Kevin O'Connell Is In Rarified Air

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings tied a bow on their regular season with a 29-13 victory over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday. The starters that were active for the contest played the first half before Kevin O’Connell called off the dogs. Unlike Brandon Staley’s Los Angeles Chargers, the Vikings had something to gain with a victory in Week 18. Had the Vikings won and the San Francisco 49ers lost to the Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota would have jumped to the No. 2 seed in the NFC. However, Brock Purdy and the Niners continued their hot streak in Week 18 and forced the Vikings to stand pat at the three-seed.

O’Connell was much more fortunate than his former colleague Staley on Sunday. Staley, who worked with KOC with the Los Angeles Rams and now leads the Chargers, played essentially his entire starting lineup for three quarters in a game where the Chargers already clinched the AFC’s five-seed and couldn’t move up or down in the standings. In that game, both edge rusher Joey Bosa and wide receiver Mike Williams exited the game with injuries. The football world couldn’t help dunk on Staley’s irresponsibility on Sunday.

The 2022 regular season brought a lot of attention to the Purple and Gold — and not all of it was necessarily sunshine and rainbows. This team’s (many) detractors pointed to Minnesota’s DVOA and/or their point differential as reasons why Minnesota was a fraudulent 13-win ball club. And while there’s certainly a discussion to be had about the Vikings’ propensity for squeaking out victories in a unique fashion this season, Dom Torreto from Fast and the Furious said it best:

It don’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile, winning is winning.

The 2022 Minnesota Torretos are on an exclusive, historic list with O’Connell as a first-year head coach. Since the NFL converted to a 16-game regular season schedule in 1978, only six first-year NFL head coaches proceeded to win 13-plus games in their inaugural seasons.

  • Steve Mariucci’s 1997 49ers went 13-3
  • Jim Harbaugh‘s 2011 49ers went 13-3
  • Matt LaFleur’s 2019 Green Bay Packers went 13-3
  • George Seifert’s 1989 49ers went 14-2
  • Jim Caldwell’s 2009 Indianapolis Colts went 14-2
  • O’Connell’s 2022 Vikings went 13-4

Mind you, Harbaugh’s ’11 49ers and O’Connell’s ’22 Vikings are the only two teams of the six that won 13 regular-season contests with a first-year head coach and without a first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback. Mariucci had Steve Young. LaFleur had Aaron Rodgers. Seifert had Joe Montana. And Caldwell had Peyton Manning.

Today we’ll look at how each of these previous 13-win debuts for first-year head coaches fared in the playoffs that particular year.

Maricucci’s ’97 49ers

  • Steamrolled to a 38-22 win over the Vikings in the Divisional round
  • Lost to Brett Favre and the Packers at home 23-10 in the NFC Championship game

Harbaugh’s ’11 49ers

  • Beat Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints 14-3 in the Divisional round
  • Lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants 20-17 in overtime in the NFC Championship game

LaFleur’s ’19 Packers

  • Beat Russell Wilson‘s Seattle Seahawks 28-23 in the Divisional round
  • Lost to Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers 37-20 in the NFC Championship game

Seifert’s ’89 49ers

  • Destroyed the Vikings 41-13 in the Divisional round
  • Obliterated the Los Angeles Rams 30-3 in the NFC Championship game
  • Embarrassed John Elway and the Denver Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV

Caldwell’s ’09 Colts

  • Beat Joe Flacco‘s Baltimore Ravens 20-3 in the Divisional round
  • Beat fellow first-year head coach Rex Ryan’s New York Jets 30-17 in the AFC Championship game
  • Lost to Sean Payton and Gregg Williams’s Bountygate New Orleans Saints 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV

It’s worth mentioning that because the NFL added a 17th regular-season game in 2021, O’Connell’s Vikings were awarded an extra week to achieve their 13th victory. It’s also worth pointing out that O’Connell’s Vikings are the only team of these six that didn’t receive a first-round bye — and they entered the playoffs as the lowest seed of the bunch.

Not only was Seifert the lone first-year head coach of the modern era to win the Super Bowl, but he’s also the only coach on the list to ever hoist a Lombardi at any point throughout his career after winning 13-plus regular season games in Year 1. Granted, Harbaugh’s 49ers won the NFC the following season. But they ultimately lost to his brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.

Two things can be true about the 2022 Minnesota Vikings. Yes, they had a dream-like, historic debut season with O’Connell that only five other first-year head coaches accomplished since 1978 by winning 13-plus regular season games. It can also be true that the Vikings didn’t necessarily wow anybody along the way with a defense that finished 31st in yards allowed and an offense that was usually stuck in the mud until the fourth quarter.

From here on out, it’s a matter of where your expectations lie for this team. It’s completely fair to be disappointed if they become the first squad in NFL history to win 13 regular-season games with a first-year head coach and go one-and-done in the playoffs. Or even if the disappointment presents itself after getting shellacked by the 49ers in the Divisional round.

You’re also justified in holding this season near and dear to your football heart, regardless of the outcome in the playoffs, for the fun ride they took you on with O’Connell’s immediate culture shift and injection of some good old-fashioned fun back into this franchise.

Even if/when the Vikings don’t reach the pinnacle in Glendale, Ariz., the future is extremely bright for this organization, with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell leading the way. And this new regime has earned significantly elevated expectations after knocking it out of the park with a first-year general manager and first-year head coach in 2022.

Aodofo-Mensah and O’Connell joined Trent Baalke and Harbaugh’s 2011 49ers as the only first-year GM and first-year head coach in the history of the modern NFL to win 13 regular-season games. And that type of history will always be worth celebrating.

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Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

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