EAGAN, Minn. — Providing the whats of a scheme and figuring out the whos by the regular season are consistent questions teams answer through training camps.
On the way to those, the Minnesota Vikings are emphasizing the whys at every step, through installations in every phase.
Why teach why?
The core reason resides in the response from first-year Head Coach Kevin O'Connell when asked Tuesday about how he'll judge training camp.
"I think you always want to be making sure you're teaching, you're practicing and then you're evaluating to improve for the next day," O'Connell said. "So you have to be critical about things that aren't where you want them to be.
"But also with that mindset, that it doesn't have to be perfect Day 1, but we have to have the idea and the systems built that these guys understand the why," he continued. "Then we give them the what behind how we're going to do things, so when it's not to that standard, it's not to what we expect, sometimes they're the first ones to point it out."
Thus, the whys can be central to understanding objectives, the importance of accomplishing them and the ability to hold each other accountable.
Coaches can then focus on "all the little things" that "bleed into the bigger philosophical things."
Six-time Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith is now playing for his third different head coach as he enters his 11th season in Minnesota. He said the emphasis on explaining the whys is something he "really appreciates as a player because it's not always like that."
"When you learn the whys, it gives you a lot of confidence in what you're doing, and you know the emphasis of what we can't give up and what we're trying to do kind of force or take away," Smith said. "I think that gives you a little more knowledge of how coaches are thinking and maybe how offensive coaches think to attack certain defenses. That's not only important for a vet, but young guys, it's how you build your football knowledge.
View the best photos of Vikings S Harrison Smith from the 2021 season.
Smith said Vikings Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell is "great" at explaining the whys.
"Every defense we talk about, he talks about what we're trying to get done with this certain thing," Smith said. "It might seem like a small thing, or not a big deal, but to me, that adds up over days and years, for sure."
Donatell, a coaching veteran entering his 32nd season, said it's a way to maximize players' abilities and effectiveness.
"I've just always felt with teaching that if I'm going to ask somebody that is a world-class athlete to go do something, why not tell them the why and the purpose? A lot of good things can happen," Donatell said. "They'll do their job better if they know why. They also might give me a tip on when I need to change it. They'll say, 'Coach, if you give me a little bit of this, I can still get that done,' if they know the why and the purpose of the call.
"The first thing we tell them is what is the call, why we're doing it and how we're going to do it," he added. "If we cover all of those things, good things will happen."
It's an approach that can benefit all levels of the defense.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks said continuing to boost his level of understanding is why he believes "there's another level I can get to." He said Donatell's system has "a little more involvement, as far as passing [coverages] off" to teammates on the back end.
"I think understanding the why and then going out there and going through reps, walking through things and going through plays, you kind of have an understanding of how the defense is supposed to work against the offense," Kendricks said.
Dalvin Tomlinson explained the benefit for defensive linemen understanding the whys.
"Especially up front now, the different coverages we're going to be in, we're going to know how much time we have help in the middle of the defense or, 'Are we playing split safeties?' and stuff like that," Tomlinson said. "It's going to help us up front. Learning that is going to determine what type of rushes we're going to do and how quick we need to hit certain moves."
Running back Dalvin Cook has appreciated a similar approach of teaching by Minnesota's offensive coaches.
"That's been good. You get some coaches that just throw things at you, and you don't know why you're doing it. You're just out there going through the motions," Cook said. "If you know why and you have a purpose like, 'OK, this is what we're trying to get done,' you've got a better feel for what you're doing and it's like, 'All right, this is what we're trying to get done.'
"It's just better for the mind, and when you're a young player, you need that direction of why we're doing things and 'This is going to lead to that,' and X, Y and Z. It's good to be like, 'This is why we're doing this. This is why we're doing that.' Then just go and be in attack mode."