Kevin O'Connell Proved Something In A Lost Season

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult to find a season where a head coach proves their worth after racking up 10 losses. But contrary to the opinions of justifiably bothered Vikings fans, head coach Kevin O’Connell did that.

It has undeniably been frustrating to watch the Minnesota Vikings throughout the season. The first three games were wasted efforts from a good offense, the next two brought them back on track, and the following five were magical – enough to force hope into a fanbase that has every reason not to believe.

Then they did what the Vikings do, and what almost any team surviving on the good graces of backup quarterbacks and luck does. They finished out the season with one win and six losses – four straight to close out 2023 with the playoffs still in sight.

And yet, Vikings fans have been upset with O’Connell – who has done an incredible job.

Entering the season, bettors had the Vikings with 8.5 wins. Without their starting quarterback or star receiver, they were able to scrape together seven – not a bad result given the circumstances. In the past four years, teams that have had around half of their passing attempts come from backup quarterbacks have generated -0.06 expected points per play on offense. Teams forced to turn to their second backups have generated -0.12 expected points per play.

On the other hand, the Vikings generated -0.03 expected points per play. That might not seem like an enormous difference, but it means quite a lot in the context of not having their best offensive player and running through three different backups.

There has been valid criticism that the Vikings haven’t been able to adapt their offense to the specifics of their quarterbacks’ strengths. But the fact remains that it is a much more effective offense than most teams have been able to muster with their backup quarterbacks.

Adapting an offense isn’t easy. Even well-regarded offensive minds like Shane Steichen needed a full offseason to create an offense around Jalen Hurts. When Hurts took over the job from Carson Wentz midway through the 2021 season, Steichen’s scheme wasn’t designed around what Hurts could do well. It took a complete offseason for him to create an environment that Hurts could succeed in.

That’s often why coaches and general managers opt for lesser-quality backup quarterbacks whose style mimics the starter’s. Reconfiguring the offense for a backup might give the quarterback a bit of an advantage, but it’s a disadvantage for the other 10 players on the field. The net offensive performance can often be worse.

Despite that, the Vikings found ways to score points. Even though they’ve had a few frustrating games where they’ve struggled to generate multiple scores, they’ve also had games where they’ve put up at least 24 points with their backup quarterbacks.

That’s just on offense. The Vikings’ enormous defensive improvement – hard to capture in aggregate statistics but clear during the middle portion of the season – is a product of a bold decision O’Connell made in the offseason to sign on to defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ unprecedented ideas for defensive design.

The ability to make a decision like that cannot be overstated. O’Connell’s original decision to hire Ed Donatell wasn’t inspired. But his capacity to cut his losses and immediately take a chance on something new instead of trotting out a familiar defense is outside the scope of what NFL coaches – a conservative group by nature – are trained to do.

That kind of approach is exactly what Sean McVay used to hire Brandon Staley to help guide one of the best defenses in the NFL. It’s also what kept the Vikings alive as they cycled through quarterback after quarterback.

As the Vikings’ season skidded to a stop, fans increasingly expressed displeasure at a range of O’Connell’s decisions. It’s difficult to tally all the criticisms I’ve seen. They include the decision to start Alexander Mattison over Ty Chandler until late in the season, the late-game clock management, and the preparation out of the half. People also disliked the rotating backups and a host of one-off issues like the disastrous tush push with Brandon Powell or wasted timeouts.

Some of these are fairly valid concerns, while others are overblown.

For example, the Mattison-Chandler decision wasn’t nearly as clear-cut as the late-season Chandler results seemed. The value gained by a better runner at running back – somewhat arguable as Mattison’s running improved at the same time that Chandler was taking on a bigger load – was offset by Chandler’s extremely poor pass protection.

Chandler gave up pressure at about a 50% higher rate than Mattison did and, importantly, often gave up that pressure much faster in the process. Research has suggested that the differences in pass protection often matter much more than the differences in running or receiving ability when evaluating a running back’s impact on the field. O’Connell’s hesitation makes sense.

We also know that O’Connell has historically managed the clock well for the Vikings. He made mistakes, which were primarily a product of poor timeout conservation earlier in the game rather than fourth-quarter timeout mismanagement. But O’Connell’s time management this season has been substantially better than other coaches’, even with the failures.

The Vikings did not score when they needed to late in games. They did not score once when trailing late in the fourth quarter by three or fewer points. When trailing by a margin of between four and eight points, they only scored once – a rate of 20%.

That’s bad – but it’s also normal. Thirteen teams scored at a higher rate than the Vikings when needing a touchdown with five minutes remaining. Twenty-four teams scored at a higher rate than Minnesota when needing a field goal with five minutes to go in the game.

Minnesota doesn’t look good in that light, but they don’t look like outliers, either.

O’Connell often receives criticism for his shortcomings or when the Vikings fall short of their perceived expectation. But he rarely receives praise when they exceed their expectation.

The coaching performance demonstrated by O’Connell in Josh Dobbs’ first game with the Vikings cannot be understated. Explaining plays through the helmet radio between snaps is both the stuff of movies and legitimately one of the most impressive things a coach has done this season.

On top of that, O’Connell has kept a tight locker room. It’s easy to watch games where the Vikings are losing and get frustrated with underperformance, and it’s even easier to mistake that underperformance for apathy.

But it’s clear that the Vikings have remained engaged throughout games; it’s difficult to lead the league (again) in close games by not caring. Though some of that has come from blowing leads, a lot of it has come from keeping a cool head when down by multiple scores.

O’Connell struggled in some key ways this season. There’s no way to get around that fact, and he needs to improve. But he also proved this year what he demonstrated last year – that he’s a good coach.

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