Will Kevin O'Connell Avoid the Zimmer Trap?

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s interesting to look back at how Norv Turner’s decision to resign in the middle of the 2016 season was reported at the time. Mike Zimmer had hired Turner, a former head coach and the offensive coordinator of two Dallas Cowboys teams in the 1990s, as his first OC in 2014. It felt like the perfect hire. Turner wasn’t looking to become a head coach again. A former defensive coordinator, Zimmer could supposedly trust the veteran OC with his offense indefinitely.

Therefore, it only seemed logical that Turner caught Zimmer off-guard when he resigned.

Here’s what the Star Tribune reported that day:

Turner, who had called plays for the Vikings the past three seasons, arrived at Winter Park at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday and walked into Mike Zimmer’s office. He informed Zimmer that he was resigning. The head coach said he had no idea that Turner, “his right-hand man,” might walk away and insisted he had not considered shaking up his offensive staff.

“I was very, very surprised,” Zimmer said.

Pat Shurmer took over at the end of 2016, and Zimmer named him OC in 2017. After Turner resigned, the Vikings had a new OC every year. Shurmer begat John DeFillippo, who begat Kevin Stefanski, who begat Gary Kubiak, who begat Gary Kubiak, who begat Klint Kubiak. Sometimes the change was out of Zimmer’s control. Shurmer left to coach the New York Giants; Gary Kubiak retired. But he also fired DeFilippo after a Week 14 loss in Seattle, and there was more tension between Zimmer and Turner than the initial reports indicated.

From a January 2022 Star Tribune report after the Vikings had fired Zimmer:

After the 2014 season, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Zimmer went to Hue Jackson, asking his friend from the Bengals’ coaching staff to teach him more about offensive play-calling so he could better evaluate Turner. Zimmer grew more outspoken about pass plays he didn’t like, or a need to run the ball more, on the coaches’ headset during games in 2015, even as the Vikings ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing offense while Adrian Peterson won his third rushing title while leading the league in attempts.

Behind the scenes, Vikings decision-makers clashed about how to use Cordarrelle Patterson, the dynamic, but raw, second-year receiver Spielman traded three picks to take 29th overall in 2013. Turner’s efforts to set up his son Scott (the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach at the time) for an offensive coordinator job irked Zimmer, who would later make his own son the Vikings’ co-defensive coordinator.

The Vikings added Sparano and Pat Shurmur, two former head coaches, to their offensive staff before 2016. By the middle of the season, as Turner bristled at Zimmer’s feedback about how to navigate a slew of offensive line injuries, the coordinator resigned.

Kevin O’Connell and Zimmer don’t share much in common. Zimmer was a sexagenarian defensive coach; O’Connell is an offensive coach in his 30s. Zimmer grew up in Peoria, Ill; O’Connell is from San Diego. And Zimmer ruled as an authoritarian; O’Connell is a player’s coach who preaches collaboration.

Therefore, it’s reasonable to think his relationship with Ed Donatell, whom the Vikings fired on Thursday, differed from Zimmer and Turner’s. Donatell is nearly twice O’Connell’s age and acted as the elder statesman on the staff. He frequently complimented O’Connell on the culture he was creating and how he connected with the players. It’s also possible that Donatell wasn’t O’Connell’s long-term solution. Even if the defense had performed better this year, Donatell may have retired after a couple of years on the job.

O’Connell’s statement on firing Donatell read in part:

Today I informed Ed Donatell we will be going in a different direction at defensive coordinator in 2023. While this was a difficult decision because of the tremendous respect I have for Ed as a person and a coach, I believe it is the right move for the future of our football team.

I want to thank Ed for his commitment to the Vikings this past season, for the positive impact he had on our players and coaches, and for his role in helping me as a first-year head coach lay this foundation. We all wish Ed and his wife, Shari, only the best in the future.

Unlike when Turner resigned, Donatell’s dismissal did not come as a surprise. The Vikings didn’t fire Donatell mid-season, even though their defense bled yards all year and was broken by December. O’Connell’s offense never felt like it produced at full capacity. Minnesota only scored 30-plus points in four games, and the offense often lulled after the opening script. But the defense often prevented the Vikings from winning by one score, and it was a liability in the playoffs. Donatell had to go.

O’Connell became irked with the defense after Minnesota’s 34-23 loss to the Detroit Lions. But he remained supportive of Donatell until the bitter end. O’Connell demurred when Arif Hasan of Pro Football Network asked him about Donatell’s status after the Giants eliminated the Vikings from the playoffs.

Ed (Donatell) tried to do the best he could this year across the board, installing the defense and the scheme that we had kind of manifested together and hoped that it would come to life. He worked his absolute tail off, and his commitment to trying to make some adjustments and improve was there each and every week all season long. I’m going to look at every aspect, special teams, offense, defense, personnel, with Kwesi, all across the board how we can improve schematically. All those things are for really a different time and different conversations once we’ve had a chance to kind of collect ourselves and evaluate what took place this year.

The Vikings hosted a press conference with O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah on Wednesday. O’Connell said that he was still in the process of making his decision on Donatell.

​​I’m in the process of going through – as we did with our players on Monday – I don’t know the total number between practice squad, IR and our roster guys, but Kwesi and I had a chance to sit down and speak face-to-face with everyone, get their feelings on both the individual and collective thoughts on where we’re at right now. And then, over the next couple days, and it’s ongoing, I’ll be doing the same thing with my entire coaching staff. I’m in evaluation mode of everything that we did. I think that’s really important – part of self-reflecting and part of us reflecting as a staff – is making sure we’re looking at every aspect of our football team and our coaching staff to make sure we’re doing everything within my responsibility and my power to put our players and our organization in the best possible situation to have success.

On Thursday, we learned O’Connell’s decision. He wasn’t going to announce his decision on Donatell after the playoff game, and it would have hijacked the press conference if he had announced it on Wednesday. Ultimately, he moved on from Donatell respectfully.

We will learn a lot about O’Connell in the coming years, but one of his biggest tasks will be managing the parts of the game that aren’t his strengths. Matt Daniels was a quality hire as the special teams coach, but Donatell’s defense held this team back. Still, O’Connell hired him and checked off on switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense while using many of Zimmer’s veterans.

Will O’Connell eventually land a long-term defensive coordinator? Or is he destined to rotate every year as Zimmer did? O’Connell has a different personality than Zimmer and has preached collaboration since his opening press conference. Parsing through his words, O’Connell appears to have deliberated over a decision that felt obvious before the end of the season. Now comes the hard part. Finding a successor to take over Year 2 of a new scheme with a defense full of veterans on a team tight against the cap.

Avoiding the Zimmer trap starts with the right hire.

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