Kevin O’Connell was hired as the Vikings’ coach last February with the mandate to be the anti-Mike Zimmer with players and fans alike. Zimmer’s cantankerous act had grown old and after missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season, ownership saw the opportunity to jettison the 66-year-old coach and get a fresh start.
Enter the 37-year-old O’Connell, who conveyed a boyish charm and charismatic approach during his opening press conference. O’Connell had just finished working as the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and now was prepared to bring his secrets and far-more-pleasant demeanor to the Vikings.
The fear-based culture that existed under Zimmer, would be replaced with a friendly smile in the hallway directed at players and team employees alike. So imagine the surprise of fans when they showed up for the first open practice at TCO Performance Center on Saturday and saw these instructions on the main scoreboard outside the practice fields.
“VIKINGS FANS: Please help our team, not the opponents, and refrain from taking videos of practice.”
Like many, I rolled my eyes, made a wise crack, tweeted the picture you see above this column and asked O’Connell about what came off as straight paranoia. All of this was justified, but more reflection on the matter (folks, I have very little to do in life other than this) caused reflection about the situation in which O’Connell has been placed, not to mention new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah.
Vikings owners Mark and Zygi Wilf clearly have told O’Connell and Adofo-Mensah they see no reason why the Vikings can’t win the NFC North and make a playoff run. It’s also clear the feeling from up top is that Zimmer and Rick Spielman, fired as general manager after last season, were the problem.
That is up for debate, but what isn’t is the fact there won’t be much, if any, of a honeymoon period for the new GM and coach. That means O’Connell will be expected to do what no head coach has done so far and that’s make Cousins into a quarterback who not only puts up impressive stats but also leads his team on a deep playoff run that ends in a Super Bowl.
This mandate doesn’t leave much time for a coach to act like Mr. Rogers. Whether it’s Zimmer or O’Connell, the pressure to win remains the same and that pressure is what drives the paranoia that makes a coach afraid that his formations and play designs will reach the Bears, Lions and Packers, not to mention any other opponent on the Vikings’ schedule.
The thing O’Connell will realize is that worrying about every detail, won’t allow him as much time to focus on the most important things and that’s where his concerns have to be directed on a daily basis. The Vikings’ public relations staff stopped the media from filming Saturday’s work more than an hour before the practice ended and certainly before any of the most interesting plays were run.
Fans, however, were only asked to stop filming and a search of highlights on Twitter will show that many did not oblige. Videos from high in the stands that provided great looks for anyone who wanted to watch them can be found.
So why does O’Connell care? Part of it is the controlling nature of a football coach. Another is that he’s probably banking on the fact his old friend, Packers coach Matt LaFleur, will be scouting what the Rams did last season as Green Bay prepares for the Sept. 11 opener at U.S. Bank Stadium. O’Connell’s advantage is that he can introduce wrinkles to the offense because he might have better personnel at some spots than the Rams did.
O’Connell certainly knows some of the training camp plays run before fans will get out and that’s why he likely isn’t running anything that will qualify as a trick play before those watching from the packed bleachers.
O’Connell also isn’t the first coach to express fear, and even angst, about what he wants to do reaching those he doesn’t want to see it. During Vikings’ training camp in 2008 in Mankato, then-coach Brad Childress’ offense had a play in which defensive end Jared Allen lined up at tight end in the red zone. Thousands of fans saw it, but reporters had to have a discussion with Childress explaining why they wanted to report it. Approval was finally given, and the Vikings never ran the play.
This surprised no one when it came to Childress because he had been hired with the expectation that he would tolerate no nonsense with players or anyone else. “Typical, Childress,” was the feeling of many.
O’Connell doesn’t have the same advantage. There’s an expectation that he will walk around with kid gloves on and smile no matter what happens. That, of course, isn’t going to be the case. This is a guy who spent time as a backup quarterback with Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots and saw last season what it takes to win a Super Bowl.
If O’Connell seems to have more patience, or smiles more than Zimmer, Vikings ownership will be happy. But their biggest directive is to win football games, and make Cousins better than he’s ever been. That means O’Connell is going to need to be a football coach more than a good guy or anyone’s friend.
If you didn’t know that before Saturday, you do now.