The Vikings’ culture has been changed. The quarterback has a coach who not only is willing to meet with him once a week, but considers him one of the most important people in the building. The general manager welcomes input from his colleagues and those who work at TCO Performance Center seem to be smiling a lot more these days.
In other words, the easy part is over.
Since Kwesi Adofo-Mensah was hired as general manager in late January and Kevin O’Connell was named coach in mid-February, it has been made clear things would be very different than they were in what turned into miserable seasons in 2020 and ’21 under Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer. Players would be empowered — Zimmer’s fear-based culture, a distant memory — and eye contact would be made in the hallways.
Those might be steps in the right direction, but there’s only one thing that matters and there’s only one real reason that Spielman and Zimmer were fired: They didn’t win enough. The Vikings haven’t been over .500 since the end of the 2019 season and went a combined 15-18 the past two seasons as Zimmer’s defenses went from being among the most respected in the NFL to being unable to stop opponents.
The Vikings will open the regular season on Sunday against Green Bay at U.S. Bank Stadium with an expectation that they can end the Packers’ three-year run as NFC North champions. Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell will both carry significant expectations from ownership and fans into the season and a failure to meet those expectations could do plenty to alter their pleasant demeanors.
An early observation was made at training camp to multiple team employees about how different things felt from a year ago, when Zimmer was at his most toxic and a cloud of misery hung over the team’s Eagan facility. The employees’ quickly pointed out that the team hadn’t lost a game. It’s easy to say you’re going to alter a culture, or be more friendly, when your team is 0-0 and opening day is months away.
But football people don’t really reveal themselves until wins and losses are counted. The Vikings had about as smooth of training camp as a team can. Yes, they lost all three of their exhibition games, but the majority of starters never took the field, and those that did played sparingly. The games were used for evaluation of depth — and, judging from the final cuts, it’s clear Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell didn’t think much of Spielman’s final draft classes.
Where they did acknowledge Spielman’s success was in putting together a roster filled with top skill position players on offense and still productive players on defense. And this is why the new brass is going to be feeling the pressure from opening day through the Vikings’ regular-season finale in Chicago.
Owners Zygi and Mark Wilf have made Zimmer, and Spielman to a lesser extent, the fall guys for the past two seasons. They are banking on O’Connell, who unlike Zimmer has a background in coaching offense, to take a unit with Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook and an improved offensive line and turn it into a Top 10 scoring unit that can help carry Minnesota into the postseason. No longer will the Vikings be a defensive-first team that hopes the offense can do its job.
It’s now going to be on Cousins and Co., to play the staring role and the new-look 3-4 defense to hold up its end of the bargain.
It’s the opposite of what Ryan Poles has done as the new general manager of the Chicago Bears. Poles, a former Chiefs executive, also interviewed for the Vikings job and was a leading candidate, but if he had the same idea for the Vikings as he did in Chicago, there was no way the Wilfs were going to hire him. Poles has hit the reset button on the Bears and appears to be very comfortable with having a terrible team now to build something for later.
The Vikings, meanwhile, gave Cousins a one-year, $35 million extension that keeps him under contract through 2023, banking on the fact that O’Connell can take a career-.500 QB with some impressive stats and turn him into a winner. Cousins will be entering his fifth season with the Vikings, and during that time the Vikings have made one playoff appearance and won one postseason season game. Minnesota finished 10-6 that season (2019), but otherwise have gone 8-7-1, 7-9 and 8-9 with Cousins at QB.
The experiment being conducted by the Vikings is whether O’Connell’s offensive acumen can help Cousins achieve the type of success that he’s never experienced in terms of wins and losses and making a playoff run. O’Connell, picked in the third round of the 2008 draft by the New England Patriots, didn’t have the talent to make it as a quarterback in the NFL. Cousins has proven he has the talent to be successful, but his conservative nature and quirkiness have helped to hold him back.
While there are many who make excuses for Cousins, those all seem to be gone. O’Connell is here to help his quarterback both on and off the field. The Vikings’ skill position players are some of the best in the NFL and Jefferson is one of its top wide receivers. The offensive line is no longer a revolving door and should provide adequate protection.
Those are all reasons why there is an enthusiasm about this team and its chances to rebound. Zimmer made things miserable at the end, and O’Connell has been a breath of fresh air. That will remain the case, if things go well in 2022. If they don’t, it will be interesting to see if everyone is still smiling and celebrating the departure of Big Bad Zim come January.