Kevin O’Connell Hints at a Possible Change in the Starting Lineup

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Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK

In Week 15, Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings had arguably their best day on the ground in 2023.

Alexander Mattison wasn’t able to play since he was nursing an ankle injury. As a result, Ty Chandler picked up his first career start. The sophomore running back didn’t disappoint. By the time the final whistle sounded, Chandler had picked up 23 carries for 132 yards and a touchdown. Making the numbers look even better is that he added 3 receptions for 25 yards.

Minnesota Vikings running back Ty Chandler (32) eyes the goal line on a touchdown run in the first quarter of a Week 15 NFL football game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023, at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati.

Reasonably, many are left wondering what Minnesota will do if Mattison is healthy enough to return. Can the team really take Chandler off of the field?

Moving ahead with Nick Mullens (or either of the other two backups, for that matter) means that a revitalized running game is of the utmost importance. Facing 3rd & long with great consistency will eventually catch up with a quarterback, especially one who isn’t normally a starter. Minnesota’s coaching stuff understands this reality, so there will be an ongoing effort to run the ball well during games.

How does that ambition — running the ball effectively — impact how the personnel gets deployed?

Does Kevin O’Connell Roll with Ty Chandler?

Regardless of who gets the start, the Vikings will likely look to institute some form of rotation. Kene Nwangwu doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence as an RB2, so he didn’t get a pile of work in Cincinnati. Mattison and Chandler, though, is a more compelling tandem. Expect O’Connell to respond accordingly.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Oct 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell watches his team warm up before a game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

“Alex is going to try to work himself back this week,” O’Connell notes. The head coach then goes on to praise Chandler since he “had a huge role and impact” in the Bengals game. “Ty is absolutely a guy,” O’Connell says, “that is going to continue to see a featured, featured role in our offense.”

O’Connell moves toward the end of his answer by describing how he isn’t 100% certain about who gets the official start. Nevertheless, the coach hints that Chandler could have the upper hand: “We have confidence in Alex, but I think Ty has done a lot of great things and will continue to do so and hopefully will be a huge reason why we’re able to have success offensively down the stretch.”

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings
Nov 12, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Ty Chandler (32) celebrates his touchdown against the New Orleans Saints in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The progression of O’Connell’s final sentence is what’s fascinating. He begins by noting the team is confident in Mattison, which is a common way of speaking for the head coach. It’s not altogether uncommon to hear O’Connell describe that feeling — confidence — in his players before not giving them much of a role. By no means does that suggest that Mattison is going to be entirely phased out, but a brief word of confidence isn’t much reason to think Mattison is a shoo-in to get back in as the RB1.

What’s even more fascinating is the turn that the sentence takes. O’Connell says that he’s “confident” in Mattison before transitioning into a pretty hearty endorsement of Chandler.

And, to be sure, there’s good reason to do so. Ty Chandler averaged 5.7 yards per carry against an underrated Bengals defense. His longest run of the day went for 30 yards; at no point in 2023 has Mattison hit 30 yards in a single run. Chandler’s speed has always been obvious, but it was his balance and power that really helped him to keep picking up positive yards last weekend.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Las Vegas Raiders
Dec 10, 2023; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell (left) and general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah react during the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

O’Connell and the Vikings are getting to the point where missteps are going to be incredibly costly. The team is 7-7, putting them in a tie with four other NFC teams. In fairness, one of those teams is going to snag the NFC South, but the numbers crunch is still plain to see: Minnesota is fighting for a playoff spot that is being hotly contested.

Coming out of the bye, the Vikings erred in opting for Josh Dobbs over Nick Mullens. Thankfully for the Vikings, the incorrect decision didn’t lead to a loss; Mullens got inserted into the game, resulting in a Vikings victory. What about running back?

Now, the comparison isn’t perfect. A running back isn’t nearly as consequential as a quarterback. Even still, the point remains: the Vikings don’t have a huge margin for error. Getting the best personnel onto the field is simply one way of making the playoff push a touch easier.

Minnesota’s next game takes place on Christmas Eve. Just before Santa arrives, Dan Campbell will arrive. Failing to secure a win will mean Minnesota has very likely lost their grip of a playoff spot, so keep an eye on what O’Connell decides to do at running back.

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.