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Bill Walsh and the Vikings’ new culture blueprint

A look into the new culture KAM & KO are looking to establish in Minnesota

As the Vikings begin their first training camp under the new regime, before we get into the nitty-gritty of camp battles and who looks good and who doesn’t, I’ll start by taking a broader view of the new culture Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell are looking to foster as they begin this key period of preparation and competition for the upcoming season. This is the time where the coaching staff and GM will have their best opportunity to date to really put a stamp on what the new culture is all about.

What is Team Culture Anyway?

When we talk about team culture, it’s often sort of a vague concept, intangible and difficult to measure. And yet it seems to have a tangible effect on a team’s success, acting either as a tail wind that propels a team to victory, or a head wind that causes a team to fall short.

Usually it’s thought of as some mixture of talent, coaching and organizational competence, and team chemistry that affects the team’s ability to believe in itself, rise to the occasion, and overcome adversity. Sometimes it manifests itself in star players making extraordinary plays or failing to do so. Sometimes it shows up in less heralded or backup players coming through in key moments, or those players falling short when called upon. And sometimes it just seems like luck, good or bad, that a team is blessed or cursed with. But however it manifests itself, team culture seems to show up at critical times, and acts as sort of a trump card to whatever talent level or game situation a team is faced with. And opponents can be either intimidated or emboldened based on the vibe that emanates from a team’s culture.

But however difficult it is to define what makes team culture, we know it when we see it.

For decades teams like the Detroit Lions and the New York Jets had a weak culture that fostered defeat, while teams like the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers in their dynasty eras had strong cultures that propelled them to victories and championships.

And so team culture is as important an ingredient in team success as any other. And with the Vikings undergoing a regime change this year, with a focus on developing a new and positive team culture, it makes sense to delve a bit into what may drive that in the future.

The Legacy of Bill Walsh

When Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was first introduced as the Vikings’ new general manager, he mentioned he had a poster of Bill Walsh, the legendary coach and general manager who built the 49ers dynasty of the 80s and 90s, in his office. He went on to mention the influence that Walsh, who retired from the NFL in 1989, had on him.

Adofo-Mensah began his NFL career with the 49ers, and the years he spent in San Francisco appear to be his formative years, from his initial assignment of studying what makes successful organizations, to later taking on player-related analytic studies. Undoubtedly the legend of Bill Walsh still permeated the 49ers organization when Adofo-Mensah was there, and it would’ve been virtually impossible for Adofo-Mensah to not have learned a lot about Walsh during his tenure with the 49ers- particularly in his first assignment of studying what makes successful organizations.

After all, Bill Walsh was the mastermind behind one of the two greatest dynasties in the Super-Bowl era, his coaching tree is the largest in the NFL today, and variations of his west-coast offensive scheme are the most widely used in the NFL today as well.

Walsh’s coaching tree includes the likes of George Siefert, Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, Mike & Kyle Shanahan, Dennis Green (and Tony Dungy, Brian Billick, and Mike Tomlin), Sean McVay, and at least a couple dozen other head coaches over the years- including now Kevin O’Connell. The culture and systems employed by Walsh have been passed down and adapted by all these coaches, and many others, and have resulted in many Super Bowl winning teams. It is one of two primary coaching trees in the NFL currently, the other being the Bill Parcells/Bill Belichick tree.

Culture Shift

It’s notable that Vikings’ former head coach Mike Zimmer came from the Bill Parcells coaching tree, who had a very different style than Bill Walsh. Walsh was a more cerebral coach in a period where brash coaches like Parcells and Mike Ditka were more prevalent. In fact, Walsh’s more uncommon cerebral nature resulted in his being passed over for head coaching jobs in the 1970s, and only getting his first head coaching job at age 49.

Mike Zimmer was perhaps the last head coach that was close with Parcells, whom he talked to regularly throughout his tenure as head coach with the Vikings, and often sought his advice. They had a similar style, but not in every respect. Zimmer made his reputation as a brash coach, and in this era was passed over for head coaching jobs because of it much like Walsh for being more cerebral 40 years earlier.

