Success for Vikings’ O’Connell starts with player connection

Published 8:56 am Friday, February 18, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

EAGAN — Kevin O’Connell has finally arrived in Minnesota with his young family, a new parka and plenty of energy and ideas about leading the Vikings.

O’Connell’s strategy for success as a first-time head coach, honed with and borrowed from the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, starts and ends with making his players feel not only comfortable with the team but connected to each other and to their coaches.

“They’ve got to know we care about them from Day One,” O’Connell said.

Email newsletter signup

The 36-year-old coach dazzled Vikings executives during the interview process with his affability, preparation and vision for building a contender out of a middling team that flirted a couple of times with the league’s elite in Mike Zimmer’s eight seasons but mostly fell short of expectations.

Despite no previous experience as a head coach and just two years as an offensive coordinator for the Rams, O’Connell made himself stand out among the 10 candidates the Vikings considered during their deliberate search that was extended when the Rams reached the Super Bowl.

“Maybe in the early days, we’d rush those,” said owner Zygi Wilf, whose family bought the team in 2005 and has overseen four coaching changes. “But this process was enlightening to us and made us understand what a head coach has to be, and that’s why Kevin was our choice.”

As a former NFL quarterback, who by his own quick admission did not play well enough to last more than the four-plus years he bounced around for, O’Connell has a built-in way to relate to the players he’ll now be in charge of.

He’s only three years older than Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, for whom he served as position coach in 2017 with Washington. The ability to understand millennials and now Generation Z comes more quickly for him than an older coach.

There’s no secret, though, that O’Connell, regardless of age, was attractive to the Vikings because of his belief in and emphasis on collaboration. As much as that concept has the potential to become an empty corporate buzzword, it was clearly missing by the end of Zimmer’s tenure.

“The best coaches I ever had, I felt like they cared about me. I felt like they cared about not only the production on the field but the process by which we got to that point,” said O’Connell, who was introduced at a news conference on Thursday at team headquarters. “Give them the why and give them a reason behind everything you do. These players will take off and they’ll go run with it, and that player ownership is ultimately what we’re striving for.”

O’Connell will have plenty of experience on his staff, including Mike Pettine as assistant head coach. The Vikings also announced the majority of their assistants, including the 55-year-old Pettine, who hired O’Connell as his quarterbacks coach in 2015 when he was in his second of two seasons as head coach of the Cleveland Browns. That was O’Connell’s first job in coaching.

As a first-time head coach with a background entrenched on offense, O’Connell naturally brought in two well-traveled and widely respected assistants to aid in his decision-making and design the defense: Pettine and Ed Donatell.

The 65-year-old Donatell recently agreed to be the defensive coordinator, beginning his 32nd season as an NFL coach. Donatell ran the defense for the Denver Broncos the past three seasons and has previously served as defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons.

O’Connell was also a backup quarterback for the New York Jets for much of Pettine’s tenure as defensive coordinator there from 2009-12, when his respect for Pettine’s acumen was born. Pettine will enter his 21st year of coaching in the NFL with a fresh scouting report on the NFC North, too. He was defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers from 2018-20 and a senior defensive assistant for the Chicago Bears in 2021.

Also hired on O’Connell’s staff were Brian Angelichio (tight ends coach and passing game coordinator), Jerrod Johnson (assistant quarterbacks coach), Chris Kuper (offensive line coach), Curtis Modkins (running backs coach and running game coordinator), Chris O’Hara (quarterbacks coach), Justin Rascati (assistant offensive line coach) and Chris Rumph (defensive line coach). Wide receivers Keenan McCardell will remain in his role and give O’Connell at least one holdover from the previous staff under Zimmer. Offensive coordinator, special teams coordinator and position coaches for linebackers and defensive backs are the most important spots left to fill on O’Connell’s staff.

O’Connell took part in the Super Bowl parade on Wednesday, before flying on a private jet with his wife and three children to frigid Minnesota. His parents and his wife’s parents also attended the introduction, and the easygoing, smooth-speaking, wide-smiling O’Connell found his voice cracking a bit when he mentioned his family.

The native of Carlsbad, California — who starred at nearby San Diego State and was drafted by the New England Patriots in 2008 — befriended new Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah when they both worked for the San Francisco 49ers in 2016. They’re all in on the concept of working together, which is good because there’s plenty to do in the next month.

Adofo-Mensah said the Vikings are focused on building the team around Cousins, who will carry a $45 million salary cap charge on the final year of his contract unless it’s reworked and thus extended to create more room for free agents in 2022.

“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.”