EAGAN, Minn. — Kevin O’Connell perches behind a wrap-around desk, shelves of scheme binders lining the walls behind him while a spreadsheet-filled projector and color-coded, dry-erase board of notes adorn the wall to his right.
Purple, blue and green lists span the wall, some more terminology-oriented while others—the purple list, to be exact—track conversations the Minnesota Vikings’ new head coach has exchanged with his assistants and wants now to continue with general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah.
The understated O’Connell might not say it, but he’s established in this space two prioritizes he emphasizes to his players: a premier learning environment and an “elite” level of detail.
He notices when his 7-year-old son’s sketch of Kirk Cousins features hands with amorphous fingers. O’Connell notices when his office thermostat won’t inch above 72.9 degrees Fahrenheit. He wonders, in each instance, not just how but also: Why?
“We’re thinking about the process and ‘why,’” O’Connell told USA TODAY Sports last week after the team’s fourth OTA workout. “There’s a real dangerous thing that goes on in the NFL where it’s ‘how it’s always been done’ or ‘how I’ve always done things.’”
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The Vikings officially hired O’Connell after his stint as offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams concluded. The now 37-year-old coach has since built and began installing an offense the franchise is hopeful will elevate a unit that in recent years has hovered statistically just above average.
But Vikings players and fans ask: How exactly will this 2022 outfit differ from its previous edition that some called stale and insufficiently aggressive? And what gives team leadership confidence that the attack will improve without significant personnel overhaul?
The answers lie in the vision for that personnel and the coach insistent on revolutionizing their usage “in a smart, aggressive way where you’re understanding the risk-reward of the why.”
“If it’s just being aggressive to be aggressive, good luck,” O’Connell said. “Eventually people are too good, coaches are too good. But if you’re being aggressive on your terms, you’ve got a hell of a chance to go have success.”
‘We had an old-style offense’
Confronting where the Vikings offense should transform demands acknowledging its areas of success. Star receiver Justin Jefferson, who set the NFL record for most receiving yards across the first two years of his career, serves as example.
Jefferson’s 3,016 receiving yards the last two seasons eclipsed Odell Beckham Jr.’s 2014-15 mark of 2,755. Yet the 2021 Vikings offense finished 26th in third-down conversion rate (36.4%) en route to an 8-9 record.
“We had an old-style offense last year,” Jefferson told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s 2022. You get into a new age and move to a new generation. Adding new things to the offense definitely allows us to be more comfortable with the offense and work in different areas of the fields.”
To O’Connell, that new generation needs weekly game plans to respond to vastly different defensive structures, that response including identical personnel groupings that execute divergently to confuse and thus slow defenders. O’Connell will radio two-choice “canned” plays to Cousins, who is responsible at the line of scrimmage for choosing which look better aligns with his defensive read. Cue the shift in quarterback step numbers, running back landmarks, wide receiver release depth, and tight end cut angles. Jefferson expects more looks with three-plus receivers or additional tight ends, a chance to diversify the passing game with tactics that they hope also free Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook, who’s rushed for at least 1,100 yards each of the last three seasons, “so he ain’t got a stacked box as much.”
Expect the 2022 Vikings to spread the field.
“For so long the game kind of became this condensed game where everybody was building things, the marriage of the run and the pass,” O’Connell says. “But as times kind of moved forward, I think spreading the field out not playing the game in a phone booth has been a productive thing for some offenses. Putting the game in the quarterback’s hands a little more, trying to run some premier plays vs. premier looks. And really, when in doubt, trust space-rhythm-timing of offenses to hold you true to your core and what you’re trying to get accomplished.”
The 2022 Vikings core will incorporate pre-snap deception and off-script tempo changes, already emphasizing cadence in OTA meeting rooms and on the field.
“Very less predictable,” Jefferson said.
