Kevin O’Connell Pushes Back on “Placeholder” QB Talk with Sam Darnold

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers
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Kevin O’Connell is a believer in Sam Darnold. Or, at least, O’Connell does a good job of conveying confidence in the veteran.

The word comes courtesy of an interview from Kay Adams with O’Connell. A social media clip brought the topic to the fore. She sets up the response by asking about Darnold’s potential for a career turnaround, noting that “some people think he’s just a placeholder.” Per O’Connell, that assessment about being a “placeholder” isn’t quite right.

NFL: International Series-Minnesota Vikings Practice
Sep 30, 2022; Thundridge, United Kingdom; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell at press conference at Hanbury Manor. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A major part of the optimism stems from Darnold’s brain. Apparently, the QB is picking up the offense quickly: “Just from a standpoint of his ability to absorb our offense, go out and execute with a lot of guys, when he steps into the huddle, he’s stepping in with guys that have been in this system for two years. And we’re not really slowing down from a standpoint of how we want to kind of install our offense.”

So, Darnold is digesting the playbook. That speaks to both brains and work ethic.

The next reason for optimism comes from what he’s able to do with his actual body. The update from the head coach: “Sam’s been great. The physical talent jumps out to me. His ability to throw the football. He’s really, really refined himself from a technique and fundamentals standpoint. Really playing with great balance and kind of the body position that elite quarterbacks tend to play with.”

Kevin O’Connell, Sam Darnold, and The Vikings’ QB Situation

Kirk Cousins has a great arm, yes, but he also has a great brain.

And then Mr. Cousins works unusually hard. His willingness to sink a ton of hours into his profession — especially when placed alongside his natural talent and smarts — made Cousins a nice pair with O’Connell.

A Look at the Lions in Week 14
Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) gets instrucyion from head coach Kevin O’Connell in the first quarter game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota is moving into 2024 hoping to recreate some of that HC/QB chemistry.

In fact, O’Connell had similarly positive things to say about J.J. McCarthy’s capacity to learn elsewhere in the same interview. The head coach thinks that the rookie passer is “really smart.” O’Connell has been impressed with “the amount of information that he was able to retain.”

And while there’s need to continue improving his technique, McCarthy is “able to take the coaching and immediately put it into attempting to be coachable and try to do it the way” the coaching staff wants it done.

Jan 1, 2024; Pasadena, CA, USA; Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) throws a pass against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the first half in the 2024 Rose Bowl college football playoff semifinal game at Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

But while it’s encouraging to hear these updates, the widespread expectation is still that Sam Darnold will be the starter in Week 1. The veteran will only turn 27 on June 5th, so there’s potential he pushes his game higher than it has ever gone.

Maybe the main concern is that he has completed just 59.7% of his passes over his career and his TD-to-INT ratio is less than inspiring (63/56). Minnesota is trusting (hoping?) that the Vikings get the best version as Darnold.

The rest of Kevin O’Connell’s interview with Kay Adams can be found on YouTube. There’s talk about the coach being friends with Kenny Chesney, predicting a Timberwolves victory over the Nuggets (success!), and how he would react to a Justin Jefferson extension.

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.