New is always better. Right?
For a league that was traditionally stringent in its hiring practices, often favoring retreads of familiar names over fresh blood, the NFL has broken the mold recently. Young, bright football minds from popular coaching trees are seeing meteoric rises despite lacking experience or a long-standing body of work.
Sean McVay, Kliff Kingsbury, and Kevin Stefanski all got head coaching positions despite little to no experience as a coordinator, much less a head coach in the NFL. Kevin O’Connell fits that mold. He’s the next McVay disciple to get the reins of an NFL team.
By all accounts, O’Connell is what many Vikings fans clamored for during the Mike Zimmer era. He’s young and offensive-minded. Hopefully, he will bring the aggression and modern attitude to game management that fans lamented the lack of near the end of Zimmer’s tenure.
But what’s a reasonable expectation for a young, inexperienced head coach in Year 1? The Vikings have an expensive roster, and O’Connell’s got plenty to work with despite a few deficiencies. How have other coaches fared in similar situations?
How do head coaches tend to fare in their rookie year?
Looking at some of Ben Elsner of 33rd Team‘s numbers and updating them to include the 2021-22 season, 24 out of the 91 first-year new coaches have made the playoffs in their first year with their team (26.3%) since 2008. That number includes rookie head coaches and veteran head coaches with a new team. However, if you look at just rookie head coaches, they account for 17 of the 24 coaches that made the playoffs in the first year with their new team.
That’s pretty fascinating. Rookie coaches are more likely to be successful than first-year coaches with experience. Rookie head coaches are about 41.7% more likely to make the playoffs than new HCs with prior head coaching experience.
That seems to bode well for O’Connell and the Vikings. There’s a clear precedent for rookie head coaches making a splash in their first season. It’s still more likely that any coach doesn’t make the playoffs in Year 1 with a new team (73.7% do not). Last year, we saw none of the first-year coaches accomplish that feat.
However, it’s far from impossible, especially when that new coach inherits a talented roster. Many of these new coaches are taking over teams coming off miserable seasons with little roster talent and instability at quarterback. That’s not the situation O’Connell is walking into, though.
What can we learn from the rookie head coaches that found success?
There are a few interesting case studies to evaluate here.
Since 2018, we’ve seen two rookie NFC North head coaches make the playoffs differently. Matt Nagy led the Chicago Bears to a 12-4 record in 2018, and Matt LaFleur led the Green Bay Packers to a 13-3 record in his first season in 2019.
Now, these two situations were quite different. LaFleur had the luxury of a future Hall of Fame quarterback leading his team to their seemingly annual loss in the NFC title game. Nagy managed to win the division with Mitchell Trubisky at the helm. Looking back at that tandem of coach and quarterback, it feels nothing short of miraculous.
But Chicago had talent in Nagy’s first year. The 2018 Bears defense was monstrous, with players like Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack playing at their peak. PFF named them the second-best defense of the decade, ranked only behind the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos in 2015. In 2018, the Bears led the league in countless defense categories, including points against (283), forced turnovers (36), interceptions (27), yards gained/pass (5.3), total rushing yards (1,280), and touchdowns allowed (5), and turnover percentage (19.5).
So maybe it doesn’t matter if you’re only the 21st-ranked offense in the league when you’re forcing over two turnovers a game and the other team can’t score. Considering the number of extra possessions and short fields, the fact that Chicago was 21st in offense should’ve been the red flag everyone needed for the Nagy/Trubisky era.
The 2019 Packers also had a stacked roster. Protected by a stout offensive line, Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, and Davante Adams made for a productive trio despite a few growing pains in the new offensive scheme. They also had a stout defense featuring Pro-Bowl seasons from Kenny Clark and Za’Darius Smith up front.
LaFleur instituted his own culture and offensive philosophy, but he also learned to let Rodgers do his thing and get out of the way. That’s usually a pretty good idea.
How do these two cases compare to the 2022 Vikings?
On offense, Minnesota compares favorably. While Kirk Cousins is certainly a tier or two below Rodgers, he’s significantly better than Trubisky. And the talent of Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, and Justin Jefferson makes for the best assortment of weapons in any of the three situations. Minnesota’s offensive line is still a bit of an uncertainty, but it has pieces to build from with the likes of Brian O’Neill and Christian Darrisaw.
However, Chicago and Green Bay are better defensively than the Vikings project to be. Minnesota has more question marks compared to the 2018 Bears or 2019 Packers. The 2022 Vikings have some solid defensive players but lack depth and are only a few injuries away from coming apart.
It’s counterintuitive, but Nagy and LaFleur are young, bright offensive play-callers that ultimately had strong defenses to thank for a lot of their early success. O’Connell is walking into an excellent situation on offense, but does he have the defense to lean on if they can’t put big points on the board? That remains to be seen.
There’s a lot to like about O’Connell’s situation in Year 1, and history has shown that the right guy can fall into the right situation and spark something special. But there are certainly challenges ahead. We should be careful not to let him fall victim to inflated expectations.
Ultimately, perhaps the lesson here is to not overreact to Year 1. Nagy proved that even lackluster coaches can succeed early in the right situation. However, sustained success isn’t an accurate indicator of their ability. O’Connell is hoping to be here far beyond 2022. Let’s look for signs of organizational improvement and hope for the future, even if it means looking beyond the win/loss column.
All that being said, it’s far from crazy to think O’Connell might have success in his first year. History has shown it’s more than possible, and there’s certainly enough talent on this roster to talk yourself into it.
I consider myself a cautious optimist. I’ll go on record predicting a 10-7 season, just above my bar of what would be acceptable at 9-8. Let’s have meaningful Vikings football in December, and then let the football gods sort out our fate.