You wanted change, and now you have it. In the offseason, the Minnesota Vikings replaced the 66-year-old Mike Zimmer with 37-year-old Kevin O’Connell. Gone are the days of grind-it-out football. Now we get to see a modernized offensive attack that catapulted the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals to the Super Bowl last year.
Did you get sick of seventh-round draft picks? The Wilfs did, and they also showed 59-year-old general manager Rick Spielman the door as well. They replaced him with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, the 40-year-old Princeton graduate with an economics degree.
Adofo-Mensah didn’t work in the NFL until he became the manager of football research and development for the San Francisco 49ers in 2013. He brought his analytics-driven approach from Wall Street to his new job. It’s a stark contrast to Spielman, who entered the NFL in 1990 as a college scout for the Detroit Lions. Spielman climbed the ladder before joining the Vikings’ front office in 2006.
I’m not saying what Spielman did was wrong. It was simply an old-school rite of passage to becoming a general manager. Zimmer bounced around as a college and pro assistant coach from 1978 through 2013 before becoming the ninth head coach in Vikings history in 2014. Bill Parcells was his mentor, a Hall of Fame head coach who won Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990 with the New York Giants.
Unfortunately, these old-school approaches didn’t always yield results in an evolving game. The Vikings had become stale as the league appeared to pass them by during the Zimmer regime. Even with budding superstar wideout Justin Jefferson, they opted to operate a run-first offense. Zimmer’s calling card, the defense, fell apart in 2020 and 2021 as the team struggled to replace longtime contributors.
With Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell, fans are getting a different version of the Vikings than they are used to seeing. Minnesota sat as many as 33 players during preseason games, dropping all three matchups. In contrast, Zimmer’s Vikings were 20-12 before last year’s winless preseason. O’Connell also opted for only 11 padded practices; the NFL allows a maximum of 16.
Health and safety are the priorities going into the season. As far as starters go, only tight end Irv Smith, Jr. appears to be in jeopardy of missing time heading into the season. It seemed like there was always an injury coming out of preseason when Zimmer was coach.
But it was never more apparent that there was a new approach to how things are being done at TCO Performance Center than this week. The team was taking phone calls on Alexander Mattison, the fourth-year running back who is entering the final year of his rookie deal. They (somehow) traded guard Jesse Davis to the Pittsburgh Steelers. They cut projected starting defensive end Armon Watts and then traded for his replacement in Ross Blacklock.
Perhaps most surprising was their willingness to move on from recent draft picks. They cut many players from the 2021 draft, including third-rounders like quarterback Kellen Mond, guard Wyatt Davis, and linebacker Chazz Surratt. Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette looked like the WR4 until the team swung a trade for Jalen Reagor.
Fans have scoffed at some of the moves. How can a team be so ready to move on from young players when we haven’t given them enough time to realize their potential?
The last regime held on to players for too long or rewarded aging veterans with large contracts. Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell are choosing to cut their losses, draft status be damned. We already discussed Mond’s future last week. Smith-Marsette could potentially turn into a solid role player on offense, but he, ahem, dropped the ball after being given every opportunity to seize the punt returning job.
Around here, we know Reagor as the guy who the Philadelphia Eagles drafted ahead of Justin Jefferson. Even if he had been drafted after Jefferson, Reagor would still be considered a bust. But he can return punts, including a 74-yarder against the Green Bay Packers two years ago.
Only two years removed from being a first-round draft pick, Reagor has talent. On a roster with the top three receivers set in stone, he may benefit from a role as the WR4. Adofo-Mensah, like any great day trader, “bought the dip” when it came to Reagor.
This isn’t even the first time Adofo-Mensah has strayed from the beaten path. He conducted draft-night trades with the Detroit Lions and Packers, which sent fans into a frenzy. But Adofo-Mensah insisted that those trades allowed the Vikings to accumulate picks in an area of the draft that held the most value.
These ideas are new. Because we don’t yet have a history of evaluations on which to base an opinion, we don’t know if Adofo-Mensah is a genius or in over his head. The traditional way of doing things has given fans 61 years of “pretty good but not good enough” results, so we should embrace these unique moves.
If Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell’s new-school approaches fail, the Vikings will fire them just like every other head coach not named Bud Grant. But if they hit on these unique approaches to the game, they could be trailblazers in the NFL and send Minnesota to heights we have never seen.