong way. That friction could have made its way to the front office, where a power struggle with Trent Baalke ultimately ended his time in San Francisco.
That could have eliminated Harbaugh in the eyes of the Wilfs. With the emphasis on a collaborative environment, Harbaugh’s dominant voice could have been too much for the Vikings, and the result was the continued burnout across the franchise.
Still, it’s a comparison that O’Connell will face in his early years with the Vikings. If he’s unable to squeeze a couple more wins out of the team, the decision not to hire Harbaugh could come back into the spotlight. If he does, it will be a decision that could lead to years of success under their new head coach.