The New Vikings Coaching Staff Is More Interested In Instruction Than Intimidation

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA TODAY Sports)

When the Minnesota Vikings introduced their coaching staff on Thursday afternoon, it had a different feel. During the Mike Zimmer era, press conferences had all the levity of a hostage negotiation. Reporters were locked into their seats, waiting to see which one Zimmer would threaten next. Therefore, it was understandable if players felt uncomfortable walking up to a coach and suggesting a change.

But on Thursday, these press conferences had the vibe of Meet the Teacher Day in elementary school.

Nobody would have faulted Kevin O’Connell if he stood at the TCO Performance Center’s doorway welcoming everyone inside. If they really wanted to lean into it, each coach could stand in front of their office smiling and waving.

That all seems ridiculous, but it’s exactly what the Vikings needed after the previous regime.

We already talked about O’Connell as the breath of fresh air the Vikings needed. But if he didn’t hire the right staff, it would have had the good cop/bad cop feel the Vikings had under Zimmer.

Take Ed Donatell, for example. A grizzled coaching veteran of 42 years, it wouldn’t have been surprising if he had the same demeanor as Zimmer. But Donatell described how valuable his players’ input was to his success as a coach.

“How can you be the best if you’re not tapping into people and getting their views?” Donatell asked. “If we grow them, even if they’re veteran players in certain areas, then they can give you back more. That’s the secret to a coaching staff.”

Imagine Zimmer listening to a player’s input. When Stefon Diggs decided to do this, Zimmer sent him out on the first flight to Buffalo. When other coaches barged into Zimmer’s office, he probably told them to fetch him more Red Man rather than add an innovative wrinkle to the playbook.

It foreshadows Donatell’s other point. If players are heard, it will create a culture where they want to be at the building.

“We want a cultural advantage,” Donatell explained. “A culture where a guy puts on a Viking uniform, and he just plays better. We want a culture where guys want to come here. Culture means everything.

“Everyone can tell when you’ve had a job where you’re excited to turn your car in there, and you’re excited to see your colleagues, and there’s other times where it’s like, ‘Hey, this is going to be a drag today.’”

That mindset was different than the one Wes Phillips grew up around. The Vikings’ new offensive coordinator watched his grandfather Bum and his father, Wade, work in the type of environment in which Zimmer thrived. Nobody would blame you if you thought he’d have an old-school mindset, but Phillips noted how things have changed.

“There was a time where you could walk up and kick a player in the butt, and that was accepted,” Phillips said. “I’m glad we’ve changed. There was coaching from fear in a lot of ways.”

Coaching from fear? Where have we heard that before? It’s almost like the comments from Eric Kendricks got through to the coaching search.

“I’d rather have a guy that wants to do it than is scared of me to make him do it,” Phillips explained.

There are also coaches who can relate to what the players are going through. Special teams coordinator Matt Daniels broke into the league as an undrafted free agent. Without a superstar resumé to coast on, he had to make the team by playing on special teams.

“I’m very personable,” Daniels admitted. “I’m very relatable. Guys can lean on me because I’ve done it before. I’ve been in their shoes. I know what it looks like. I know what it takes.”

Just like Donatell and Phillips, Daniels also believes in the power of listening to his players.

“We’re looking for ideas from players because they’re the ones that’s doing it,” Daniels explained. “For me, the biggest thing is talking with those returners and asking them what their strengths and weaknesses are. Obviously, we watch the tape, and we know and have an idea what it is, so we always go and ask them.”

In many ways, the old Vikings regime mandated its players to do what the coaches told them. The only real liaison was co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson if they had a problem. That works for certain franchises, but it could become overwhelming if spread around a 53-man roster.

“Guys say that this guy is over here and he plays this position,” Donatell said. “He sets this technique [and] it’s do your job. It’s not just that. It’s the environment and the community.”

Perhaps this is the type of group O’Connell had envisioned to turn the Vikings around. He had already heard about the dark days of the Zimmer regime. Maybe he was looking for a way to breathe life into the organization.

That isn’t something you’ll find in a kindergarten class. But if it makes players a little happier to come into work, it could pay huge dividends.

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