But it’s more than just the head coach’s personality that contributes to the team’s culture. However, that personality tends to influence the management style of the organization, and the decision-making structure as well. For example, Bill Parcells had a more confrontational style of coaching players. In an article for the HBR, Parcells put forward three key principles of leadership: 1) take charge; 2) confrontation is healthy; and 3) set small goals and hit them. He wasn’t afraid to take charge and confront players and tell them his expectations of them and what they were doing wrong. Part of that was telling his players he wanted guys that would do what it takes to win championships, and if they weren’t willing to do so, he’d get someone else. Parcells was goals, rather than process, oriented. He didn’t care about having a competitive team week-to-week, he wanted a championship team, and how he approached coaching each week during the season changed depending on what he thought the best approach would be for that week. He didn’t have a consistent process. Parcells also had more of a pyramid leadership structure, with himself at the top, and a top-down decision-making process.

Mike Zimmer was not like Bill Parcells in every respect, and he was not the same head coach at the end of his tenure with the Vikings as he was in the beginning. But he did employ a more confrontational style with players, which worked when it came across as honest and constructive and didn’t work when it came across as more threatening and destructive. As Zimmer’s job security became less certain, it came across as more of the latter, and he became more controlling, more focused on his own position rather than developing players, and his relationships with others suffered. It became the ‘fear-based organization’ as Eric Kendricks described it, where players (and coaches) didn’t feel comfortable sharing their views for fear that they might draw Zimmer’s wrath. Structurally, Zimmer’s organization chart was more disjointed and disconnected than Parcell’s, as Zimmer was more defensive coordinator than head coach and delegated running the offense to his offensive coordinator, which he sometimes clashed with leading to two mid-season changes during his tenure. He also clashed with GM Rick Spielman on personnel issues, which further complicated his leadership structure, leading to essentially three central poles, with himself in the middle, but somewhat disconnected from the others. Beyond that, he seemed more goal-oriented than process-oriented, as he could vary his process too as he felt necessary week-to-week. But he didn’t spend a lot of time talking about goals and may have employed Parcells’ method of setting small goals and hitting them (or trying to), like having a good practice, etc. If anything he seemed more scheme-oriented, perhaps owing to his role as defensive coordinator, as he often detailed wins and losses by how well players executed the scheme that day.

By contrast, both Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah are adherents to the Bill Walsh style (Walsh was both head coach and GM), which in many ways is opposite to the Parcells/Zimmer style.

So What is the Walsh System and Culture?

Back in 1993, after Bill Walsh retired from the NFL and later decided to return to coach Stanford a couple years later, he gave an interview published in the Harvard Business Review on building a winning team. In it he discussed his methods and philosophy both from a coaching and general manager perspective- he served in both roles for the 49ers.

As both head coach and general manager, Walsh had a set of systems and philosophy he attributed to the success of the 49ers during his dynasty reign- 3 Super Bowl championships in 8 seasons in the 1980s. The 49ers also had two more Super Bowl championships in the subsequent six seasons under his protege, George Siefert.

Process Oriented

The first aspect of the Bill Walsh coaching and management style is that it is very process oriented. That means putting a lot of thought and experience into developing a process to help players and the team be successful and sticking to it every week. The idea is that using a consistent process that develops the key factors for success, both as players and as a team, rather than a more varied approach, would result in better development of each player and the team overall.

One of Walsh’s coaching legacies that has spread throughout the league is his minute-by-minute detailing of practices. The idea was to be more efficient than his opponents in coaching more techniques and more situational football plays to give his players an advantage on the field. An advantage that could help overcome physical disadvantages at times. Walsh developed a process for coaching everything with the same goal of giving his players advantages on the field. For each position, there was a process for teaching several techniques needed for success- usually more than other teams coached- and drilling those techniques so his players would be more prepared. He had a process for developing more detailed game plans, and play designs, and so forth. The phrase ‘thoughtful and intentional’ which you hear almost every press conference from Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, along with being process oriented, was the backbone of Walsh’s style.

