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The Vikings are soon to announce a head coaching hire in Kevin O’Connell that has fans excited for a new-look offense; one that is expected to advance the Vikings offense forward into the cutting edge of a constantly evolving NFL.

While O’Connell’s influence will undoubtedly push Minnesota in that direction, it’s important to remember, too, that scheme and personnel have to cooperate at least to some extent. Rarely are coaches able to produce a carbon copy of their old team’s scheme since they are inheriting new players with different strengths.

Rocco Baldelli, to use a baseball analogy, wouldn’t have been able to inherit Ron Gardenhire’s old Twins teams and turn them into the Bomba Squad.

Plus, many first-time head coaches have the freedom to blend together ideas from their previous stops instead of simply reproducing their most recent system. O’Connell spent several years under Jay Gruden and Matt Cavanaugh in Washington, and hey, maybe he learned a thing or two from John DeFilippo in Cleveland as well.

Certainly, though, when you consider the way the Rams’ reached the Super Bowl this season — with a quarterback who’d never won a playoff game, no less — it would be hard to see O’Connell straying too far from the playbook that he and Sean McVay have established.

By all accounts, O’Connell has been tied at the hip to McVay for the last two seasons, helping orchestrate an offense that surged into seventh place in the NFL with Matthew Stafford at the controls and McVay calling the plays.

If O’Connell could wave his magic wand and institute the 2021 Rams scheme on the Vikings, these would probably be the maxims that define it:

  • Play-action emphasis. Stafford was actually just 14th in play-action dropbacks (Kirk Cousins was 15th), but he ranked sixth in yards per attempt and eighth in passer rating. The Rams used play-action far more with Jared Goff the year prior (second-most in the league), seemingly trying to pull as many strings as they could to make Goff more productive.
  • Motion-heavy. The Rams were a top-five motion team both in 2020 and 2021, utilizing a heavy dose of at-the-snap motion that was an early staple of McVay’s Rams. Renowned motion tracker Seth Walder noted that motion led to higher EPA per play on both pass plays and run plays during the 2021 season, yet there are still many teams that use it sparingly.
  • “11”-centric. The Rams leaned hard into the run game in 2020 when Goff was struggling but still had an edge when they put more wide receivers on the field. Los Angeles was just 15th in “11” personnel usage in 2020 but their success rate was tied for third best in the league at 53 percent. With Stafford joining in 2021, the Rams went all-in on “11” personnel, running it 85 percent of the time, almost 10 percent more than the second-place team this season. Their success rate jumped to 55 percent, second in the league behind Tampa Bay. While you can point to their excellent receiving corps as evidence why, it’s notable that L.A.’s run game was also excellent from “11,” finishing tied for fourth in run success rate out of “11.” Benefits all around.
  • Downfield throws. At various points this season, the Rams had Cooper Kupp, Odell Beckham Jr., Robert Woods, Desean Jackson and Van Jefferson available as targets for Stafford. That’s how you surround your quarterback with weapons. Stafford led the league in yards via the deep ball and also paced the NFL with over 19 yards per attempt on throws downfield. His average completed air yards (6.7) was third in the league.

So that’s the Rams in a nutshell, but will it suddenly become the 2022 Vikings?

Pro Football Focus’s Eric Eager did various studies before the 2020 season that proved NFL offenses more often than not become more productive and unique in Year 1 of a new playcaller, indicating that the bulk of offensive change happens right away, and that change usually correlates with better success (potentially since many teams with new playcallers are trying to improve off down seasons).

To use a sample size that is slightly more similar to the Vikings’ situation with O’Connell, let’s take a look at three recent coaches who were: 1) First-time NFL head coaches, 2) Offensive minded, 3) Were not the primary play-caller in their previous role, 4) Didn’t come from college.

Spoiler alert: The takeaway is that the offensive climates from Place A to Place B are rarely going to be apples to apples.

