Can the Vikings' Culture Help Them Retain Great Coaches?

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Marcus Dixon was on the New York Jets team that cut Kevin O’Connell on Hard Knocks in 2010. That was the season when players brought Shake Weights to practice, and Antonio Cromartie couldn’t remember his kids’ names. Dixon and O’Connell were journeymen passing in the night, but O’Connell made an impression on Dixon.

“KO was always special,” said Dixon, an undrafted player out of Hampton University who played for the Jets from 2010 to 2012. “I mean, he was the backup quarterback with the Jets, but there was something different about him. [O’Connell] was always able to run the scout team for us and have everybody lined up. He always had great ideas.

“I think Mike Pettine leaned on him a lot when he was the DC with the Jets. So he’s always been somebody that you just knew was going to do something. You didn’t know what it was going to be or how far it was going to go, but you knew he was special.”

Pettine is now the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach under O’Connell. Rex Ryan was O’Connell’s head coach in New York, and cut him twice. However, like Dixon, he believed O’Connell would become a great coach one day.

“[Ryan] had good news and bad news,” O’Connell told Ryen Russillo on a November 2022 podcast. “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.’”

Ryan was right. O’Connell is in his third year as Minnesota’s head coach and has assembled an impressive staff. He brought Wes Phillips over from the Los Angeles Rams as his offensive coordinator. Last year, he hired Brian Flores as his defensive coordinator, and Matt Daniels runs special teams. Phillips’ father and grandfather, Wes and Bum, were NFL head coaches. Flores coached the Miami Dolphins from 2019 to 2021, and Daniels, 34, may eventually become a head coach.

O’Connell also has assistants with solid resumés. Mike Pettine was the Jets’ DC under Rex Ryan from 2009 to 2012. McCown is a 16-year NFL veteran who spent most of his career in a backup, pseudo-coaching role. Dixon previously coached for the Rams and Denver Broncos.

Successful coaches often assemble a strong staff and delegate responsibility to them. Continuity is also vital to player development, and the Vikings have several young players in crucial spots. Dallas Turner must generate pressure from the edge, Ivan Pace Jr. may end up running the defense, and Jordan Addison has to take attention away from Justin Jefferson.

Most of all, J.J. McCarthy must become a franchise quarterback for O’Connell to remain in Minnesota long-term. The Vikings can increase the likelihood of his success by creating a positive culture around McCarthy and keeping him in the same system.

“What I love so much about the rookies is the opportunity to develop them. They come in thinking that they know so much, and then they realize that they don’t know ‘beep,’” said Matt Daniels, censoring himself. “When you’ve been doing something for so long, and you’ve been taught by one coach or two coaches, maybe five or six, how the transfer portal is nowadays, it’s difficult to get guys to really truly buy into what you’re teaching and coaching.”

Maintaining continuity is difficult, though. Many great offensive and defensive coordinators make great head coaches. In a copycat league, teams often poach personnel from successful franchises, hoping to bring schematics and culture to transform their organization.

Flores didn’t receive any interview requests in the offseason, likely because of his ongoing lawsuit against the Dolphins and the league. Teams may feel that Daniels is still young and needs a few years before he becomes a head coach. Phillips, 45, would like to become a head coach one day, completing the first three-generation trio of head coaches in league history. However, some teams may feel he’s too old.

Last offseason, Phillips passed on an opportunity to become Brandon Staley’s offensive coordinator, which would have allowed him to call plays. “Selfishly, that was huge for me, for us,” O’Connell said last year while acknowledging that Phillips may eventually leave. “Wes and I are incredibly close. There’s a reason why he was the guy that I wanted here with me. He’s going to make a fantastic play-caller, coordinator, and head coach.”

Phillips doesn’t seem to be in a rush to leave O’Connell, though.

“Kevin’s the man, and I got no problems saying that,” Phillips said, comparing him to Rams coach Sean McVay, their former boss. “These guys are really good at what they do. When they’re rolling, you don’t need to say anything.”

Dixon said that he already sees the atmosphere O’Connell is building, even though this is his first year in Minnesota.

“Culture’s everything,” said Dixon. “KO’s doing a great job of talking about being resilient, talking about our team, our process, our way, and that’s taught every single day. The thing that he preaches is that it’s the players that really make it come alive. And I think they are taking ownership of it.”

Ultimately, a head coach is only as good as his staff and the players on the field. Turnover is inevitable in the NFL, but good coaches can keep talented people around them by making their team a place where people want to work. In turn, strong coaching results in winning play on the field, which keeps rosters together. According to his coaches, O’Connell is building a virtuous cycle in Minnesota that’s necessary for the team to bounce back from a 7-10 season last year.

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