Kevin O’Connell has answered numerous questions about how he plans to handle adversity since being hired by the Vikings in February. But each response involved a hypothetical because the 37-year-old had experienced smooth sailing through his first offseason and training camp as head coach.
That came to an end on Monday night in Philadelphia.
The Vikings’ 24-7 loss to the Eagles left O’Connell taking blame for an inept performance on both sides of the ball and put an end to the week of euphoria Vikings fans had felt after an impressive Week 1 victory over arch-rival Green Bay. “When I look back on tonight, I put this one on me,” O’Connell said.
This was O’ Connell’s latest attempt to be the anti-Mike Zimmer, the crusty coach he replaced. Where Zimmer would have been short with his answers and placed blamed on his players, O’Connell has worked to make players feel comfortable by accepting responsibility when things go wrong.
Considering how awful the defense looked in the first half, and how much Kirk Cousins struggled in the second, simply accepting the blame isn’t going to be enough this time. O’Connell is going to have to navigate turbulent waters to get his team ready to play an improved Lions team on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The loss to the Eagles — and how poor and unprepared the O’Connell’s team looked before a national television audience — is going to raise questions about how good the Vikings really are this season. A 16-point victory over the Packers was impressive, but it came with Green Bay’s starting offensive tackles sidelined and top wide receiver Allen Lazard out.
Vikings players will say all the right things, but the reality is that new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell elected to bring back much of Zimmer’s 8-9 team from 2021. That includes Cousins, who was given a contract extension in March and will make $40 million this season and $30 million in 2023.
O’Connell, the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl champion Rams last season, is banking on getting everything he can from Cousins, who has been a .500 quarterback in 10-plus NFL seasons. Cousins (277 yards and two touchdowns) and star wide receiver Justin Jefferson (nine catches, 184 yards and two TDs) combined to cause the Packers’ defense headaches in the opener, but the Eagles’ had no trouble containing the two.
Cousins threw for 221 yards, with one touchdown and three interceptions. Jefferson caught only six of the 12 passes thrown his way for 48 yards and took responsibility for Cousins’ first pick of the night. Adam Thielen, the Vikings’ No. 2 wide receiver, finished with four catches for 52 yards on seven targets but did not see a pass in the first half. This certainly wasn’t the high-flying offense we expected.
Ed Donatell’s defense, meanwhile, gave up 18 first downs and 347 yards in the opening half as the Eagles scored all 24 of their points. Because O’Connell is calling plays, he will have to spend much of the week assessing what went wrong on that side of the ball, while hoping Donatell and his staff can fix the many things that went awry against Philadelphia quarterback Jalen Hurts.
The Vikings also are going to have to make some adjustments, or risk the Lions simply copying portions of the Eagles plan on both sides of the ball. Catching an opponent by surprise isn’t the hard part. It’s making further adjustments to be sure opposing teams are kept off balance every week that’s difficult and that’s what O’Connell and Co., failed to do.
That’s the X’s and O’s side of things.
Equally as important, will be O’Connell making sure his players are mentally prepared for Sunday. The Vikings’ 1-1 record isn’t a bad start, but the confidence that followed the Packers victory now will be replaced with potential doubt of how easily the Eagles exposed Minnesota’s many shortcomings.
This won’t come anywhere close to being the most adversity O’Connell will face as a head coach, but it will be the first time he will have to manage a situation that’s anything less than pleasant. How the young head coach, and his team, responds will be telling.
Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com