In January, the Minnesota Vikings parted ways with a 65-year-old coach in favor of a 36-year-old.
And Kevin O’Connell, now 37, is experiencing some early shine as the Vikings head coach, earning placement on The Athletic’s “40 Under 40” list for 2022. Linsday Jones from The Athletic chronicled 40 “top young coaches, execs, agents and other rising stars” in the NFL, and O’Connell was one of the personalities.
Along with his former employer, Sean McVay, O’Connell made the cut, as Jones noted about the Vikings skipper, “He then spent three years in Washington, where he overlapped with Kirk Cousins in 2017. Now O’Connell and Cousins are reunited in Minnesota, and it will be intriguing to see them work together again at different stages of their careers. O’Connell will call plays for Cousins, which he did not do for Stafford.”
While O’Connell isn’t the youngest coach in Vikings history — that distinction belongs to Norm Van Brocklin back in 1961 at age 35 — he is a significant indicator of the Vikings philosophical shift. Minnesota relied on a bedrock of defense for eight years under Mike Zimmer, ranking as the NFL’s fourth-best defensive group per EPA/Play from 2014 to 2021. And with that defense, Zimmer whisked the Vikings to the league’s 10th-best record in the timeframe.
Now, O’Connell is tasked with maintaining that Zimmer standard on defense — the 2014-2019 version, not the 2020-2021 transgression — and unlocking the offense to achieve optimal form. Minnesota employs a robust set of weapons from Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, to Irv Smith Jr. Moreover, in accordance with Jones’ reference to Stafford, O’Connell will be asked to Staffordize his old friend Kirk Cousins to fully maximize the load of weaponry.
The journey isn’t too uphill either. Last season, the Vikings led the NFL in 15+ yard gains on offense. Cousins and Co. were able to push the ball down the field but were curiously stumped by offensive ruts. The Vikings led the NFL in 3-and-Outs and were seventh-worst in the league on third down.
Tweaking the Vikings offense shouldn’t be a gargantuan task for O’Connell because the personnel is there. Often when a new coach takes over, the roster is meager and in need of a rebuild. The Vikings front office didn’t rebuild anything, instead banking on the idea that Zimmer personally was the sole and soul problem in 2020 and 2021. In that regard, the stakes are high for O’Connell.
O’Connell joins the Vikings from the “Sean McVay coaching tree,” an umbrella of ex-assistants who have blossomed in head coaching endeavors. Matt LaFleur (Packers), Zac Taylor (Bengals), and Brandon Staley (Chargers) are all considered top-tier NFL brains. LaFleur and Taylor have won early and often in their respective head coaching auditions.
Overall, that’s what the Vikings ownership sought to replicate, stealing a young, offense-first brain from a program with documented success. And per The Atheltic, the Vikings might just have that in O’Connell.
Former Vikings offensive coordinator and current Cleveland Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski missed the Athletic‘s cutoff by a couple of months. Stefanski turned 40 in May.
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 Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).