With Kevin O’Connell, Anything Less than Serious Coach of the Year Consideration Would be a Crime

Nov 12, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell celebrates with quarterback Joshua Dobbs (15) after a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

At times, the 13-4 record was easy to dismiss.

In 2022, basically everything went right for Kevin O’Connell and the Minnesota Vikings. The clutch Kirk Cousins regularly put together game-winning drives as Justin Jefferson assembled an Offensive Player of the Year season. Meanwhile, the defense had more than a few lapses but proved to be quite opportunistic at critical times. Both Harrison Smith and Patrick Peterson finished the season with 5 interceptions.

The State of the Vikings
Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) greets cornerback Patrick Peterson. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports.

The voters for the NFL’s Coach of the Year Award weren’t particularly impressed, though. The first-time coach was basically an afterthought, barely registering on the Richter scale.

He finished 6th overall. O’Connell’s 13 wins and NFC North title resulted in just a single 1st-place vote and 23 points.

Over the New York, Brian Daboll scooped up sixteen 1st-place votes (besting Kyle Shanahan’s dozen), which largely contributed to his 123 points and successful bid for the Coach of the Year honor. Currently, O’Connell is leading a resurgent Vikings team that’s sitting at 6-4 after dropping their opening three games. Daboll is struggling to keep his Giants relevant, shepherding his side to a 2-8 record (complete with the league’s worst offense, averaging just 11.8 points per game).

Kevin O’Connell and The 2023 Coach of the Year Award

Kevin O’Connell’s worst move in 2022 was hiring Ed Donatell.

The Vic Fangio disciple was going to implement a 3-4 defense that commonly began in a two-high look. In theory, completing explosive passes would be challenging and the underneath stuff was supposed to be swallowed up by plenty of defenders rallying to the ball carrier. Nothing easy within that defensive structure.

Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Ed Donatell looks on before a wild card game against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Instead, everything was easy against that defense. Quarterbacks regularly had their best day of the year when facing Minnesota, largely contributing to the need for Cousins to shoulder such a tremendous burden at the end of games.

Fast forward a year and things couldn’t look more different. Hiring Brian Flores to be the new defensive coordinator is nothing short of an overwhelming success. Right now, the Vikings’ defense is fresh off holding a talented Saints offense to 19 points. True, the Jameis Winston touchdown passes were discouraging, but Flores has his men playing at a high level. Sealing off the New Orleans game involved Mekhi Blackmon and Byron Murphy plucking interceptions out of the sky, absolving the earlier touchdown-pass sins.

After ten games, the Vikings are 14th in the NFL by allowing an average of 20.9 points against per game. Bringing Flores aboard was a fantastic move from Minnesota’s head coach.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Oct 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores watches his team play against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile, the offense hasn’t been doing too bad. Currently the 12th-best offense in the NFL, O’Connell has his side of the ball averaging 23.3 points per game. And, of course, consider the context.

The QB1, QB2, and QB3 are all out (with Cousins being done for the year). Justin Jefferson hasn’t been around for the five-game winning streak. Christian Darrisaw has missed time, K.J. Osborn has missed time, Cam Akers has missed time. Ezra Cleveland got traded away and T.J. Hockenson has been playing wounded. Jalen Nailor is just coming off of the IR and Kene Nwangwu has struggled to get worked back into the lineup. Alexander Mattison left the Saints game due to a concussion.

And, of course, we’re not even discussing the hurdles for the defense (e.g. Marcus Davenport’s health concerns).

Somehow, the team is still winning. Minnesota is firmly in a playoff spot, well ahead of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-5) for the final playoff spot in the NFC.

Nov 12, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell celebrates with quarterback Joshua Dobbs (15) after a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The man hasn’t been perfect. I’ve certainly articulated some criticism, calling the Vikings an incoherent mess after dropping to 1-4. Since then, the only thing the Vikings have done is win. Point taken, Mr. O’Connell.

Next up on Minnesota’s schedule is a contest with the Denver Broncos and then one with the Chicago Bears. Winning is no guarantee and yet the Vikings will be the favorites in each. Can the head coach push the win streak even further, climbing to 8-4 before the Week 13 bye?

If he does, then there would be even more reason to acknowledge the obvious: Kevin O’Connell should be a foremost contender for the NFL’s Coach of the Year Award in 2023.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.