Kevin O’Connell has a voicemail from Rex Ryan saved in his phone. Ryan isn’t congratulating him on winning the Super Bowl or getting the Minnesota Vikings job. It’s a call from Ryan telling O’Connell that the New York Jets were cutting him – again.
We all saw the Jets cut O’Connell for the first time in 2010. It was brutal, excruciating television. Then-GM Mike Tannenbaum was probably a little too honest with him. O’Connell signed with the Miami Dolphins in August 2011, but they waived him in September. Ryan and the Jets picked him up a day later and subsequently released him.
“I have the voicemail,” O’Connell told Ryen Russillo on a recent podcast. “I’m not gonna play it for you, but it was the night before free agency. There was a decent chance this was after Year 3 there. Hopefully, I was really hoping that Year 3 would turn into Year 4.”
The Jets had traded for Tim Tebow in March 2012, and they were cutting O’Connell to make room for him. Who could blame O’Connell if he held resentment for Ryan and the Jets? Athletes need a lot less to manufacture a grievance. The Last Dance is basically just 10 hours of Michael Jordan settling scores from 40 years ago. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if O’Connell said he watched the Hard Knocks clip to fire himself up for this week. But that’s not really who he is.
Right now, he’s beating up the organizations he previously worked for – either as a player or a coach.
- The Vikings snuck by the Detroit Lions in Week 3.
- They escaped Miami’s oppressive heat in Week 6.
- He turned out the lights in Washington three weeks later.
- And he played Bill Belichick straight up and won.
O’Connell does it all with an unassuming, California-cool demeanor. But he’s taken a team that fell on the wrong side of .500 the past two seasons and brought out the best in them. Aside from slip-ups against the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, his guys have done enough to win every week.
Whatever you think of Rex Ryan, he was right about O’Connell.
“[Ryan] had good news and bad news,” O’Connell told Russillo. “The bad news is it probably wasn’t going to work out for me to continue on as a quarterback for the New York Jets. But the good news was he couldn’t wait to tell me about the coaching opportunity he had for me, which coincided with him telling me multiple times, ‘I don’t think much of you as a quarterback,’ but told me multiple times, ‘Your life’s work is gonna be coaching.’”
You can hear Ryan telling O’Connell this, right? You’ve probably heard him on ESPN before the Sunday games or remember his epic speech from Hard Knocks. He’s a wry bastard, but damn it, he’s often right. Ryan led New York’s other football team to the NFC Championship in 2009 and 2010. They haven’t made the playoffs since.
But this year, they might. Robert Saleh has turned the Jets into a defensive juggernaut, GM Joe Douglas brought in a monster draft class, and Mike White is – kinda good? The Vikings won’t win this game if they lose focus. That’s the reality of being a 9-2 team with a plus-five point differential. They live on the edge. Still, Ryan was right about O’Connell. He knows how to coach, even if O’Connell wasn’t willing to fully embrace it at the time.
“Not always what you want to hear when you’re lacing them up and trying to get better every day,” O’Connell admitted to Russillo. “But what it did is gave me confidence that even the three years that I was there, I was probably more of a coach than a player, in all reality, whether it was helping with the defense or helping in the quarterback room with Mark Sanchez, [who] has become one of my best friends to this very day.”
O’Connell said thanks but no thanks to Ryan’s offer. After spending most of his career on the East Coast, he returned home, signing with the San Diego Chargers in July 2012. They released him in August. Three years later, the Cleveland Browns hired O’Connell as their quarterbacks coach.
Ryan was right. O’Connell only threw six passes as an NFL quarterback, but he’s pulling off a high-wire act as a coach.