O’Connell is careful not to criticize his predecessors’ scheme or coaching philosophies, quick to point out that the Vikings “did some good things last year” while ranking 12th in yards per game (362.8) and 14th in scoring (25.0). He scoured the group’s 2021 tape for examples of when his current roster already executed some of the principles he’s teaching, albeit under different terminology and alongside different complementary roles. A time receiver K.J. Osborn’s route efficiently cleared a linebacker from Jefferson’s path? O’Connell rolls film to discuss the process and result. A moment in which Jefferson stressed the defense with a stem and weave that capitalized on his speed without sacrificing body control? O’Connell simply holds his clicker and says “do that” before advancing to the next example, a directive to tighten two steps perhaps next on the unending quest to instill player ownership.
The Vikings believe O’Connell’s scheme and this staff’s tutelage can elevate offensive personnel beyond the .507 regular-season win rate that has characterized the first four years of the Cousins era, a stretch with just one postseason appearance (the 2018 Vikings beat the New Orleans Saints in a wild-card game before falling to the San Francisco 49ers in a divisional contest).
But with new scheme comes new terminology — or, as Cousins prefers to call it, “nomenclature.” Which leads the Vikings to flashcards.
‘His own little sprinkles’
As Cousins sought to memorize his new playbook, the 33-year-old quarterback created flashcards with the name of a new play or formation on one side, and a drawing on the other. He tested himself: Where can he expect his X, Y and Z receivers if he calls out each phrase? Which will motion, who’s running what route, and why?
In a show of the collaboration the offense will rely on, Jefferson and tight end Irv Smith Jr., who are 22 and 23 years old, taught their quarterback a more-modern study tactic for learning their more-modern offense: the flashcard smartphone app, Quizlet.
“Sure enough, I found out about it and I’m at home using Quizlet, and I love it,” Cousins told USA TODAY Sports. “I texted the coach who made it, and I was like, ‘Ryan: This is tremendous.’”
Regardless the mnemonic or medium through which they learn, Vikings coaches and players know: Grasping and internalizing terms well enough to communicate crisply will be crucial. O’Connell builds off teaching methods he employed with a rookie-heavy 2019 offense in Washington and a more veteran-centric Rams Super Bowl team. Working with McVay to retool the Rams’ offense from quarterback Jared Goff’s strengths to those of Matthew Stafford was instrumental in his philosophies. But he doesn’t draw just from his McVay lessons, O’Connell influenced also by coaching five prior seasons with other staffs and spending four more years in the league as a quarterback. His goal now: Derive principles and lessons from each while constantly catering his system toward his current roster’s strengths and the defensive trends the players must thwart.
“He’s done a good job of saying, ‘Hey, back in (20)17 that may have worked, but in ’22, in today’s NFL, we have to change,” said Cousins, who in 2017 worked in Washington alongside O’Connell, then the team’s quarterbacks coach. “What we run is going to be the 2022 Vikings, and even that’s a moving target and fluid situation.”
Vikings defenders say they’re beginning to notice. Linebacker Eric Kendricks, who calls out the defense’s assignments, is aiming not to be fooled by pre-snap miscues. Cornerback Patrick Peterson, who has faced the McVay-coached Rams nine times in his career, estimates the Vikings’ system is “at least 10-15%” different from what he encountered against Los Angeles.
“He’s definitely trying to have his own hand and own identity in the offense,” said Peterson, whose teams lost all nine games vs. the Rams, surrendering at least 30 points in eight of them. “You can tell he’s putting his own little sprinkles onto the offense.”
With just over 100 days until their season opener, it’s too soon to know how well those sprinkles will work. But despite the NFL’s annual power transfers, fans might find solace knowing the Vikings’ first eight games include just one opponent that ranked top-13 in scoring defense last year.
Throughout, with the help of O’Connell’s purple-scribbled list of feedback and his trove of scheme binders, the system will continue to clarify and change.
“If you don’t have a system where you can make subtle tweaks and adjustments where you can go play this team that may be completely different from last Sunday, you probably don’t have a great system in the first place,” O’Connell said. “That’s what we’ve tried to build here.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.