The universal takeaway from new Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell’s first press conference on Thursday afternoon was: Whew, this is different, huh?
There’s no good way to talk about the new coach without tearing down the old coach because that’s how sports always work. The thing that’s yet to be decided is always more exciting than the thing we already know, which is why the NFL Draft is one of the most popular sporting events in the world in which no sports are actually played.
Most of the time draft day is the best day for teams and players because nothing has happened yet and the possibilities are endless. It can be downhill from there.
Anyway, let’s clarify: Acknowledging the differences between the new coach and the old coach isn't the same as composing a diss track to Mike Zimmer. But the differences are stark. And they are stark in the areas where they needed to be stark.
O’Connell opened his first comments since beating out Jim Harbaugh for the Vikings’ head coaching position with a statement that spanned three Google Doc pages when written out. He went into the “shared vision” with new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and how he wants to be a teacher and a motivator. The words “communicate” and “collaborate” were tossed in right off the bat.
Zimmer wasn’t a buzzword guy. He was blunt and short-winded. Never comfortable unless he was breaking down cornerback technique. Jagged around the edges. Ready to ride some players hard until they got it right and not afraid to call them out. Never political – at least in the football sense. Sometimes regularly political by saying what was on his mind.
By question No. 2, O’Connell proved to keep his cards closer to his chest than his predecessor.
While Zimmer let us know how he felt about Kirk Cousins’ leadership, lack of downfield aggressiveness and vaccination decisions, O’Connell tiptoed around the team’s most difficult offseason decision.
“I think Kirk has played at a very high level, and he’s done a lot of really good things throughout his career. I know who he is as a player, and I know what he’s capable of, and part of our job as coaches is maximizing a player’s ability to go out every single Sunday and have success,” O’Connell said. “I feel that’s going to be an advantage for us as we build our system offensively, make sure we really focus on the things Kirk does well.”
So, you trading him or nah?
Once upon a time, Zimmer said at the NFL Combine that signing Cousins to a big contract would restrict the roster. He also thought aloud about whether Case Keenum was a one-year wonder and talked about fearing Teddy Bridgewater would never be the same as he was before his knee injury. Hey, Zimmer may have been uncomfortably honest, but he wasn’t wrong, eh?
Don’t expect O’Connell to say stuff like that at this year’s Combine.
It wasn’t all company line stuff though. O’Connell was insightful about his feelings on matters that Zimmer routinely brushed aside: Namely handling players and analytics.
“The best coaches I ever had, I felt like they cared about me,” O’Connell said.
That’s a far cry from Eric Kendricks’ “fear-based” culture comment about how Zimmer handled players.
This is an area where a different spin could result in a step forward. As Stefon Diggs, Odell Beckham Jr., Jamal Adams, Jalen Ramsey and numerous other players have shown in recent years, if star players aren’t thrilled with their situation and relationships within a building, they’ll find a way to get out. The Rams benefitted from these players migrating toward Sean McVay.
Being a player’s coach doesn’t mean being a pushover. As a former player, O’Connell seems to get that balance. That’s a clear upgrade from a coach who went to the school of Parcells but never had the human touch of Parcells.
On the analytics side. Zimmer wasn’t blind to the numbers being used throughout the league but oftentimes gave up statistical advantages by not buying into some data-proven concepts.
O’Connell didn’t give a vague comment on applying numbers, he went fully in.
“I think it’s an incredible tool that we have at our disposal. It’s a weapon if it’s used the right way, but you’ve got to have people to help you,” O’Connell said. “I think when you’re a football coach the number one thing sometimes that can be a challenge is dealing with too much information sometimes, and we’ve already had great dialogue about that … using the tools that we’ll have, and analytics definitely is going to be one of them.”
O’Connell referenced the right place in his offensive gameplan for the running game – a far cry from the “run more” mantra we heard in the past.
He talked about trusting his coaching staff – a far cry from publicly demanding the offensive coordinator run more.
“I’m that person in that role where I will rely on a lot of the coaches and great people around me just like a lot of the great coaches that I’ve coached for have relied on me,” O’Connell said.
It’s almost like they created the criteria of the job out of every shortcoming that Zimmer had. But the Vikings will need to keep in mind that Zimmer did a lot of things right during his tenure.
From 2014-2016, he built a monster defense. He evaluated players well. Rarely did the Vikings cut somebody who went elsewhere and shined. When the Vikings were winning, nobody complained that Zimmer was tough on them and held his players to high standards.
And for all his bellyaching about wanting to run the ball, Zimmer’s quarterbacks all had their best career years in Minnesota. Teddy, Case, Sam, Kirk set career marks here. O’Connell needs to remember not to throw the bootlegs out with the bathwater.
Luckily for O’Connell, he will have time to build the team in his vision and get some leeway for some mistakes in his first swing at being a head coach. It’s one of the toughest jobs in sports.
Everybody has the answers until they hit the rough water. We’ll see if O’Connell can handle the heat when it eventually comes.
But for now, the earliest returns on O’Connell indicate that some of the ills of the past can be corrected by the Vikings’ new coach.