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Zulgad: Kevin O’Connell provides hope for harmony after turbulent times with Zimmer

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Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell walks on the field before the NFL Super Bowl 56 football game between the Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Let’s face it, it has become difficult for Minnesota sports hires to lose the press conference. Brad Childress managed to do it at his introductory presser in 2006 and we never got over it. Since then, it’s been victories for everyone from Mike Zimmer to Rocco Baldelli to P.J. Fleck.

That makes Kevin O’Connell’s resounding dub in his first press conference as Vikings’ coach on Thursday at TCO Performance Center a bit less impressive. It came three weeks after new Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah posted a victory in his initial press conference.

The reality is Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell won the moment they sat down at their respective microphones and weren’t former GM Rick Spielman or Zimmer. This was especially the case for the 36-year-old O’Connell, who true to NFL hiring trends is the complete opposite of the 65-year-old curmudgeon he’s replacing. This goes way beyond the fact that O’Connell is an offensive guy and Zimmer’s background was on the defensive side of the football.

O’Connell made it clear that culture, collaboration and communication will be essential to the Vikings’ success going forwards. The former Rams’ offensive coordinator often glanced over at Zygi and Mark Wilf as he reiterated some of the same things he had told the Vikings’ owners during the interview process.

“I will not hire a coach that will not connect on a one-on-one basis with their players in their rooms,” O’Connell said. “It’s very, very important. Our players will feel that from the first meeting all the way through our first time getting on the grass into training camp and on into the season.”

This had to come as music to the Wilfs’ ears after they heard from a group of veteran players just how toxic things had gotten this past season. Spielman and Zimmer had quit communicating, and it sounded like, if the players were talking to their superiors, they weren’t being listened to very closely. Eric Kendricks, the Vikings’ middle linebacker, didn’t hold back when he was asked about what creates a successful team culture and his relationship with his former coach.

“A culture where communication is put at the forefront,” Kendricks said in January on the day Zimmer was fired. “No matter what your role is on the staff, you having a voice and being able to communicate things you think could facilitate wins. I think just having that voice, no matter how big your role is—it’s important to listen up and take each other’s opinions into account. I don’t think a fear-based organization is the way to go.”

O’Connell clearly agrees. The move from Zimmer to O’Connell in many ways feels like when Childress was replaced by defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. Frazier was promoted from defensive coordinator to interim coach during the 2010 season and then given the full-time job in 2011. Childress, like Zimmer, had been hired in part because of his no-nonsense approach with his players. Frazier, meanwhile, was considered to be a player-friendly coach and also better with the media and fans.

Unfortunately, he went 21-32-1 in three-plus seasons as Vikings’ coach and made one playoff appearance before being dismissed following the 2013 season. Zimmer also had a defensive background when he arrived in 2014 but was more in the mold of his mentor, Bill Parcells, while Frazier had been like his mentor, Tony Dungy.

O’Connell arrives with the hope that the offensive genius of his former boss, Sean McVay, has rubbed off on the former college quarterback and 2008 third-round pick of the New England Patriots. McVay just won his first Super Bowl and the 36-year-old head coach already has built an impressive coaching tree that includes the man he beat in the Super Bowl, Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor.

Can O’Connell find that kind of success and lead the Vikings to their first Super Bowl appearance since Jan. 9, 1977, or eight-plus years before he was born? One press conference isn’t going to provide the answer.

What was answered was just how different things are going to be with the Vikings. Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell are ultimately going to have to make the final call on a variety of important decisions, but the days of “if you don’t like it, too bad,” or refusing to say hello to players in the hallway are gone. The hope is that those types of changes — none of which are very difficult to make — will result in an improved culture around a building where collaboration had become nonexistent.

Ultimately, this will come down to how good of a head coach O’Connell becomes and whether Adofo-Mensah can remake the roster into one that can consistently win close games instead of lose them. Success will leave many at TCO Performance Center smiling and happy that the days of the Zim the Grouch are gone.

Failure likely will mean that the Wilfs next search won’t be for someone who specializes in culture, collaboration and communication, but rather a new curmudgeon who will be the opposite of O’Connell.