Imagine if the Minnesota Vikings had anything go normally.
It was only two weeks ago or so that John U. Bacon was reporting that Jim Harbaugh was likely going to be the Vikings’ next coach and Harbaugh was writing his opening press conference speech on the plane ride to MSP as fans hotly debated whether they wanted the lightning rod Michigan coach to be given the keys to their franchise.
When ESPN’s Adam Schefter dropped the bomb that Harbaugh was flying back to Ann Arbor with his khakis between his legs, it was widely reported that Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell was the winner of the Vikings’ Who Wants To Be Our Coach reality contest. But before he could walk out to “A Moment Like This,” O’Connell had to do this little Super Bowl thing in Los Angeles.
So Vikings fans waited around, talked about whether it mattered that he hadn’t called plays before, listened to Insider reports about how he wants Kirk Cousins to be his BFF and looked for him on TV during the game.
Then reports trickled out about the possibility of Sean McVay retiring after the Rams’ Super Bowl win. Naturally, Vikings fans assumed that O’Connell would pull a Josh McDaniels and bail on them at the final hour.
On Tuesday afternoon, however, ESPN’s Adam Schefter confirmed that O’Connell will indeed be making his way to Minnesota to be announced as the team’s next head coach. He’s staying in L.A. for the parade.
Deep breaths, everybody.
Now that we have all that cleared up, it’s onto the next phase: The opening press conference.
There’s a lot of reasons for folks to be cynical about these events but they often produce some pretty memorable moments. How about Adam Gase’s eyeballs darting around the room with no explanation? Dan Campbell imploring his team to bite kneecaps.
Most of the time, they are more pep rally than interview. The coach goes through all of his general-terms, run-of-the-mill football idealism and gets to talk about why he’s the right man to get this thing turned around.
Mike Zimmer’s first presser had some gems, including this: “People think I go out and chew people's butts -- that's not true," he said. "I'm going to fix stuff. That's kind of what my personality is.”
Part of Zimmer’s downfall was the fact that he was too hard on players. He did fix stuff during the first half of his tenure though (and not so much in the second half). Also, note to Kevin O’Connell: Avoid the phrase “chew people’s butts.” That didn’t go viral in 2014 but it will if it’s said in 2022.
It doesn’t always work out how they draw it up but that doesn’t mean O’Connell’s opening press conference will be useless. Let’s have a look at what we’ll be focused on when the Vikings’ new head coach speaks for the first time (assuming he isn’t abducted by aliens or something Vikingsy like that)…
The Kirk question
As the Vikings face a decision regarding Kirk Cousins and his $45 million cap hit, O’Connell will be the first member of the new brass to comment on the situation. We might be able to predict O’Connell’s answer but there are different layers to coach speak. How committal will he be? What light can O’Connell shed on his work with Cousins in 2017? Will there be any indication that he believes there’s more levels to Cousins’ game? Or will we get general statements that leave the door open for just about anything?
This question is a bit of a minefield because anything O’Connell says is going to become one of the top headlines of the day across NFL media.
How his team won the Super Bowl
If you haven’t heard, the Vikings have never won a Super Bowl and haven’t reached The Big Game since Fran Tarkenton was running around in the backfield. O’Connell’s previous franchise has made the Super Bowl twice in the last four years with two different quarterbacks. What has he learned about building and leading a Super Bowl squad? What can he take away from one of the league’s top coaches in Sean McVay? What put the Rams over the top this year? How does a team sustain success?
Whether O’Connell can bring the same type of performance from L.A. to Minnesota will be seen over the next few years but his experience as a Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator will at least provide some insight into how he plans to get the job done.
A player’s coach?
O’Connell may want to prep himself on the previous regime’s issues with handling players so he can explain his philosophy without sounding like he’s taking jabs at his predecessors.
Upon Mike Zimmer’s exit, multiple team leaders made it clear that they want a different work environment going forward. O’Connell’s introductory comments need to get across that he’s going to be more open to listening to the players and forming relationships with them but the Vikings’ first-time coach also can’t come across like the tail is going to wag the dog. If he says he’s going to collaborate with players, that sets a standard and he has to stick to that mantra. If he says he’s going to rule with an iron fist, there will be too many shades of the previous regime — though it would be very surprising if that was the tone.
We shouldn’t expect O’Connell to draw out on a white board all of the new things he’s going to do offensively but players and fans will want to hear that there are indeed going to be new things. After all, that’s why he’s here, right? The Vikings didn’t hire O’Connell to get the defense back on track, he was brought to Minnesota to get the football to Justin Jefferson and all his friends.
Will he specifically reference the ways in which the Rams force-fed Cooper Kupp? What will he say about the previous regime’s run-first approach? Do we get some McVay stories about maximizing players’ talents? Or will O’Connell hold his cards close to the vest?
Relationship with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah
We are certain to hear collaboration, collaboration, collaboration. What we’ll be looking for is details on how the Vikings’ new head coach and general manager actually plan to work together and about the process that brought them together. What’s the shared vision for what makes a winner in the NFL? Are they on the same page about key parts of revamping/retooling/rebuilding the roster?
Again, it would be pretty surprising if O’Connell gave anything definitive about whether he believes the Vikings can compete for a Super Bowl next season or if he thinks the situation is going to require some patience but inquiring minds would like to understand whether he views his presence in Minnesota as a long-term project or a quick fix. If we hear comparisons to the Rams getting Stafford and winning the Super Bowl, it’s going to raise some eyebrows about how the Vikings are going to make up that ground without much cap space to work with and a bare cupboard on defense. But if he says that the entire foundation needs to be rebuilt, it will contradict what owner Mark Wilf said after firing Zimmer and Spielman.
Bottom line: Opening press conferences can be more than just pep rallies. They set the tone for the beginning of a new regime. O’Connell only gets one chance at a first impression this week.