Kevin O’Connell has proven a few things in eight games as the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach. He can write up an effective opening script, has limitless creativity near the red zone, and is instilling a positive culture.
The Vikings were missing two of those three elements last year. Former offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak typically put together a good opening script. But Mike Zimmer always seemed inclined to use the run game to try and punch the ball in near the end zone, and things got a little tense at the end of his tenure.
Still, O’Connell had to prove his coaching chops. He didn’t call plays as the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator. This is his first head coaching gig in the NFL. Was he of the Zac Taylor mold: someone who built an incredible culture but has obvious strategic shortcomings? Or was he more like Sean McVay, the offensive mastermind he came up with and coached under in LA?
Minnesota’s 20-17 comeback win over the Washington Commanders was the first indication of the latter. Did he conjure McVay magic on offense? No. But Washington’s vaunted front four got constant pressure on Kirk Cousins throughout the day. On many downs, Cousins couldn’t have executed even the most well-schemed plays. No one could have. It’s impossible to do so when the defense is constantly in the backfield.
Instead, O’Connell proved he can guide the Vikings to a gritty win. Like so many games this year, Minnesota swiftly scored on the opening drive. But, as has happened so many times this year, the offense stalled out after that. Still, O’Connell proved something in his management of the game throughout a frustrating contest and in how he manipulated the clock in the fourth quarter.
Washington’s defensive linemen walloped Cousins throughout the game, and he frequently looked out of sorts. He miscommunicated with Adam Thielen on one pass and underthrew Justin Jefferson on another. He checked down into traffic. After Minnesota’s initial touchdown, they punted the ball four times, and Cousins threw an interception.
To use a technical term, that’s not great.
The Vikings had to be frustrated as they headed into the locker room up 7-3. As time expired in the first half, Benjamin St-Juste broke up Cousins’ pass to Jefferson in the back of the end zone, and Danny Johnson caught the deflection. Minnesota opened the game with a nine-play, 78-yard drive, but they had 18 plays for 48 yards on their next four drives. They had five plays for 49 yards on their final drive but came up empty-handed.
The Washington game felt like Zimmer-era Chicago Bears games in Soldier Field. The offense was spinning its wheels on Dan Snyder’s crabgrass. It was hard to avoid a sinking feeling, that this would be the game where their constant small margin of victory would catch up with them.
Things could have boiled over in the second half when a wayward official wandered into Minnesota’s triple-team on the opening drive. On the second play from scrimmage, Vikings castoff Taylor Heinicke decided to throw deep to Curtis Samuel. Camryn Bynum, Harrison Smith, and Patrick Peterson had him blanketed. However, the back judge inexplicitly drifted downfield and was standing between Bynum and Curtis when Bynum collided with him near the end zone.
Samuel reeled the ball in and scored, and Washington maintained that 10-7 lead until they scored another touchdown early in the fourth. Minnesota’s offense looked helpless at that point. They responded to Washington’s touchdown with a six-play, 16-yard drive that ended in a punt. Then they stopped the Commanders on fourth down, only to punt after a three-play, negative-three-yard drive.
But O’Connell kept things together. The Vikings responded with a field goal, an interception, and another touchdown to tie it up. In a broad sense, O’Connell had done his job as a coach. He didn’t let things unravel after a fluke touchdown. His team didn’t panic when they went down 10 early in the fourth. Cousins continued to stand in the pocket despite being hit so hard that he had to sit out a play.
However, he saved his most masterful sequence for the end of the game.
Minnesota’s defense, which held strong throughout the game, forced a three-and-out. Then O’Connell controlled the clock so effectively that we might be able to blame him for daylight savings time.
The Vikings got the ball with 6:12 left in the fourth quarter. They immediately moved the chains but faced third-and-one from Washington’s 31-yard line with 4:17 left. O’Connell called his first timeout and dialed up a play for Jefferson, who gained 10 yards. Minnesota converted another first down and drained the clock to the two-minute warning.
St-Juste broke up a pass intended for Jefferson on third-and-four. Greg Joseph converted a field goal that would have put Minnesota up three with 1:52 left in the fourth. But Washington’s John Ridgeway was called for unnecessary roughness. The Vikings caught a break, and O’Connell seized the opportunity.
He ran the ball with Dalvin Cook, forcing Washington to take their final timeout. He called another run play with 1:48 left, drained the play clock, and called a timeout with one minute left. O’Connell ran Cousins on the next play, drained the play clock again, and Joseph converted a 28-yard field goal with 12 seconds remaining.
Washington mustered one play for 10 yards, and the game was over.
O’Connell will need to coax more out of Minnesota’s offense to win in Buffalo next week. But he kept things together and was masterful when he needed to be. He took the next step as a coach. He made it late early in Washington, and the Vikings avoided falling back as the sun set in the nation’s capital.