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Kevin O’Connell: Next Head Coach of the Minnesota Vikings

Rams’ offensive coordinator gets the nod over Harbaugh, Morris, and Graham

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Los Angeles Rams Joint Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Well, after the ramp up in anticipation regarding Jim Harbaugh as the possible next head coach of the Vikings, news came out first that Harbaugh had informed the University of Michigan that he would remain head coach of the Wolverines, and later that the Vikings had informed the other finalists, other than Kevin O’Connell, that they were out of the running.

The official announcement won’t happen until after the Super Bowl, according to rule, but Kevin O’Connell will become the next head coach of the Vikings at that time. The deal will be finalized after the Super Bowl as well.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the impasse was in signing Jim Harbaugh, but an offer was not made. Courtney Cronin reported that Harbaugh came to the interview thinking the job was his, and the Vikings didn’t share that view, taking Harbaugh through the same process as they did with Patrick Graham the day before. It had also been reported that Kevin O’Connell had some supporters in the Vikings search committee, while Harbaugh had some he needed to win over. In the end, O’Connell, who reportedly had two strong interviews with the Vikings, won the job.

Some Background on the Vikings’ next Head Coach

Kevin O’Connell, 36, has been an offensive coordinator for the past three seasons. The last two with the Rams, and prior to that with what is now the Washinton Commanders. He was also QB coach with Washington during Kirk Cousins’ last season there in 2017.

O’Connell’s connection with Vikings’ GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah came in 2016, when he was an offensive assistant with the 49ers. He was also a backup quarterback in the NFL, drafted in the 3rd round by the Patriots in 2008, and then bouncing around a few teams between 2008-2012 before getting into coaching in 2015 as the QB coach of the Browns.

O’Connell’s connection with Kirk Cousins would seem to be a strong indicator that the Vikings plan to retain and extend Cousins as their starting quarterback.

O’Connell coached under Sean McVay, who also worked with Cousins in Washington, and employs a similar Shanahan/Kubiak offensive scheme. So, that would suggest a good deal of continuity on offense for the Vikings. O’Connell will be the fourth coordinator under McVay to land a head coaching gig, joining Matt LaFleur (Packers), Zac Taylor (Bengals) and Brandon Staley (Chargers). Pretty good company considering McVay and Taylor are coaching in the Super Bowl, and LaFleur has won at least 13 games every year since becoming a head coach.

Like other McVay offensive coordinators before him, O’Connell didn’t call plays for the Rams- McVay did. He did have some experience calling plays in Washington 3 years ago, and it’s unclear if it will be his intention to call plays with the Vikings, or delegate that to his offensive coordinator, whomever that may be.

But certainly the example of the Rams making it to the Super Bowl with non-elite Matthew Stafford at quarterback (and $45 million salary cap sunk on him this year, including dead cap for the Goff trade) a star receiver in Cooper Kupp, and a league average defense will have appeal to a Vikings organization looking to compete for a championship without a major overhaul. Perhaps that was the vision O’Connell communicated during the interview process.

The Anti-Zimmer

As so often happens with coaching changes, the new coach tends to be the opposite of the previous one, and so too appears the case here. Zimmer was an older, more in-your-face, defensive coach, while O’Connell is a younger, by most accounts more friendly, offensive coach.

He clearly fits the mold Mark Wilf envisioned when he first announced he was parting ways with Zimmer and Rick Spielman, looking for bright, smart people with excellent communication and collaboration skills. Both Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connor have those skills and qualities.

O’Connor has been talked about as a head coaching candidate going back to his days in Washington, when he was referred to at times as the ‘tall McVay’ as a taller (6’5”) version of his offensive guru mentor. O’Connell may have had a hand in the Rams offensive play design this year, and Cooper Kupp’s All-Pro season, by focusing the passing game on getting him in favorable matchups. He could do the same with Justin Jefferson.

