Raise your hand if you expected the Minnesota Vikings to immediately emerge as a contender under first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell. It’s Week 9 and the 6-1 Vikes have a four-game lead in the losing column over the rest of the NFC North. You do saw that coming.
While I am in the group of football observers who were unsure of Minnesota’s potential entering this season, I am not surprised that the team is flourishing under the guidance of a head coach with excellent communication skills and leadership.
As a former counselor with O’Connell at a series of prep football events (Elite 11) in the early 2010s, I watched him work closely with young quarterbacks in a camp environment near the end of his career. While working at a boot camp is obviously not the same as leading an NFL team, the job requires a combination of savvy communication, patience and teaching skills. This is how high school players master shapes, footwork and fundamentals. And that’s a transferable skill that makes it easy to lead a team of aspiring pros in 2022. From using various teaching tactics to helping inexperienced players understand complex concepts to whispering sweet nothings in the quarterback’s ear to build his confidence, the experience coaching high students helped O’Connell learn how to relate to today’s players. I really believe this.
Just look at how he helped Justin Jefferson take his game to another level in his third season. After a few early season games in which the Pro Bowl Pass Catcher didn’t get enough touches, O’Connell made a concerted effort to feed the WR1 a number of targets throughout October. The Vikings play-caller is scripted some easy touches on screens, quick paces and isolation routes to keep the wideout in the game. Additionally, O’Connell incorporated some moves, shifts and different alignments to put Jefferson in a great position to get the ball against any coverage.
With its leading playmaker happy and engaged, the offense has hit despite the schematic overhaul. Part of the offense’s success is certainly tied to the solid play of Kirk Cousins in the first half of the season. While the raw numbers might suggest otherwise — Cousins’ passing yards per game, yards per attempt and passer rating are down from 2021 — the 11th-year pro has made enough crucial plays to help the his team to win five games in a row. And here’s the vital part: O’Connell has thrown his support behind his quarterback at every turn. That’s a drastic departure from how his predecessor treated the quarterback, but it could certainly pay off for the rookie, with a more confident QB1 willing to listen to his coach’s advice because he feels the love and support. Given the importance of the head coach-quarterback dynamic, O’Connell’s communication skills and relationship-building tactics have created a trust between players and coaches that is essential to a team’s long-term success.