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Culture, Coaching, Cousins and Confidence: A Look into the Vikings Off-Season So Far

Minnesota Vikings Introduce Kevin O’Connell Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

It was only a couple months ago that we were waiting for the news to drop that the Vikings had parted ways with head coach Mike Zimmer, and as it turned out, general manager Rick Spielman as well. Beyond the mediocre record of recent years, it was revealed that the Vikings’ culture had become cancerous, with Zimmer being the primary cause. There had been hints of internal problems, and in retrospect many questions of potential dysfunction were answered in the affirmative as players and others sounded off in the aftermath of Zimmer’s firing. The job of general manager, when the head coach goes off the rails, is first to prevent that from happening, and secondly to rectify that situation ASAP. Spielman didn’t do that and paid the price.

The resulting regime change for the Vikings creates a rare off-season for the team and organization, as a new GM and coaching staff steer the Vikings in a new direction.

Culture, KAM and KOC

Throughout the search for a new general manager and head coach, Mark Wilf reiterated collaboration and communication as key qualities they were looking for in a new GM and head coach, presumably given the problems in those areas in the old regime. Those qualities were both demonstrated and frequently referenced in the Vikings new regime hires- general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell - in their introductory press conferences.

The idea, personified in young, smart new hires, was to instill a new culture with collaboration and communication at its core. Analytics would be employed. Player-coach and player-player connections would be developed. Consistency in approach, process and preparation would be maintained. A new EVP - Chief People and Culture Officer position would be created to help create and maintain a positive culture.

The focus on culture is not a misplaced one. Pundits spend an infinite amount of time analyzing player stats, play-calling, roster management, scheme, and game-management decisions, attempting to dissect good and bad, but so much depends on team culture- the intangibles that often decide games.

Look no further than the Detroit Lions. We don’t spend so much time parsing the details about the Lions, simply because culture has always been the problem. Regardless of talent level, play-calling, or game management decisions, the Lions have had the albatross of a poor team culture that keeps them down regardless of other factors. On the other hand, a team like the Patriots in their dynasty years had a winning culture that augmented other factors to win more games than they might otherwise have won.

The Vikings culture has ebbed and flowed over the years. They’ve had lots of quality players on their roster, and few problem ones, but nevertheless team culture hasn’t been a clear strength for a long time. And by that I mean a team culture that when the chips are down, or the game is a big one, they manage to come out on top - one way or another - most of the time.

The Rams weren’t the best team in the league last year by most metrics. Tampa Bay struggled much of the season two years ago. But in the crucible that is the NFL playoffs, they emerged victorious, and the other teams with elite quarterbacks did not. When the stakes go up, team culture plays a more significant role. The Packers have won 13 regular season games in each of the past 3 seasons, but have only one more playoff win than the Vikings over that stretch, which includes two seasons with the league MVP quarterback.

We have yet to see how the culture the new Vikings’ regime is advocating translates to the team, but anecdotally it has been well received by players that have made public comments. It would also seem a welcome change, given the increasing problems under Mike Zimmer for at least the last year or so. Having a fresh start and improving the team culture, which I expect to take hold over the off-season, should produce some ‘intangible’ upside for the Vikings as they not only eliminate what turned out to be a more substantial negative than was known at the time, but also building a more positive culture with better player-coach relationships.

Coaching, Coordinators and Scheme

Beyond the change in team culture that comes with a new coaching staff and general manager, there is the change in position coaching, medical staff, and scheme. It will also result in new perspectives and evaluations of the Vikings roster, which could lead to roster changes as well. Below is a list of the new Vikings’ coaching staff. Note only three position coaches are returning from last year: WR coach Keenan McCardell, Asst. DB coach Roy Anderson, and Asst. LB coach Sam Siefkes. All the Strength and Conditioning coaches return as well.