Kevin O’Connell- from his first press conference- has also talked about being process oriented, which he learned under Sean McVay (if not earlier), who is also from the Bill Walsh coaching tree. O’Connell learned ‘teaching the why’ from McVay, which means explaining the why behind drilling certain techniques, or a particular workout routine, or other coaching process as a way for players to understand the importance behind it, and a way to get them to buy into the process as well. It’s also an important way for a coach to demonstrate competence beyond his resume in a practical way that players can benefit from and buy into as well.

Developing Players

A major reason behind Walsh’s commitment to being process oriented was so he could develop his players better than his competitors. That commitment to his players was fostered in his communication and management style as well. Walsh’s focus on developing players was based on his philosophy that successful teams do a better job of developing - not just acquiring- players than their competitors:

Teams that have been most successful are the ones that have demonstrated the greatest commitment to their people. They are the ones that have created the greatest sense of belonging. And they are the ones that have done the most in-house to develop their people. That commitment has to come through in the personality of the organizations. - Bill Walsh

In his first press conference, Kevin O’Connell echoed Walsh’s philosophy when he talked about what he thought made the best coaches, and getting players to ‘understand the why’ and ‘take ownership of the why’ in getting players buy into his system:

The best coaches I ever had I felt like they cared about me. I felt like they cared not only about the production on the field, but the process at which we got to that point. I was always a player that needed to improve in something, and when coaches took the time to not only tell me what I didn’t do well, but show me how to fix those problems, or at least go about the process of improving. And I think ultimately that’s what we are as coaches. Identify things you think can help a player do better, but more importantly give them the why and how of how they’re going to get to do that. I think that’s what makes the greatest coaches in this league who they are.

... you’ve got to establish what your football philosophy and culture is going to be...They [players] gotta know we care about ‘em from day one. I will not hire a coach that will not connect on a one-on-one basis with their players, in their rooms, it’s very, very important... that’s a culture built on players and coaches being connected. The communication that exists in that building, coach to coach, player to coach, coach to player, is second to none and it provides a platform for everyone to feel they have the ownership of the why. - Kevin O’Connell

Management Style

O’Connell’s statement not only reflects his commitment to his players, but also his more collaborative management style- which again mirrors that of Bill Walsh. Walsh was asked what was the biggest obstacle to creating a successful team and organization based on the commitment to their people, and this was his response:

The coach must account for his ego. He has to drop or sidestep the ego barrier so that people can communicate without fear. They have to be comfortable that they will not be ridiculed if they turn out to be mistaken or if their ideas are not directly in line with their superior’s. That is where the breakthrough comes. That is what it takes to build a successful, winning organization.

That approach was certainly critical to the success of the 49ers. It contributed to an environment where our team could be more flexible and adaptable in responding to the unexpected moves of our opponents.

I tried to remove the fear factor from people’s minds so they could feel comfortable opening their mouths. They knew they could be wrong one time and then, when they got a little more information, change their opinion and not be demeaned for it. In fact, I made a point of reminding our coaching staff that I expected them to change their opinions and impressions over time. It’s quite natural: the more information you develop, the faster things can change. - Bill Walsh

It’s difficult to read Walsh’s quotes and not think of Eric Kendricks’ statement after last season was over: “I don’t think a fear-based culture is the way to go” or Brian O’Neill’s statement...

It could be something as little as “Hey, how are you doing?” in the hallway or feeling like guys walking by in the hallway and they say ‘hello how are you doing? Good morning.’ We spend so much time together and the season is so long that little personal things here or there could make a big difference for a young guy or even a rookie that’s coming in and isn’t really sure how he fits, if he belongs. Little different personal things like that because guys play their best when they feel good about themselves and their role within a team. The more we can cultivate a culture that guys feel good about being themselves and they’re important to the team and everybody’s in this together. And when young players start to learn that earlier on, they start to do better, and that everybody’s behind us and all of our successes and all of our failures go together. The more that we can understand as players and coaches that we’re all in this together, I think we’d go a long way to making this a better place. - Brian O’Neill

... and not see the wisdom and fit in the Vikings’ changing to the Walsh approach for this team, and at this point in time.

