Three Tests Kevin O’Connell Faces in 2023
The Minnesota Vikings went 13-4 during Kevin O’Connell’s first year as head coach, snapping a two-year playoff drought in the process. Despite a disappointing playoff exit at home against the No. 6-seeded New York Giants, this was a great first step on O’Connell’s head coaching resume. However, the Vikings head coach will face a number of challenges to keep that same level in 2023. Here are three tests O’Connell has in front of him this season.
The Sophomore Slump
O’Connell’s first year as Vikings head coach was a resounding success, particularly in terms of Minnesota’s offense. However, just like players, coaches have to be able to adapt in order to keep opponents guessing. There is now an entire season of film out on O’Connell’s scheme, so how will he adjust to adjust to defenses that are familiar with what he runs?
This is a question that has proven challenging for some coaches. Chip Kelly, for example, led two top-five scoring offenses in 2013 and 2014 with the Eagles, going 10-6 in both seasons, before things fell off the rails. In 2015, Philly tumbled down to 13th in scoring, and during his sole season as head coach of the 49ers in 2016, they ranked 27th in scoring.
Similarly, and more recently, Matt Nagy’s Bears had a top-10 scoring offense, which helped land them a playoff berth, in his first season of 2018 before tumbling into the 20s during each of the 2019-2021 seasons.
It is extremely difficult to last long-term as a head coach in the NFL, and these two are far from the only examples of coaches that have flamed out. The league is constantly evolving, and opponents constantly attack weaknesses in personnel and scheme. In order to make a Belichick or Shanahan-esque run with the Vikings, O’Connell will need to figure out how to evolve along with the league.
Developing a Young QB
This is the challenge that can often make-or-break a head coach in the NFL. Love it or hate it, the Vikings are trending towards moving on from Kirk Cousins in 2024. They have a pair of quarterbacks signed through that season, and neither of them are Cousins. Instead, they are 28-year-old Nick Mullens and fifth-round pick Jaren Hall.
As a result, O’Connell likely needs to have at least one of these players ready to make starts in 2024 if Cousins is indeed gone. Mullens has had short stints of starting experience during his career, starting eight games in each of the 2018 and 2020 seasons with the 49ers, but that has not led to much team success, with San Francisco going a combined 5-11 in those 16 games.
Additionally, Hall has some traits that would suggest he can find success at the NFL level, but he is largely a blank canvas that O’Connell has to fill in. Only 23 QBs in NFL history drafted in the fourth round or later have started 100+ games (including Cousins) over the course of their careers, so this could certainly be a difficult challenge for the Vikings head coach.
Ultimately, it’s more likely that the Vikings spend a top draft pick in 2024 on a QB to take over the starting role moving forward, but having Hall ready to go would provide much greater flexibility next April. We’ll see what O’Connell can pull off over the next 11 months prior to the 2024 Draft.
Cracking Top Passing Defenses
Nine of the Vikings 17 games last season came against defenses that ranked among the top half of the league in terms of passing EPA. Minnesota may have gone 6-3 in those games, but those three losses were extremely lopsided to the tune of Minnesota getting outscored 27-105, losing by an average of 26 points per game.
Comparatively, Minnesota got their six wins in such games by an average of just over six points per contest. Outside of the Week 1 win against Green Bay, each of those wins could have gone either way at the end of the game, and many came down to the final possession. In total, Minnesota only reached their season average of 25 points per game four times in these nine total games.
In 2023, the Vikings are set to play nine more games against defenses that held such a ranking last year. They likely can’t bank on getting two thirds of the ‘coin-toss’ games to fall their way once again this year, so O’Connell needs to be able to scheme up a plan to overcome these top pass defenders for more convincing victories.
Josh Frey is a Class of 2020 graduate of The College of Idaho and managing editor of PurplePTSD.com. When he’s not writing about the NFL, Josh enjoys running, gaming, or rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks. Check out his Twitter account: @Freyed_Chicken.