It's a new day for the Minnesota Vikings, Part II: Why Kirk Cousins 'n co. can think… Super Bowl?
Kevin O'Connell's culture is set. Fantastic. He cleaned up Mike Zimmer's mess. Now, it's time to play games, starting Week 1 vs. the Packers. Are the Vikes talented enough to go the distance?
EAGAN, Minn. — There was zero time to waste. Every second mattered. On Feb. 13, the Los Angeles Rams edged the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI. On Feb. 15, Kevin O’Connell was officially hired by the Minnesota Vikings and no head coach in the modern NFL had ever been hired this late. In less than two weeks, both O’Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah got on a plane to fly to the NFL Combine.
Free agency loomed March 16. The draft began April 28.
The new men in charge needed to make franchise-defining decisions, and fast.
Before he could even get to that first meeting to discuss “player ownership,” O’Connell needed to figure out which players he and Adofo-Mensah even wanted around. That made for some marathon days (and nights) at the office. O’Connell would wake up at 5 a.m., head on over to the TCO Performance Center and stay until 10 p.m. He laughs and calls himself a hypocrite. For as much as he stresses personal heath to this entire team — hiring performance coach Tyler Williams away from the Rams to implement his sports science secrets — there were nights he’d admittedly grab only a few hours of sleep. To him, that was the price to pay to make the right decisions with this roster.
Here, O’Connell motions over his shoulder. He stayed at that hotel, the Omni, until well after Easter.
“It was unbelievable,” he says.
The same day the Rams held their Super Bowl parade, O’Connell got on a plane and sat at his new desk at Vikings HQ to face the same question the old Vikings’ brass did repeatedly: To go for it? Or to rebuild? If there ever was a time to shed salary and start over for an NFL franchise, this was it. The team’s $1.129 billion stadium was already built so it’s not like the Vikings needed to “sell” a winner to its fans from a business perspective. If anything, fans would’ve accepted a bad product for a season or two after so much agony. Furthermore, such a reset would’ve played right into Adofo-Mensah’s strengths as a self-described “numbers guy.” With his background? As a former commodities trader? Damn, he would’ve loved stocking up on picks.
Instead, the two got a handle of their roster — in a hurry — and saw a team capable of winning. Now.
So, that’s been established as the realistic goal.
On March 8, the Vikings tacked another year onto Cousins’ deal at the price of $35 million guaranteed… with a low dead-cap number. They could still trade him next offseason, but he’s technically under contract for two more years. O’Connell and the Vikings chose to give Cousins — and, in conjunction, this team — a real shot in 2022.
“We’re trying to build for the long term,” O’Connell says, “while also competitively reloading. My goal is to work side-by-side with Kwesi and provide that football side of things where we have a clear-cut plan of what we want to do. And then when we do get out on the grass, we know how each and every player is going to be used and how they’ll be able to compete to best fill the roles we have on our team.”
Old draft picks have been cut. Seven (!) in all from last year’s draft class alone. O’Connell has proven he’s unafraid to move from players.
But right now, the plan is clear: to win. Instead of presenting a grandiose three- or five-year plan to owners Zygi and Mark Wilf, instead of dumping Cousins and trotting out a C-minus roster — all of which actually could’ve bought them more time — this new GM and head coach are daring to contend. They’re banking on that revitalized culture being the difference with the core of Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, Brian O’Neill, Danielle Hunter, Za’Darius Smith, Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith competing for a championship. Minnesota was always Cousins’ preference. “I couldn’t make their decision for them” the QB adds, “but I feel like it made the most sense to be back here and I’d like to finish my career here.”
The Vikings obliged and, naturally, it wasn’t received with widespread celebration.
Mainly because this movie has played out before.
Remember, Rick Spielman could’ve let Cousins’ deal expire and taken yet another swing at the quarterback position. Instead, into 2020, he extended Cousins, inked Cook to a whopper of a deal, received a contract extension (with Mike Zimmer!) and their job security proved to be nothing but a mirage. The head coach continued to wear everyone out and both Zimmer and Spielman were whacked. There was still two years left on their new deals, too. On our Go Long training camp tour this summer, I ran into Spielman — the longtime GM is now an analyst for CBS Sports — and, no, he’d rather not discuss the internal turmoil. Several sources repeat just how terribly Zimmer treated Spielman behind the scenes but Spielman doesn’t want to go there.
Still, he can relate to this philosophical decision to go for it. Starting over from scratch was never a realistic option to him.
“Because who knows what happens when you get to the playoffs?” Spielman says. “Philly kind of limped into the playoffs, and then Foles got hot as hell. They won a Super Bowl with him that year. They killed us in the NFC Championship Game with a backup quarterback. We always felt we had enough talent to be able to get to the playoffs. The last year was very hard because there were two or three games we could’ve easily won that we lost. Then, you’re in the playoffs. Then, who knows what happens once you get in there? Teams start to get hot. We had more than just one player that we felt we had enough talent on that roster to make a run at it every year.
“I never wanted to think about resetting. Every year you go in and you do all the stuff you do in free agency, in trades, in the draft, that’s your job. To get the best 53 players out there to give yourself a chance to win every year. Why are you doing that job?”
Of course, there’s a lot Spielman loves about this team he helped construct.