EAGAN — Monday night had a pang of football in the air. Amidst a summer that has been brutally hot, the weather for the Minnesota Vikings’ night practice provided just enough cool air for you to hear the whispers of fall.
A few minutes before practice new head coach Kevin O’Connell gave a giddy press conference. No matter the subject — from Hard Knocks to outside linebackers coach Mike Smith to Cousins’ practice interceptions — he gave excited answers and said he couldn’t wait to get out in front of the 7,000 (or so?) fans in attendance. Danielle Hunter talked too. He wore shades and said he’s enjoyed learning new pass rush moves from Za’Darius Smith and described a car that he’s having sent over from the UK next year.
TCO Stadium had no room for walk-ups — or walking room. The stands were full, the fences were lined with purple and the line for the beer and bathroom was long. Men in jerseys representing everyone from Dalvin Cook and Justin Jefferson to Troy Dye to Kellen Mond, Anthony Carter, Jared Allen, Greg Jennings, Teddy Bridgewater, Brett Favre and on and on littered the crowd.
Players carefully walked down the long stairway to the field, where they were greeted with purple “flames” on each side. Receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette stuck his arms out and glided onto the field as if he were flying. Kirk Cousins stretched out his arm to fist bump a young fan.
As the team began their stretching routine, the production crew played an introduction video that rivaled what they play right before kickoff at US Bank Stadium. Rookies stood along the sidelines and encouraged fans to do the SKOL chant and broadcaster Paul Allen’s bassy pipes belted out footbally notes from the press box.
Shadows started to cover the field while the team neared being ready for team drills. Irv Smith Jr. stood on the sideline with a hoodie underneath his jersey staring out at his teammates. Nobody had to ask him how badly he wanted to be out there. Inside linebackers coach Greg Manusky and Harrison Smith had an intense conversation as the rest of the defense stretched. Justin Jefferson tossed the ball around with injured receiver Blake Proehl, catching every ball with one hand.
Individual drills started. Quarterbacks shuffled around mini orange cones. Pass rushers knocked a ball attached to a rope out of the hands of an assistant coach. The loudspeaker played “X Gonna Give It To Ya” by DMX and we looked for any sign of first-round pick Lewis Cine. Following practice, it was noted that he had an excused absence and would return Wednesday. Fans would unfortunately not be treated to a glimpse of their first-round pick.
They wouldn’t get too many looks at the offensive scheme that’s supposed to take the franchise places that it couldn’t go under Mike Zimmer, either.
In past years Zimmer seemed to make a point of making the night practice as intense as possible. The team always ran a lot of deep passes and tried to draw cheers from the crowd. Even during the most uncomfortable time of 2021 training camp, Jake Browning was heaving balls up to receivers and ended up getting a massive ovation at the end of the night.
If Monday’s practice had the goal of hitting on a bunch of big plays, they did not achieve that. The full-team work opened with Cousins completing a pass to Jefferson over the middle of the field. He wouldn’t catch another one until the final drive of the night. Dalvin Cook’s first handoff brought a “HE’S LOOOOSE” scream from Allen but his voice wouldn’t rise much after that.
There were some interesting notes to make about who was on the field. Former Colt Jonathan Bullard came in for a first-team rep and Patrick Jones continued to come in as an edge rusher when Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith were getting a rest. Three tight ends worked in, including Ben Ellefson.
A pass flew over Jefferson’s head. A flag flew on a run. The next group stepped in.
Kellen Mond opened up the second-team reps and got more work than Sean Mannion. He failed to move the ball during any of the 11-on-11 reps. So did Mannion.
The second and third team offenses did face a lot of pressure. Jaylen Twyman crashed through for a “sack” and Zach McCloud beat Oli Udoh for a run stop.
Cousins “ran” in a touchdown during the goal line drill but otherwise was up and down. He found Zach Davidson for a TD. Another pass flew out of the end zone. He walked back to speak with quarterbacks coach Chris O’Hara afterward.
Mond delivered a very nice pass during a goal line drill to Trishton Jackson, who is slowly becoming an intriguing player to watch over the next couple weeks. He also threw a near interception to Cam Dantzler.
Kene Nwangwu and Alexander Mattison had nice runs. Mattison spiked the ball as he got shoved down by Andrew Booth Jr.
With his goal line chance Mannion scrambled and threw a duck into the ground.
Cousins returned for another shot at it and fired a pass into the back of the end zone that got broken up by Patrick Peterson. After the play, O’Connell spent several minutes arguing with the referee, even using assistant coach Mike Pettine to show the ref exactly what he was talking about. Maybe O’Connell is just preparing to be the guy who gets to yell at the refs from the sideline for the first time in his career.
On the next 11-on-11, Mond dropped a snap. O’Connell said the other day that every fumbled snap has its own story. The story on this one looks like he just dropped it. That’s happened enough times to be a trend.
As the sun went down, the sky outside of TCO Performance Center was pink, purple, orange and black. Across the street the Omni Hotel lit up purple. Everyone who came for ambience got their money’s worth. If they came for pure football execution, maybe not so much.
The final drive of the night was a last-minute situation where the Vikings put a little over a minute on the clock and looked to get in field goal position. Cousins threw underneath to Cook for a completion, then found KJ Osborn for a first down.
He faced some pressure on the next play and rolled out. Adam Thielen broke off his route and headed toward the sideline looking for Cousins to find him. Instead the throw went short to the tight end Ellefson. O’Connell had just got done answering a question about pushing Cousins to make throws that he might not be comfortable with.
But the offense got it together. Jefferson made a grab to applause and the Vikings dialed up a shot with 16 second left. Cousins threw it out of bounds over Jefferson’s head and Greg Joseph kicked the “game-winning” field goal from 45 yards out. Cousins got high fives along the sideline for a job well done.
Mond’s drive was not so fulfilling. He let loose an impressive throw that Jackson nearly brought in but cornerback Kris Boyd made a great play along the sideline. Then there was a pass interference on a late throw, an amazing Smith-Marsette catch that was out of bounds, a “sack” and a throw so far out of bounds that equipment interns had to scatter.
The Vikings didn’t give Mannion a final drive. Instead Joseph finished off practice in brilliant fashion. He booted 7-of-8 kicks through the uprights, including a banger from 58-yards out — with plenty of room to spare. The star of this year’s camp was surrounded by teammates.
As practice came to an end, O’Connell got the microphone and gave an impassioned speech to the crowd. He referenced the noise at US Bank Stadium and told them they will be a huge part of what the team does this year. Same message in past years, delivered more smoothly. Allen did his yearly reading of the entire roster. Fireworks shot off. Players’ families gathered on the field to watch. For some of them, it will be the highlight of their pro career, for others it’s the yearly signal of the dog days of summer on the way and another month until games actually start.
If Monday’s night practice happened the day before the season, you’d be a little nervous. But there’s a long way to go before opening day and much to be done. The excitement and energy was there, the offensive execution not so much. That’s OK for now. The next few weeks will feature numerous padded practices, joint practices with the 49ers and three preseason games. By the end of all that, the giddiness needs to turn into mastery of the offense if they’re going to beat the Packers in Week 1.