HEAD COACH / ASST / COORDINATORS

  • Head Coach: Kevin O’Connell
  • Assistant Head Coach: Mike Pettine (defensive coach)
  • Defensive Coordinator: Ed Donatell
  • Offensive Coordinator: Wes Phillips
  • Special Teams Coordinator: Matt Daniels

DEFENSIVE POSITION COACHES

  • Defensive Line: Chris Rumph | Asst. Defensive Line: A’Lique Terry
  • Inside Linebackers: Greg Manusky | Asst. Linebackers: Sam Siefkes
  • Outside Linebackers/Pass Rush Specialist: Mike Smith
  • Defensive Backs: Daronte Jones | Asst. Defensive Backs/Safeties: Roy Anderson

OFFENSIVE POSITION COACHES

  • Pass Game Specialist/Game Management Coordinator: Ryan Cordell
  • Tight Ends/Passing Game Coordinator: Brian Angelichio
  • Offensive Line: Chris Cuper | Asst. Offensive Line: Justin Rascati
  • Quarterbacks: Chris O’Hara | Asst. Quarterbacks: Jerrod Johnson
  • Wide Receivers: Keenan McCardell | Asst. Wide Receivers: Tony Sorrentino
  • Running Backs/Running Game Coordinator: Curtis Modkins

OTHER ASSISTANT COACHES

  • Asst. Special Teams: Ben Kotwica
  • Asst. to the Head Coach/Special Projects: Grant Ukinski
  • Quality Control Offense: Derron Montgomery
  • Quality Control Defense: Steve Donatell

STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING COACHES

  • Head Strength and Conditioning: Josh Hingst
  • Asst. Strength and Conditioning: Derik Keyes
  • Asst. Strength and Conditioning: Marquis Johnson

One thing to note, compared to last year’s coaching staff, is that there are at least a few more coaches on the staff now, and there are no longer shared duties among the defensive coordinator/defensive line/linebacker position coaches. That should allow coaches more time to teach and develop players- and build relationships with them.

Additionally, among other front office staff, there is a new position of EVP - Chief People and Culture Officer, filled by Lara Juras.

There is also a new team medical staff led by Tyler Williams, Director of Player Health and Performance, who replaces Eric Sugarman.

Lastly, while there haven’t been any significant changes in the scouting/analytics staff, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were some changes following the NFL Draft, which is the end of the season for scouting personnel and typically when changes are made there.

From a player’s perspective, it’s pretty much a complete overhaul, from position coach to coordinator, head coach to medical staff. And with that comes new relationships, new approaches, new perspectives, new coaching techniques, and new scheme and playbook.

Offensively, the overall scheme won’t change as much, as Kevin O’Connell and his offensive coordinator Wes Phillips operate a version of the Shanahan scheme the Vikings have used the past three years. But that’s not to say there won’t be new plays and concepts introduced- there could be a fair amount of that actually. The Rams used a lot of pre-snap motion in their playbook, and a lot of plays focused on getting Cooper Kupp favorable matchups, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see that continue with Kevin O’Connell and Wes Phillips, only this time focusing on getting Justin Jefferson favorable matchups.

Defensively, it will be a new scheme, especially up-front, where head coach Kevin O’Connell and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell have said that they’ll employ a hybrid front, using both 3-4 and 4-3 alignments. There may be different coverage schemes as well, along with different pressure packages. All that may lead to some roster changes, as new scheme may dictate players with different skillsets than those currently on the roster. We’ve already seen a couple changes, as the Vikings parted-ways with DT Michael Pierce, in part he said because he wasn’t sure he was the right fit for the new scheme, and adding DT Harrison Phillips and LB Jordan Hicks. Players like Danielle Hunter, Sheldon Richardson and Anthony Barr (the last two are free agents) could end up staying or going as well.

Additionally, KOC and KAM will need to add defensive backs to the roster, and they may opt to add an edge rusher (particularly if they part ways with Danielle Hunter) and perhaps interior linemen on both sides of the ball. Adding another wide receiver would not be surprising either.

In any case, coaching was seen as a shortcoming for the Vikings last season, for a variety of reasons, and the near complete overhaul in coaching staff this season will be a complete reset and an entirely different vibe from last season. Where that leads is anybody’s guess at this point, but so far it appears to be well received by the players.

