The King of Minnesota

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings’ new head coach, Kevin O’Connell, is off to the land of Monty Python, Margaret Thatcher, and beans for breakfast, where they serve drinks without ice and film all your mother’s favorite TV shows about serial murders at scenic bed-and-breakfasts. Jolly old England, the Queen’s country! (RIP the Queen.)

The question is, which Kevin O’Connell comes back from Great Britain? Will he be the conquering hero or the overmatched boy-king?

We still don’t really know who O’Connell is as a head coach. The sample size is minuscule, and each fresh batch of data feels like a major plot twist. The outcome of the game against the New Orleans Saints, with the added adversity of overseas travel stress, could begin to either confirm or deny some of our earliest suspicions.

We know plenty about O’Connell, anecdotally. We know his guru mentor, his affability with the press and on the sideline, and his propensity for dropping F-bombs in postgame interviews, which surely caused many a Minnesota mom to wrinkle her nose in disapproval. We know the players speak about him like he’s their cool older cousin rather than their weird old uncle, and that he says hello to his young charges in the team facility rather than striding through the hallways like Richard II in a hurried search for the men’s room. (I’ll save you the Wikipedia check: Richard II was a really bad king.)

But we have some real-life football action to judge from now. And, if it takes three to make a pattern, we should have accumulated a little bit of actual knowledge to suss out some emergent trends.

O’Connell’s debut was a kind of purple-tinted fever dream. Some boozy hero smoking a heater and pre-gaming outside of Corner Bar must have found a magic lamp in the parking lot and rubbed it just right, or maybe it was a monkey’s paw. Either way, Minnesota’s every wish was granted. It was all New team, who dis? as the Green Bay Packers re-enacted old Three Stooges routines on their side of the field. Obviously, we Minnesota faithful had begun a glorious new era in this, the best of all possible worlds.

Well, you know how magic lamps — or monkey’s paws, or whatever — work out. Wish granted, but with a cost. Expectations for the team skyrocketed, only to explode in the air like, well, a SpaceX skyrocket. In fairness, wildly inflating expectations only to deflate the fanbase is kind of the Vikings’ whole thing. I’m not sure we can blame genies or Elon Musk or cursed monkey appendages for that.

The abysmal performance of the Week 2 debacle against the Philadelphia Eagles gave way to a mostly terrible first half against the Detroit Lions the following Sunday. The Vikings had a plethora of problems — collapsing O-line, stagnant pass rush — but an awful lot of their struggles seemed to be related to scheme and strategy.

Notably, Ed Donatell’s defense utterly failed to adapt to domineering offenses in the first two quarters of each of the last two games. Apparently, Donatell has some hard candy to get his blood sugar back up during halftime, because the defense firmed up in the following two quarters in both cases. Of course, one time it was nearly too late, and once it was too late. O’Connell might be the offensive whiz and Donatell his authoritatively petrified DC, but as the leader of the team, it might be worth O’Connell’s time to slip Donatell a Worther’s Original earlier in the first quarter.

Donatell, by the way, can quibble all he wants with the particulars of Troy Aikman spurning his scheme as a shell defense. Shell defense or not, it’s mostly semantics. We saw the game. The Vikings were playing so far off the Eagles’ receivers you had to set your widescreen TV to theater mode to see the defenders in the periphery. It was ugly stuff.

The offense did plenty of sputtering, too, over most of those accursed six quarters. All that early speculation that Jefferson would get somewhere in the neighborhood of three zillion receiving yards because O’Connell deployed him in lots of cleverly disguised packages turned out to be a little premature when two teams in a row stymied JJ with the two-pronged strategy of:

1) Put your best guy on him.
2) Go ahead and put a second guy on him.

Perhaps the most quibbling complaint — but also maybe the most ominous harbinger of bad football to come — is O’Connell twice deciding to have Greg Joseph attempt field goals from 50-plus early on against Detroit when there was still plenty of time left on the clock.

Let’s normalize not kicking 50-plus-yarders outside of crunch time unless there’s a Justin Tucker jersey hanging somewhere in your locker room. Both of those kicks were utterly ill-advised, the kind of squishy, playing-not-to-lose BS that made Minnesota such a frustrating watch over the past few years. Punting for superior field position is stodgy but has some strategic merit. Nor do you have to go for it on nearly every fourth down like Dan Campbell, who is without a doubt the NFL’s thirstiest coach. But go bold or play it smart. Trotting out your kicker for an at-best 50/50 three-point attempt is the worst kind of compromise.

In fairness, most guys don’t turn out to be great coaches, and most great coaches aren’t great right away. Some of the best don’t figure it out until their second stint with another team. O’Connell is young — for a period of time in the 1980s, Tom Brady could have responsibly been his babysitter — and he’s still in the opening stretch of his first year. But the lofty expectations, taken to delirious new heights after the home opener, may need to come back down toward earth a little.

The reality is, the Packers utterly bungled the first game; the Vikings needed lots of luck and a major coaching miscue from Detroit just to pull out an ugly win at home in the third; and they were absolutely dismantled in their primetime Week 2 loss. If O’Connell can’t salt one away in the land where the food needs more salt, against a banged-up New Orleans Saints team that may be legitimately lousy, those early-warning blips on the radar start shaping up into a worrisome pattern.

O’Connell needs to steady himself and stack some wins in the softer part of the schedule to keep his team from slipping below the water line and struggling for air the rest of the season. That’s too-familiar territory for Vikings fans, who were promised a change. We all just want to be able to say — and really believe — “Long live the new king.”

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