Other Aspects

The comments from both Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell mirror those of Bill Walsh so many years ago, literally at every press conference, it makes you wonder to what extent other aspects of Walsh’s example they have incorporated into their approach as well.

For example, Walsh said that in a group of ten players, two will be supermotivated star players, and two will waste your time as coaches and not be with the team long. Four will play to their potential with good coaching and motivation, and the other two will be marginal- can contribute something of value to the team with good coaching, skill development, etc. Walsh focused his coaches on the latter six players, who could benefit most from their coaching. He also believed that most coaches across the league could do a reasonably good job with the top 75% of the players on their team- basically the top six players in eight that make the team. But he felt it was the bottom 25% that could often make the difference between winning and losing. And that bottom 25% were the players that could benefit the most from the attention to detail and preparation provided by coaching, so he focused a lot of his organizational coaching on those players.

It’s interesting in that context that the coaching staff under Kevin O’Connell has grown compared to that under Mike Zimmer. For example, on defense there are ten coaches on Kevin O’Connell’s staff including assistant head coach Mike Pettine. Under Mike Zimmer, who called the defensive plays, there were only seven with Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer doubling as co-defensive coordinators and position coaches.

Offensively, there are eleven coaches on O’Connell’s staff, with him calling plays, whereas Zimmer had ten, including Rick Dennison who may not have contributed much from home.

That’s a total of four additional coaches under Kevin O’Connell working to develop players. The Vikings have an unusually high number of very young players, given how many players they’ve drafted in the last few years that are still on the roster- 33 in all. Getting some of the guys the previous coaching staff may have overlooked or effectively abandoned to become contributors and quality players could make a significant difference in roster depth and the starting lineup too.

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At quarterback, Walsh worked with both of his future Hall of Fame QBs- Joe Montana and Steve Young - to develop the right mix of essentially mastering and sticking to the scripted play and what he called developing their spontaneous instincts. With Montana early on, he worked to encourage the latter, while with Young he had to reign in his off-scripted play.

Clearly Kirk Cousins is more of a master of the scripted play, rather than a creative off-script quarterback, but early indications are that Kevin O’Connell is looking to foster the off-script aspect of Cousins’ game, in part by giving him more control of the offense as a field general, and secondly by giving him the trust and encouragement as the head coach, offensive coach, and former NFL quarterback with whom he has a good relationship, to go off-script more often if the situation demands. O’Connell has some credibility in guiding Matt Stafford to his best season, so we’ll see if he’s able to raise Cousins’ game a little as well. Going successfully off-script is not strictly a QB thing either. Extending plays effectively means having enough pass protection to do so, and also the rapport and chemistry with good receivers to execute what can be scramble drills or simply throwing it up for grabs and counting on your guy to come down with it. Cousins has improved some as a runner in recent years, moving the chains in some key moments on occasion, but that’s probably as far as it goes.

Bottom Line

The Vikings' new regime is in many ways the opposite in style and approach to the last regime and is pretty clearly aligned with the Bill Walsh approach to coaching and managing the team. They both have clearly expressed the same style and philosophy as the 49er legend and have built upon the coaching legacies of Walsh with greater analytics and sports science than was available in Walsh’s day.

All that seems like a welcome balm for the players to sooth the rash of last season. Players seem receptive, and perhaps a bit more upbeat, as they begin training camp under the new regime. Of course this is when optimism is greatest across the league- when everyone is undefeated and the promise of a strong season ahead oozes from many training camps.

For the Vikings, the impact of the change in regime will be difficult to assess in advance. Part of that is because the new culture has not yet been tested or even established on the field. But a more functional regime, and a more positive team culture, could prove to have a larger impact when combined with a team that lost 8 games by one score or less last season under a regime and a culture that was much worse than was widely known outside the building last season.

One thing I’ll be looking for during training camp is signs of better player development than the last couple of years. Ultimately Bill Walsh and his system was about developing players better than other teams, and so for O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah, the first signs of a successful regime may come from positive surprises from younger players- and maybe some older ones too- over the course of training camp and the preseason games.


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