Kevin O’Connell is the 10th head coach in Minnesota Vikings history, and the expectation is that he can run it back with some familiar faces and get better results. The 37-year-old coach inherits a roster filled with talent. However, they still need to address some glaring holes.
First-year coaches aren’t usually expected to turn a team around in their debut season. Everyone in the league wants to win immediately, but that isn’t always feasible when a new head coach takes over. New regimes will get rid of old contracts and players that don’t fit their scheme, ramping up to be contenders in Years 2 and 3.
Most head coaches come in after the previous regime bottomed out. But the Vikings went 7-9 and 8-9 in the last two seasons under Mike Zimmer, so that isn’t the case with this coaching change.
Still, Minnesota’s sub-.500 records were so frustrating in the past two years because of the talent on their roster. Zimmer left behind a stacked offense that includes Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, and Adam Thielen. Tight end Irv Smith, Jr. is returning from a meniscus tear, and Kirk Cousins is a solid quarterback who can run an explosive offense. The Vikings also have two young tackles, Christian Darrisaw and Brian O’Neill, who hopefully will form one of the league’s best tandems.
On defense, defensive end Danielle Hunter returns after two frustrating seasons that ended prematurely with injury. Eric Kendricks has become one of the best standup linebackers in football. And the secondary returns two of the best players at their positions in the past decade: cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Harrison Smith.
Does this mean O’Connell is inheriting the best roster of any first-year Vikings head coach? Today we’ll look back at the best rosters other coaches inherited.
Grant took over after Norm Van Brocklin failed to get the expansion Vikings off the ground from 1961 to 1966. Van Brocklin and quarterback Fran Tarkenton never got along, and the Vikings traded Tarkenton to the New York Giants after the 1966 season, right before Grant arrived.
Even without Tarkenton, Grant overtook a pretty talented roster. Defensive ends Jim Marshall and Carl Eller were already part of the defensive line, as was defensive tackle Gary Larsen. Linebacker Roy Winston, cornerback Ed Sharockman, and safety Karl Kassulke rounded out the back-seven.
On offense, the Vikings still had running back Bill Brown. Receiver Paul Flatley was coming off a Pro Bowl season, as were left tackle Gary Alderman, guard Milt Sunde, and center Mick Tingelhoff. Grant inherited two Hall of Famers and, two years later, the Vikings made their first playoff appearance.
A longtime Vikings offensive coordinator, Burns took over after Grant’s second retirement. The Vikings were coming off a 7-9 season in 1985 after going 3-13 in Les Steckel’s lone season as head coach. Things had stabilized in Minnesota, and the roster was part of it.
First, Burns was inheriting a team that had drafted linebacker-turned-defensive-end Chris Doleman fourth overall in the 1985 draft. The defense also featured veteran linebacker Scott Studwell and safety Joey Browner, who was coming off his first career Pro Bowl appearance. Both would end up in the Vikings’ Ring of Honor.
Burns also had Tommy Kramer at quarterback and a pair of talented running backs in Darrin Nelson and Ted Brown. They also had the speedy second-year receiver Anthony Carter. Finally, the team had future Ring of Honor member Steve Jordan at tight end.
After the Burns regime came to an end following the 1991 season, Denny Green came in to offer a fresh face in Minnesota for the first time since 1967. The Burns teams had grown stale, finishing 6-10 in 1990 and 8-8 in 1991.
However, Green inherited a lot of talent across the roster. Rich Gannon was serviceable at quarterback. But the Vikings still had Carter and Jordan, who once again underwent a coaching change. At running back, the Vikings had Terry Allen entering his second season. And on the other side of the line from one Carter, the Vikings had Cris Carter on the verge of superstardom.
The offensive line was stacked, though. They had two future Hall of Famers in left tackle Gary Zimmerman and guard Randall Cunningham. Longtime linemen Kirk Lowdermilk and Tim Irwin took up the center and right tackle spots as well.
Even on defense, the Vikings had Pro Bowlers in defensive tackle Henry Thomas and Chris Doleman. In the secondary, cornerback Carl Lee and Joey Browner were in their 30s. But they still had Pro Bowl credit. Oh, and a second-year player named John Randle only started in eight games but still led the team in sacks.
It’s fun to think about what O’Connell can get out of Kirk, Cook, and Jefferson. But after looking back at other rosters that previous coaches have inherited in Minnesota, I can’t say that O’Connell’s squad has more talent.
Grant already had two Hall of Famers on the roster (I’d argue three) but overall probably didn’t have consistent talent across the board. The team that Burns took over feels similar to what the current Vikings have, although I would give the current version the edge.
However, it’s hard to argue with what Green inherited. He had four future Hall of Famers on the roster and two more players in Browner and Jordan, who the Vikings enshrined in the Ring of Honor. Green showed what can happen when talent receives requisite coaching. The Vikings made their first playoff appearance in three seasons during the 1992 season. Can O’Connell repeat that success? He has the roster to pull it off.