When it comes to evaluating a new coach, circumstances matter.
For Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell, he’s being asked to be the antidote to what ailed the team before he arrived.
This is unique from some of the other new hires around the NFL. For example, Brian Daboll’s New York Giants only have to be competitive in Year 1 and he will easily have topped the sheer incompetence of his predecessor. The bar is set at being in the playoff race by December and anything else is a huge victory. If Daboll’s inherited quarterback Daniel Jones isn’t good and they still struggle, well, that’s the previous GM’s fault and Daboll will get to pick his own QB next year.
In Chicago, Matt Eberflus has even lower expectations. New GM Ryan Poles traded away Khalil Mack and barely added any talent around Justin Fields, setting the standard for the new head coach as only slightly higher than it was for Dan Campbell’s tanking Detroit Lions last year. As long as they are scrappy and Fields runs a few more bootlegs, it will look better than under Matt Nagy.
Doug Pederson’s Jacksonville Jaguars only need to perform like an actual NFL team to improve on Urban Meyer’s disastrous tenure.
O’Connell falls into a different category from the Just Don’t Be Horrible group of new coaches. Is his situation more comparable to Dennis Allen in New Orleans and Josh McDaniels with the Las Vegas Raiders? Each are taking over teams that were mid-pack last season and looking to break the chains of mediocrity.
The Raiders saw their coach get fired during the season due to racist emails that emerged in an investigation into the Washington Commanders. New Orleans was 5-2 when their starting quarterback tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Las Vegas added Davante Adams to help them fight AFC West fire with AFC West fire and the Saints drafted Chris Olave and added Jarvis Landry to fill out weapons around returning Jameis Winston.
The bar for the Saints and Raiders is set at playoffs. It’s fair to say that’s the case with the Vikings considering they haven’t reached the postseason since 2019.
The Vikings replaced exiting defensive players in free agency and drafted two new pieces for their secondary but didn’t add anything like the Saints or Raiders did on offense. They are looking at scheme and culture to pave the road back to the playoffs.
But the shoe doesn’t quite fit with the Saints and Raiders comparisons. They have plausible deniability if it doesn’t work. The Saints aren’t tied into quarterback Jameis Winston, whose cap number is $4 million. The Raiders are in the toughest division in football, far and away.
The pressure on O’Connell might be closer compared to new Denver Broncos head coach Nate Hackett. His team acquired Russell Wilson to open the offseason and now the expectations in Denver are getting back to John Elway and Peyton Manning levels of success. The Broncos have been relatively competitive in recent years but nowhere close to Super Bowl contenders. With Wilson, anything short of going deep in the postseason is disappointing.
The Vikings shouldn’t be looked at much differently in terms of expectations. And if it feels wrong to say that O’Connell’s coaching needs to be the difference between a team playing meaningless football in the season’s final week in each of the last two years and an NFC Championship appearance, then we need to ask why the Vikings have the third most expensive quarterback in football.
As long as they are spending nearly the same dollars at QB as the Chiefs and more than the Packers, Broncos, Cowboys, Bucs, Rams and Bills, the standard should remain the same as when Kirk Cousins initially put ink to paper to become a Viking in 2018. Otherwise they should have done something else at that position.
Moving the goal posts because of expectations around the league (i.e. Vegas win total or power rankings) is rationalizing the situation. Calling it a “competitive rebuild” is hedging in case it doesn’t work and the Vikings go 8-9 again.
The Vikings are giving O’Connell everything that Mike Zimmer had and now they’re saying, “go be better.”
Again, if they aren’t saying “go be better,” then they should have taken a step back in the offseason.
Fan expectations should be that they “go be better” — that O’Connell make good on all the reasons the Vikings fired Zimmer. He ran too much on second-and-10. He couldn’t manage the clock. His culture was toxic. He didn’t trust his quarterback. If those were the reasons the team didn’t get back to the NFC title game and it wasn’t the roster, then it’s reasonable to expect that fixing those issues will take the Vikings to where they once expected to go.
From an ownership and GM level, there’s very little pressure on O’Connell. If the vibes are better and everyone is happier and the “in the hunt” graphics are plentiful in December, any words that O’Connell came short of expectations won’t be breathed from up top. We will hear that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Next year is our year.
But if they aren’t deep in the playoffs, the only thing we’ll have learned is that maybe Zimmer’s plight was tougher than some thought. Little progress will have been made otherwise.
Except maybe if they fail to exceed last year’s mark, the final nail in the idea of having an expensive mid-tier QB will be hammered. But so goes the idea that a schematic magician can fix all that ails.
From that perspective, it’s a difficult spot for O’Connell. He has never been a head coach before and didn’t call plays for the Rams. There is nothing to prepare anyone for the challenges of being a head coach. Just ask Zimmer, who dealt with career-ending QB injuries and all sorts of other unforeseen madness. And it’s worth keeping in mind that Zimmer still ended his Viking career with a regular season winning percentage only .007 behind Bill Parcells’ career mark and ahead of Jimmy Johnson.
Yet it seems like we can’t conflate expectations for the franchise as a whole with judging the job that O’Connell does. He could crush a lot of the elements of being a head coach and do many things better and have a vastly improved culture and manage the clock better and scheme the ball to Justin Jefferson like the world has never seen before and still have a few key injuries or run into one of those rough December patches from his quarterback and come up short of the playoffs. O’Connell could both disappoint in his first year in terms of record and give every indication that he’s the perfect coach for the future.
The pressure O’Connell faces comes from years of disappointment and a decision made — possibly from the very top — to take another swing with Cousins. If it all works, he will win coach of the year. If not, it’ll feel like more of the same, even if he is better for the long term.