Raise your hand if you expected the Minnesota Vikings to immediately emerge as contenders under first-time head coach Kevin O’Connell. It’s Week 9, and the 6-1 Vikes hold a four-game lead in the loss column over the rest of the NFC North. Nobody saw that coming.
While I am in the cluster of football observers who were uncertain about Minnesota’s potential coming into this season, I am not surprised the team is flourishing under the direction of a head coach with exceptional communication skills and leadership ability.
As a former counselor with O’Connell at a series of prep football events (Elite 11) in the early 2010s, I watched him work closely with young quarterbacks in a camp environment near the end of his playing career. Although working at a quarterback camp obviously is not the same as leading a NFL team, the job requires a combination of savvy communication, patience and teaching skills. That’s how you get high school players to master schemes, footwork and fundamentals. And that’s a transferable skill that makes it easier to guide a group of ambitious professionals in 2022. From utilizing various teaching tactics to helping inexperienced players understand complex concepts to whispering sweet nothings in the quarterback’s ear to build up his confidence, the experience of coaching high schoolers helped O’Connell learn how to relate to today’s players. I really believe that.
Just look at how he helped Justin Jefferson take his game to another level in his third season. After some early-season struggles in which the Pro Bowl pass catcher did not get enough touches, O’Connell made a concerted effort to feed the WR1 a slew of targets throughout October. The Vikings’ play-caller scripted in some easy touches on screens, quicks and isolation routes to keep the wideout engaged in the game. In addition, O’Connell incorporated some motions, shifts and different alignments to put Jefferson in a prime position to get the ball against any coverage.
With his top playmaker happy and engaged, the offense has clicked despite a schematic makeover. Part of the attack’s success is certainly tied to Kirk Cousins‘ steady play over the first half of the season. While the raw numbers might suggest otherwise — Cousins’ pass yards per game, yards per attempt and passer rating are down from 2021 — the 11th-year pro has made enough critical plays to help his team win five straight games. And here’s the vital part: O’Connell has thrown his support behind his quarterback at every turn. This is a drastic departure from how his predecessor treated the quarterback, but it could certainly pay off for the rookie head man, with a more confident QB1 willing to heed his coach’s advice because he feels the love and support. Given the importance of the head coach-quarterback dynamic, O’Connell’s communication skills and relationship-building tactics have created a trust between players and coaches that is essential to a team’s long-term success.