Shockwaves rippled through the state of Minnesota on Wednesday when Jim Harbaugh announced that he would return to Michigan to coach another year for his alma mater at the collegiate level. Unpleasant for Gopher fans? Yes. More importantly, it indicated that Harbaugh would not be jumping aboard the Skol Ship as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
The 36-year-old Knoxville, Tenn. native won’t head to Minnesota until after his current employer competes in the Super Bowl on Feb. 13. And while the move isn’t technically official, it’s hard not to compare O’Connell’s path to current Packers head coach Matt LaFleur’s.
For starters, the low-hanging fruit is that both men fall into the young, offensive-minded category of coaches who are taking the NFL by storm. O’Connell will join LaFleur, Sean McVay, and Co. in an era of offense-first players coaches. LaFleur replaced the traditional Mike McCarthy in Green Bay. O’Connell will succeed Mike Zimmer, who is as hard-nosed and old-school as they come.
The similarities between O’Connell and LaFleur run deeper. Both men made a name for themselves as quarterbacks coaches, primarily with Washington. LaFleur famously coached alongside McVay and Kyle Shanahan from 2010-13 in DC, and O’Connell followed and coached the QBs in 2017. While O’Connell was in Washington coaching Kirk Cousins, LaFleur was with the Rams as the offensive coordinator.
The similarities are stunning. However, they also showcase why both men became head coaches. Player development in certain organizations is frequently mentioned, but coaching development in different franchises can also speak volumes. The fact that the two cut their teeth in the same organizations isn’t necessarily a surprise. It’s a testament to the (now) Washington Commanders and Rams. Results aside, there’s something mighty fine in the waters of DC and LA.
The synchronized roads depart when it comes to the franchise that O’Connell will be joining. As time has gone on, an increasing number of negative things have come out about the Vikings under Rick Spielman and Zimmer. Fear-based locker rooms and disgruntled leadership don’t fix themselves overnight. It’s no secret that O’Connell and newly hired general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensa will be inhibiting a house that needs a newly renovated foundation.
It’s not that LeFleur hasn’t faced those challenges. Last off-season’s Aaron Rodgers saga was quite off-script from what most NFL head coaches would ever imagine. However, that wasn’t a part of LaFleur’s entry to Green Bay. It was two years into his run.
There’s no doubt that O’Connell will inherit a star-studded offense. Justin Jefferson has cemented himself as a top-five receiver in the league, and Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen have proven themselves as top-tier talents. Yet much uncertainty still looms around Cousins’ future with the organization. If anyone knows Cousins and his potential, it’s O’Connell. Cousins threw for 4,093 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 13 picks with O’Connell as his QB coach in 2017. There’s an excellent chance that the connection played a significant role in Minnesota offering Cousins a fully-guaranteed contract a year later.
That could be a problem for Green Bay. The Vikings have already given the Packers the most grief in recent history of any team in the NFC North. They’ve gone 5-4-1 against the Packers since 2017. That number could inflate if Rodgers and Davante Adams part ways with the franchise over the offseason.
And while similar paths don’t directly correlate to similar results and coaching tactics, it’s safe to say that O’Connell knows LaFleur’s style as much as anyone. The two have coached for the same two organizations over a short period.
The Vikings desperately need a young coach with energy to galvanize the locker room. O’Connell could be a perfect fit.
Don’t expect things to change drastically. The Packers still have an excellent chance to win the North in 2022, and, like any transition, O’Connell’s road to success in the Land of 10,000 Lakes will take time. LeFleur will be the longest-tenured coach in the division come 2022. The Chicago Bears hired former Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberfus days ago, and Dan Campbell will be enticing his sophomore campaign with the Detroit Lions.
Eberfus and Campbell both have the potential to develop teams that can help make the NFC North a league-wide powerhouse again. Yet the Packers and Vikings have won 10 of the last 12 division titles in the North. There’s a serious threat that the addition of O’Connell could provide the most danger to LaFleur and Green Bay in years to come.