Kirk Cousins

As always since he arrived in Minnesota, Kirk Cousins has been central to the discussion about the Vikings’ future. From the get-go this off-season, speculation about his future with the Vikings was raging. What will the Vikings do with him? Keep him? Trade him? Extend him? What does the new GM think about him? What does the new head coach think about him?

Both GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell said from the beginning that they liked Cousins, his performance, and looked forward to working with him. Indeed, reports were that both men were in favor of keeping Cousins and building the team around him during the interview process. Nevertheless, many/most local sports writers and pundits were speculating that the Vikings would trade Cousins anyway, and presumably make a fresh start with a draft pick. That didn’t happen. Instead, just as they said, KAM and KOC were agreed in keeping Cousins, and indeed extended him another year, lowering his cap hit from $45 million to $31.4 million this year, with a $36.25 million cap hit in 2023. This wasn’t all that surprising.

The debate will go on whether paying Cousins the 7th highest average annual contract value (AAV) currently among QBs for the 6th best overall performance by a QB in 2021, according to PFF, is the best way forward, but the question of whether the Vikings can win with Cousins, and whether they can win a Super Bowl with Cousins is yes.

The Rams won it last season with Matthew Stafford (who ranked 7th in overall PFF grade last season and now makes $5 million/year more than Cousins), and plenty of other teams have won Super Bowls with less than elite quarterbacks. Whether or not that happens depends on a variety of factors, like the rest of the roster, coaching, injuries, luck, etc., but there is no rule that the best quarterback wins the Super Bowl. Conventional wisdom is that you need a good quarterback to win the Super Bowl, the definition of which is a bit vague, but top ten in most performance metrics anyway. And to the extent a team doesn’t have a good or top quarterback, the better the defense, run game, (or luck) needs to be.

Part of the reason for keeping Cousins is that, despite his .500 winning record as a starting quarterback, his individual performance has been more or less top ten in the league. And he is a good fit for the scheme the Vikings employ offensively. Both KAM and KOC have lauded Cousins’ accuracy and decision-making, and knowledge of the details. KOC also worked with 33-year old Matthew Stafford to improve his performance last season, which resulted in Stafford’s highest overall PFF grade in a season, just behind Kirk Cousins.

It remains to be seen whether KOC is able to successfully improve the Vikings’ offense around what Kirk Cousins does best, as he has stated, but having an offensive head coach that is also a former NFL quarterback, and who is lauded for his communication ability, would seem a good recipe for getting more from Cousins going forward.

Confidence

All these factors- culture, coaching and Cousins- will have an impact on the overall confidence of the team going into next season. It’s been a disappointing and frustrating past couple seasons for the Vikings’ players, as they’ve dealt with underperformance and, as we know now, a head coach that was becoming increasingly toxic for team culture.

All that has weighed on player confidence, particularly younger players who were seemingly cast aside. How well the new regime will be able to instill that lost confidence in a team and roster looking for a new direction remains to be seen, but so far their focus and actions appear to be well received. That should create some positive momentum as the team returns to practice for the beginning of their off-season program in a few weeks.

As we continue into the off-season, I’ll take a deeper look into each of these elements- culture, coaching, and Cousins - and how they are developing under the new regime.

Poll

Who was the best head coach hire in the NFL this year?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Dennis Allen (Saints)
    (9 votes)
  • 6%
    Brian Daboll (Giants)
    (99 votes)
  • 0%
    Matt Eberflus (Bears)
    (11 votes)
  • 5%
    Nathanial Hackett (Broncos)
    (82 votes)
  • 1%
    Mike McDaniel (Dolphins)
    (21 votes)
  • 6%
    Josh McDaniels (Raiders)
    (96 votes)
  • 64%
    Kevin O’Connell (Vikings)
    (931 votes)
  • 11%
    Doug Pederson (Jaguars)
    (158 votes)
  • 2%
    Lovie Smith (Texans)
    (29 votes)
1436 votes total Vote Now