The Minnesota Vikings lost to the Green Bay Packers 41-17 at Lambeau Field on Sunday, and the game’s outcome wasn’t even the worst part of the event.
Right tackle Brian O’Neill was lost for the remainder of the regular season — and most of the postseason. He injured his calf, and that’s likely a wrap on his stellar 2022 campaign. In his stead, veteran Oli Udoh is expected to start.
Brian O’Neill Injury Doesn’t Have to Spell Absolute Doom
The O’Neill injury news was met by Vikings fans with total eyerolls because — why wouldn’t an otherwise decent offensive line season for Minnesota go haywire at the last minute? For about a decade, the Vikings have struggled mightily to protect various quarterbacks, and 2022 was the first season since 2012 that operations improved.
And while 2022 hasn’t been flawless for pass protection — quarterback Kirk Cousins still gets knocked around a lot — Minnesota ranked 10th in the NFL via Pro Football Focus‘ offensive line grades heading into Week 17. Things were looking up before the O’Neill injury.
Predictably, the wind was taken out of Vikings fans’ sails regarding O’Neill’s injury, complete with “here we go again” resentments. But here’s the deal — it doesn’t have to be a total doom-and-gloom situation.
To be sure, O’Neill is irreplaceable. He reached a Pro Bowl in 2021 and was arguably a snub in 2022. The Pittsburgh alumnus is the NFL’s seventh-best tackle per PFF through 17 weeks, tabulating an eye-popping 83.1 grade. Oli Udoh nor Vederian Lowe will play like O’Neill. Let’s get that out of the way.
But Vikings fans’ memories are conditioned to remember the Mike Zimmer-led management of offensive lines. Heading into any Zimmer season, the Vikings offensive line was never any good from the onset. Then, injuries would hit, and the group would descend to the depths of hell via pass protection.
While it’s tempting to surmise “same ‘ol, same ‘ol,” Minnesota hired a young, innovative, offensive-minded coach for a reason. That’s Kevin O’Connell, and his specialty should be fostering on-the-fly offensive solutions. In the same manner that you probably trusted Zimmer to inspire a pass rush without Everson Griffen or Danielle Hunter from time to time, you should have faith that O’Connell and his staff have the brainpower to field a decent offensive line with reservist personnel.
Otherwise — why on earth even bother hiring an offense-first head coach if the man can’t handle the heat of offense-oriented turmoil? You personally, on your sofa, have every right to panic about the Vikings offensive line, but O’Connell signed up for this. He’s not a brilliant defensive guru, but the offense is his bread and butter. And the offense starts — or is at least severely impacted — by the offensive line.
Too, Udoh has always played better as a tackle than a guard. He couldn’t avoid penalties as a guard, and fans correspondingly soured on his long-term prognosis. However, as a backup tackle, Udoh actually isn’t too bad.
Since the departure of Steven Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie over a decade ago, Minnesota has floundered while attempting to develop a sustainable pass-protecting offensive line. Period. Along the way, it employed defense-first head coaches in Leslie Frazier and Mike Zimmer.
Well, the franchise changed all that last February when it hired O’Connell, and it should be in his toolkit to concoct pragmatic offensive line solutions — like Zimmer could not.
Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).