EAGAN, Minn. — Kevin O'Connell has seen a lot in just 37 years.
He sat beside Tom Brady on the bench in New England as a rookie quarterback, studying under the tutelage of Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels. Then after his playing career, O'Connell had coaching stops in Cleveland, San Francisco and Washington before helping the Los Angeles Rams to a Super Bowl victory last season as their offensive coordinator.
Now, in his first stint as head coach with the Minnesota Vikings, O'Connell is ready to form his own path.
"I just don't know any other way. That's just — right, wrong or indifferent — how I've always tried (to be)," O'Connell told The Athletic. "I feel like the No. 1 thing to be is that authentic person, because I think players can see if you're not. I think the organization can feel that if it's not real every single day.
"There (will be) times when you've got to coach these guys hard. There are still times when you've got to coach the coaches hard," O'Connell continued. "Everybody is not always smiling. Everybody is not always having a blast. It's a professional work environment where ultimately I think being myself fits with that because I have that kind of personality where I want to treat everybody with respect. I want everybody to always know I care about them."
Howe wrote O'Connell's arrival — along with newly hired General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah — brought a change in energy into the organization.
O'Connell began Facetiming players on his first day in the office. He wanted to let them know who he was as a person and how he'd approach his new job.
"I want guys to feel like we're invested in them and ultimately that we're always going to try to do what we can to win," O'Connell said. "That's the bottom line in our business, but we're going to do it in a way that people enjoy coming to this building every day. And then when we go out on the road together or we go play an opponent at U.S. Bank Stadium, and we've got that mindset of we're all in this doing it our way because it is our team — not just my team."
Howe said at times, O'Connell finds himself drawing back from his coaching mentors. Although some things might look and feel the same, O'Connell is dialed in on sticking to his core beliefs as a coach.
"Even though Sean has had an unbelievable impact on me and is one of my closest friends and colleagues in this profession, if I tried to be him every single day, I think I would fall short of who I am," O'Connell said. "And that authenticity would be called into question by some of our players and coaches. If I just continue to use those as resources, use those as experiences that helped shape and form my football philosophy and team-building philosophy, I think I'll be OK from a standpoint of having my imprint and how I want it on this team."
TE Irv Smith, Jr., Still On Track for Regular-Season Opener
Irv Smith, Jr., is continuing to make progress – and signs are still pointing toward him returning soon.
The Vikings TE hasn't played since suffering a torn meniscus at the end of the preseason last year. He then underwent thumb surgery on Aug. 2, but Will Ragatz of Sports Illustrated noted O'Connell is confident Smith will be ready for the team's regular-season opener against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 11.
"Everything with Irv has been really positive," O'Connell said Thursday. "You guys will see him during these practices — he's out there with Coach [Brian] Angelichio — he's done a ton of work on the side. He's now allowed to start sweating and making sure he's keeping his conditioning where we need it.
"We'll pick some spots over the next couple weeks to find some time to get Irv really started to get acclimated back into the offensive huddle," O'Connell added. "Although he may not be able to catch for a few more days, we can actually have him out there hearing play calls, getting back in there, because we want him to pick up where he left off."
Johnny Mundt, Zach Davidson and Ben Ellefson have seen the main reps at the tight end position during training camp since Smith's injury.