Chargers-Vikings game puts Staley-O’Connell friendship on hold with both teams at 0-2
Published 8:53 am Friday, September 22, 2023
MINNEAPOLIS — Kevin O’Connell and Brandon Staley were close enough in 2020 as assistants with the Los Angeles Rams that their kids were homeschooled together during the pandemic.
There’s been no space or time for sharing this week. The two friends, now head coaches, are facing each other with both of their teams having stumbled to an 0-2 start.
“I do know how ultimately competitive he is, and he knows the same thing about me,” said O’Connell, who’s in his second season with the Minnesota Vikings after two years as offensive coordinator of the Rams. “I care about him tremendously. I think he’s a great football coach and is somebody who I respect as much as anybody in this league.”
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Staley only spent one season as the Rams’ defensive coordinator before his big break with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021. After guiding them to 10 wins in his second year, they blew a 27-point lead in a loss to Jacksonville in the wild-card round to put his job status in question. The Chargers opened by losing to Miami and Tennessee by a combined five points, making Staley the betting favorite to be the first head coach fired this season.
Only four teams since the NFL expanded the field in 1990 have started 0-3 and still made the playoffs. O’Connell and Staley can thus be forgiven for tabling the pleasantries this week.
“He’s like a brother to me, but we’re going head-to-head on Sunday, so our friendship is going to be a distant second to us winning and losing,” Staley said. “I just have the utmost respect for him as a leader, as a coach. He’s one of the top coaches that I’ve ever worked with. He’s one of the top play-callers that I’m going to have to go against.”
The staff under Sean McVay with the Rams, who won the Super Bowl after the 2021 season, was full of head coach potential with O’Connell and Staley as the top lieutenants.
“They’re both geniuses in their own right,” said Chargers defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph-Day, who played for the Rams in 2020 when both O’Connell and Staley were there.
Staley reflected this week on how scheming against O’Connell in practice that year sharpened his skill.
“That was one of the things that was, for us, such a special part of that experience,” Staley said. “We had some of the top players in the league to coach, and there was just that special environment. Each day, you had to be on it. You had to perform.”
The Vikings lost to Tampa Bay and Philadelphia by a combined nine points, thanks largely to a league-leading seven turnovers that have overshadowed the continued brilliance of Justin Jefferson.
He can become the first receiver in NFL history with three straight 150-yard games to start a season. That would give him 11 such games for his career, the most through a player’s first four years in the league. Jefferson would also with 150 yards break Wes Welker’s 2011 record with the most receiving yards in history at the three-game mark.
Perhaps the most impressive feat for Jefferson so far is that he’s played on 121 of 122 snaps.
“I just don’t want to miss out on any opportunities. The majority of times when I do come out, we pass the ball,” Jefferson said, smiling. “I want to put full force on my matchups. I want to stay in the game just like they stay in the game.”
The Chargers have had plenty of coverage trouble through games. Michael Davis has yielded a league-high three touchdowns. Asante Samuel has allowed receptions all six times he has been targeted.
Jefferson also leads the NFL in receptions (31) and yards (681) on passes with a 50% or lower completion probability since the start of last season. In 2021 against the Chargers, he had two catches for 54 yards with a 50% or lower completion probability.
“He may make a play or two, but you’ve got to get back in the huddle and keep playing against guys like that,” safety Derwin James said.
After had one of Minnesota’s four lost fumbles against the Eagles and netted only 28 yards on eight carries, Alexander Mattison was sickened by the social media backlash he encountered after the game. More than 60 messages directed toward him on Instagram contained enough hateful, racist and violent words for him to speak out against such harassment.
“There’s a lot of fantasy football people out there, and they think that it’s all fun and games,” Mattison said. “We have families. We have people that love us. We have people that we’re doing this for. It’s not fantasy. This is real life.”
The Vikings have struggled to get their ground game going, prompting the acquisition of running back Cam Akers from the Rams.
Running plays have been a problem for the Vikings on the other side of the ball, too. They gave up 259 rushing yards to the Eagles, getting trampled by D’Andre Swift down the stretch when a stop or two could’ve translated into a comeback victory.
The Chargers rushed for 234 yards in their opening loss to the Dolphins, when Austin Ekeler suffered an ankle sprain that kept him out against the Titans. Joshua Kelley would start if Ekeler is sidelined again.