The majority of the Minnesota Vikings fanbase is reasonably excited and optimistic for the new season. For the large part of the fanbase that wanted a new fresh approach to guiding their team, that is exactly what they got with the new general manager and head coach pairing of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell.
There is the belief that more than enough talent is on the roster to compete. Nationally the expectations for the Vikings are not so high. A significant factor that repeatedly comes up when people are downplaying the Vikings chances is their rookie head coach. Kevin O’Connell must overcome these rookie head coach concerns and prove that he belongs in his role.
The NFL has been going through a transition in recent years. Young coaches provide an exciting, high-octane offense that revolves around the passing game, and an exciting young quarterback is the way teams want to go.
And this is why the Vikings turned to a 37-year-old coach who’d never been a full-time play-caller but was the offensive coordinator for the recent Super Bowl winners and the most recent branch of the Sean McVay coaching tree. After Matt LaFleur, Zac Taylor, and Brandon Staley, teams are bound to keep looking towards McVay’s coaching staff when they have a head coach vacancy.
Despite this, expectations for a first-time head coach will likely be tempered. History shows success is unlikely to come in a coach’s first year — though not impossible. George Seifert won the Super Bowl in his first season. He took over from a retiring Bill Walsh after the 49ers won Super Bowl XXIII, where he was the offensive coordinator, going on to win Super Bowl XXIV as head coach. The only other rookie head coach to win a Super Bowl was Don McCafferty. He took the Baltimore Colts all the way to victory at Super Bowl V. Other coaches have made it to the Super Bowl in their first season but lost, like Red Miller, Jim Caldwell, and Bill Callahan.
The previously mentioned LaFleur went to Green Bay and led the Packers to three straight NFC North titles, winning 13 games in each season thus far. The Vikings will be hoping for a similar impact from O’Connell. However, LaFleur did depart from under the wing of McVay to call plays in Tennesse for a season before taking the reigns in Wisconsin.
Could that prove to be a vital ingredient missing from O’Connell’s resume? We won’t even begin to know the answer to that until he leads this Viking team into action, which he will do for the first time against divisional for the Packers on Sunday.
It’s not just O’Connell’s inexperience leading to doubts outside of Minnesota. Despite the regime change, there hasn’t been the tear it all down and start again approach that some expected. So how can they possibly be better? What that actually means is the Vikings still employ Kirk Cousins at quarterback, so how can they possibly win? The Vikings signal caller continues to be the subject of intense, often nonsensical opinion.
There are other very reasonable question marks, too. The Vikings secondary comprises former elite but aging veterans and young players, including two rookies. It could be very good, but it is also possible the veterans fall off a cliff, the rookies don’t work out, and the Vikings are heavily relying on Cam Dantzler and Cam Bynum.
On paper, the duo of Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith could be the best pass-rushing tandem in the league. However, the injury history over the last couple of years gives cause for concern. If both stay healthy, the Vikings defense will be formidable. Worst case scenario, both get injured, and the Vikings are in trouble.
It’s not just rookie status that is historically against O’Connell. New Vikings head coaches generally haven’t been successful in their first season, which shouldn’t be a huge surprise. A new head coach probably means the previous year didn’t go well. The best record for a new Vikings head coach actually belongs to a rookie — Dennis Green, who guided the Vikings to an 11-5 record topping the NFC Central in the process, only to lose to Washington in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. The only other new Vikings head coach to manage a winning was Jerry Burns (9-7). Life was more difficult for Norm Van Brocklin (3-11), Bud Grant (3-8-3), Les Steckel (3-13), Mike Tice (6-10), Brad Childress (6-10), Leslie Frazier (3-13), and Mike Zimmer (7-9) as they started life as Vikings head coach.
O’Connell has put together an experienced team of coaches to help himself deal with the new aspects of the job. Ultimately how he copes with bringing everyone together and his success as a play caller will go a long way to deciding his fate. We are stepping into the unknown with coach O’Connell and hoping for the best. We shall see if the Vikings made the right decision.