Zac Taylor (Rams 2018 to Bengals 2019)

The head coach for the Super Bowl bound Bengals is what the Vikings are hoping they have in O’Connell, a McVay disciple who absorbed what he saw in L.A. as a QBs coach and brought it to Cincinnati, where he eventually found the right quarterback and took off.

Year 1 for Taylor was a bit of a slog as Andy Dalton was more or less a lame duck and went 2-11 in 13 starts. Still, Taylor turned the Bengals into the top “11” personnel team right away, as was demonstrated to him in Los Angeles. The Bengals also became a top 10 motioning team, per data from Walder late in the season.

One area where the Bengals were not active in 2019 and still are not is play-action usage. While the Rams abundantly went to that well with Goff, Taylor didn’t integrate it nearly as much with Dalton and even less with Burrow, who was 25th of 39 in play-action dropbacks last year. Dalton was 17th of 39 in 2019.

Cincinnati had a dreadful roster, however, and finished 30th offensively in Taylor’s first year. This was one case, contrary to Eager’s study, where the new playcaller did not improve things right away. But Taylor left his mark on the offense quickly, using some of the tenets he learned from the Rams.

Frank Reich (Eagles 2017 to Colts 2018)

After winning a Super Bowl, it would’ve made sense for Reich to try and duplicate the Eagles’ success with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles. Reich was the coordinator under playcaller Doug Pederson as the Eagles ran an offense typified by heavy play-action, RPOs and a strong run game.

However, none of those were necessarily present in the Colts’ 2018 offense. When you inherit a quarterback of Andrew Luck’s caliber, sometimes you have to cater to their strengths, and for those Colts, it was throwing the ball all over. The Colts were second in pass attempts and 17th in rush attempts, while the Eagles the previous year were 13th and sixth, respectively.

Reich is actually on record saying he withheld some of his play-action and RPO concepts in Year 1 as he gained a deeper understanding of his personnel. Unfortunately for Reich and the Colts, they never got to fully unleash those concepts in 2019 because of Luck’s career-ending health issues.

But the thing about Reich is that he was 56 years old with time spent in four different franchises before joining the Colts. The Athletic’s Stephen Holder described his system as follows: “Reich’s new offensive scheme was not something opponents could totally prepare for. The system was not taken wholesale from anywhere. It was comprised of elements the Colts coach took from his various stops during his career combined with many of his own personal twists. There was no obvious blueprint to point to because the designs existed only in Reich’s mind.”

So maybe you can toss out the blueprint when the incoming coach is a journeyman. What about Reich’s understudy in Indianapolis, then?

Nick Sirianni (Colts 2020 to Eagles 2021)

If there’s anything that Sirianni learned from Reich in his three years as coordinator, it would’ve been adaptability. The Colts moved from Andrew Luck to Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers in his three seasons, and had he stayed another year he’d have worked with Carson Wentz.

Sirianni observed the importance of pivoting to match your quarterback’s strengths, which happened when the Colts had to go run-heavy with Brissett after Luck got hurt and then pass-heavy again with Rivers. For Sirianni, going from the statuesque Rivers to the mobile-but-raw Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia was another pivot. The Eagles threw the football the fewest times in the NFL last year but still made the playoffs on the strength of their run game and defense.

Maybe when Sirianni lost his first press conference by saying his system was going to be “easier to learn” he was onto something?

At any rate, the three test cases above demonstrate that new coaches’ systems are going to fluctuate with their surroundings. Taylor inherited an aging veteran quarterback, Reich’s teams could never settle on one, and Sirianni’s guy wasn’t a gifted thrower of the football.

Circling back to O’Connell, it’s easy to see where the Vikings in their current state could resemble his Rams team. Cousins and Stafford have often been lumped in the same tier, and Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are a strong foundation to any passing game. On the other hand, the Vikings lack the Rams’ defensive acumen or blocking prowess, not to mention Minnesota’s quarterback situation could change at any moment and force them away from the pass-happy scheme with which L.A. thrived.

If Cousins is traded, O’Connell may not be equipped — at least right away — to turn the Vikings into Rams 2.0.

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