Greg Beacham, who covers the Rams for the Associated Press, recently gave an interview with the Broncos about Kevin O’Connell when he was a candidate for the Broncos head coaching job. Here is how he described him:

“The thing about Kevin O’Connell is he’s been at the controls of the Rams’ offense in almost every way, except actually calling the plays, for two years, which makes him a guy who’s seen what Sean McVay does and what makes the Rams so successful over the last five years. And there’s only a handful of guys in the world who can say that; three of the other assistants who can say that are currently head coaches of their own teams, and two are still in the playoffs along with Sean McVay, so the pedigree is impeccable. There’s no doubt that Kevin is the next guy in that lineage.

He is the most important part of the offensive brain trust that develops the Rams’ game plans, designs their plays and then implements all the details necessary to make it work on Sundays. It’s the biggest role on the offense that doesn’t belong to Sean McVay. Kevin is in charge of making sure everything works, and Sean likes him in the role so much that he blocked Kevin from interviewing last year to be the Chargers’ offensive coordinator when Brandon Staley moved across town. Not calling the plays is obviously what people hold against Kevin, but this offense is undeniably McVay’s baby and it always will be, because he loves the competitive aspect of calling plays, making decisions. The counterargument to that is that Zac Taylor never called a play that mattered in his two years with Sean McVay; he was never even a coordinator with all the responsibilities that entails. But he picked up everything he needed to know to be a success in a job that took probably more top-to-bottom work in Cincinnati than probably is required with the Broncos. They’re already a decent team with a decent roster. What other teams are looking for when they look at Rams assistants is someone who’s intimately familiar with both McVay’s offense and also the Rams’ entire process of how they create that offense, how they innovate, how they manage to renew it, whether it’s through new schemes, new personnel or getting the most out of the old personnel. And Kevin O’Connell has had a front-row seat of it for the last two years to the process of McVay restoring an offense that was the envy of the league in 2017 and 2018, took a pretty significant downturn in 2019 and 2020, and is now back up among one of the NFL’s best. Kevin has seen every part of what Sean did to accomplish that, and you can really say nobody aside from McVay knows it better than him at this point.

Kevin seems to share a lot of Sean’s philosophies; that’s why they get along so well and they both came up under Jay Gruden, so they have a similar base of knowledge in terms of coaching. Putting that together, I wouldn’t expect to see a lot from Kevin that you haven’t seen from Sean, but that’s part of what you have to grow into as a head coach. You have to find out what you do like and don’t like once you have the finger on the button, so to speak.

I will say that as reporters we haven’t got to know Kevin in the same way we’d know most coaches because his tenure with the Rams has been during the pandemic, which limits the amount of time we get to spend in conversation with everybody, not just him. But I will say the Rams players seem to love him. They speak highly about his attitude, his communication skills and his ability to relate to them. Obviously since he was an NFL player — Sean McVay was not — Kevin understands whatever aspects of what it takes to play in this league that other coaches can’t appreciate, in a certain way. I don’t generally think that’s a big deal because, you know, Sean McVay seems to have figured it out just fine and there’s a lot of head coaches who didn’t play in the league who seem to have figured it out just fine, but there’s no denying that some players respect former players in a special way. O’Connell was even a backup for Matthew Stafford in Detroit for about a week while he bounced around the NFL as a backup quarterback, and Stafford told us today [on Wednesday] that O’Connell is a better coach than he was a player, so he’s got that going for him. He still has his playing instincts, for sure. One thing that we do see from Kevin is he throws the ball around after almost every practice while he’s working with the quarterbacks, the receivers, getting in a few reps on his own or just to stay ready. He enjoys being both a part of the guys and also a leader. I think that’s a great vibe to have in the modern NFL.”

Other Coaching Job Changes

On the offensive side of the ball, there may not be a lot of turnover in terms of position coaches. Offensive line coach Phil Rauscher worked with O’Connell in Washington, and both Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson are pushing for wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell to be retained, and I suspect those voices will be listened to. Kennedy Polamalu is well respected as running backs coach, so I doubt there will be a change there either, if Polamalu chooses to remain.

Update: Courtney Cronin reports that Phil Rauscher will go to the Bills as OL coach.

Where there will be change is at the offensive coordinator position, as the Broncos have confirmed that Klint Kubiak will be taking the QB coach/passing game coordinator position in Denver under Nathanial Hackett.

One name that could be in the mix for offensive coordinator may be Bill Callahan, who worked with O’Connell in Washington for three years, and also under Sean McVay, and is currently OL coach in Cleveland. Rumor is the Bears are attempting to lure Callahan to the windy city, but no deal has been announced. Callahan could be a good fit as an experienced offensive coordinator who also knows the run game well- and is one of the best offensive line coaches in the league. His skill set could be a good complement to O’Connell’s, and he also has worked with Phil Rauscher in Washington, and has head coaching experience as well. He’s also worked with Kirk Cousins.

At QB coach, it wouldn’t be surprising if O’Connell attempted to bring the Rams Asst. QB coach Zac Robinson with him, although there is some rumor that McVay may promote and retain him. The Vikings’ current QB coach, Andrew Janocko, has been mentioned as a candidate for the same job in Chicago, working with Justin Fields.

Update: Janocko is going to the Bears as QB coach.

That leaves tight-end coach, currently Brian Pariani, a holdover from the Kubiak regime, who most likely will be replaced.

Defensively, it’s unsure who O’Connell will name to be his defensive coordinator, which will be an extremely important hire, given the need for improvement in the Vikings defense.

Vic Fangio, who was linked with Harbaugh, is still available and could potentially be signed. Fangio is probably the most respected defensive coordinator in the league.

Another name to keep in mind is Jerry Gray, current Packers, and former Vikings, defensive backs coach. Mike Zimmer parted ways with Gray a couple years ago, and the Vikings haven’t done much to develop their secondary talent ever since. Meanwhile Gray has done a good job with the Packers secondary. Bringing him back as defensive coordinator could both strengthen the Vikings defense and weaken the Packers’. Still another possibility is the Vikings’ in-house candidate, Andre Patterson. It’s unclear right now if Patterson is vying for the role- he’s been co-DC the last couple years- but whether he’s O’Connell’s choice or not remains to be seen.

On the younger coach front, Patriots’ ILB coach Jerod Mayo, 35, a former first-round pick at linebacker and well respected in only three years of coaching, could be a solid candidate. He had a head-coaching interview this year and last, but doesn’t have the defensive coordinator title with the Patriots (although he calls some plays), so that could make him unblock-able if he was offered and accepted the defensive coordinator job with the Vikings. He played for the Patriots in 2008 when O’Connell was there, but that connection is probably not a strong one.

Still another option is Don ‘Wink’ Martindale, longtime defensive coordinator for the Ravens who was let go recently. He had a top 3 defense for three seasons in a row between 2018-2020, and top ten going back to 2015, but it significantly declined this season, in part due to some key injuries.

Beyond that, I suspect the defensive position coach jobs will change, with the possible exception of Patterson. Adam Zimmer would presumably be replaced as linebackers coach, and I’m not sure either defensive backs coach has shown enough to keep their jobs.

Special teams coach Ryan Ficken seems a coach likely to retain his position, as the Vikings special teams unit was one of the better ones in the league last year.

Update: Ficken is going to the Chargers as their new Special Teams Coordinator.

Bottom Line

The Vikings went with the anti-Zimmer, Sean McVay-type to lead the team into the future, which in all likelihood will be with the same personnel on offense, including QB Kirk Cousins. This expands on the youth movement initiated with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, and could extend to other coaching positions as well, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some more experienced coaches were mixed in too.

Presumably the Vikings, and O’Connell, have an idea of who might fill the coaching void defensively, but we’ll have to stay tuned to find out who is selected to fill all the remaining coaching positions.

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