EAGAN, Minn. — Brian O'Neill tried to "really unplug and disconnect" from the football world in the early weeks of the offseason.
It was a valiant effort following O'Neill's fourth season, but with Minnesota undergoing significant changes, the goal was easier said than done. Text messages kept arriving.
"Whether it was my dad or cousin or a buddy in a group chat texting me, 'Hey, we interviewed this guy,' or 'What's going on?' But I kind of try to stay far away, but you kind of see what's going on a little bit here and there," O'Neill said Monday as Vikings players returned to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center for the first day of the Vikings voluntary offseason program.
"I really only found things out when people were hired and when [media members] do," he added. "[Media members] usually know things before any of us. At that time of year, I try to escape as much as I can."
Quarterback Kirk Cousins said he watched the NFL's highly active offseason news cycle "from the outside."
"I think it's been healthy for me in the offseason to try to distance myself somewhat, so you know where your role is and where you do want to speak into things and not be absent," Cousins said. "You also know where it's probably best to just be away and be the last person to know, and sometimes I am. … Sometimes it's family or a friend who notifies me about news with our team or with the NFL. I don't really, in many cases, need to be the first one to know. So in the ones where I want to be, yes, I do try to stay engaged, but there's plenty where I think it's best for me to just catch my breath and step back."
O'Neill is in his second NFL contract with Minnesota and seen as a mainstay at right tackle, but a wild offseason across the NFL led to multiple rumors regarding Cousins being potentially traded with a year left on his contract.
Instead, the quarterback and new General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, with input from first-year Head Coach Kevin O'Connell, reached a one-year extension that provided salary cap relief for the team to sign multiple players (mostly on defense) during free agency. Cousins was asked about the extension Monday.
"I think the short answer is I want to be a Minnesota Viking," Cousins said. "I wanted to help create some cap space so that we could put together the roster that you do feel really good about. I think it was just trying to always find win-wins, and I think it was a way to create a win-win. Hopefully that leads to a lot of wins this fall."
View photos of Vikings players returning to the TCO Performance Center to begin the 202 offseason program.
Three months and a day after the Vikings announced they would make a change at general manager and head coach, O'Neill, Cousins and others attended their first team meeting led by O'Connell.
Fresh off helping the Rams win Super Bowl LVI in his second season as their offensive coordinator, O'Connell began delivering the team's message for 2022.
Although Cousins will have a new offensive coordinator (Wes Phillips) for the fifth time in as many seasons with Minnesota (and new position coach Chris O'Hara), he'll have the benefit of having had O'Connell as his position coach in Washington in 2017, plus the head coach's experience as a backup NFL quarterback.
"When I look back on my coaches who have coached me or coached the quarterback position, Matt Cavanaugh played 14 years at the quarterback position," Cousins said. "But more often than not, it was someone who didn't [play in the NFL]. So I think, it can't hurt. I think it's a tremendous asset to say, 'I've lived it, I've been there.' And certainly you would never trade that for someone who doesn't know football as well, but with the fact that you know football and have done it, I think that's an asset."
Cousins, who will turn 34 in August, equated the progression of the 36-year-old O'Connell with some of the other progressions he's seen from former coaches.
"My dad was always telling me that, "Hey, if you're good enough, cream rises to the top.' So when you are a good coach, it's going to show up eventually. It may not happen as fast as you want it to, but you're going to get opportunities," Cousins said. "And the same is true for players, as well. I've talked to a lot of teammates who at times in their career are frustrated at their role or lack of playing time and you say, 'Hey man, cream rises to the top. You just have to stay the course, you have to stay patient. It may not happen as as fast as you want to, but if you are good enough, you're going to get that opportunity.'
"That's certainly also been an encouragement to me to know that as I go through my journey," he added.
O'Neill has a new position coach as well, as Chris Kuper will now lead the Vikings offensive line with assistance from Justin Rascati. Kuper started 79 of the 90 regular-season games he played for Denver from 2006-13.
Kuper's long run in the NFL is a new benefit for O'Neill and the Vikings offensive line. O'Neill said he's ready to continue learning from all sources.
"Try to take something from each person, whether it's the assistant O-line coach, the O-line coach, coordinator, I try to grab something from everybody I've been coached by," O'Neill said. "I'm excited to see what that's going to be.
"And the new guys in the room, I really only texted with a couple of them, met with them for a few hours today, worked out with them. They looked great when we were working out, so that's a good start. And they're good guys. Both Jesse [Davis] and Chris [Reed] have played a lot of football. I think Jesse has the most starts in our room now [with 72]. … There's a chance they've seen something that me or the other guys haven't, just with their experience and different teams and different offenses across the league. I'm really excited to lean on those guys as much as possible."
O'Neill and Cousins said they look forward to gaining familiarity with the new offense as the offseason program progresses toward a mandatory minicamp scheduled for June.
"It's just going to take a lot of work together, not only with Kevin but with Wes and with Chris O'Hara, our quarterbacks coach, and with our whole unit," Cousins said. "Kind of like today, very basic offensive installs, learning formations, learning snap counts, basic stuff. You have to keep stacking those bricks so that Week 2, we're turning a page and getting further in, and by the time you finish [Organized Team Activity practices], we're able to run a full offense through all the scenarios we'd have in a game.
"You just kind of keep stacking each week and try to cover as much as we can in these nine weeks of the offseason program," he continued. "It is like going backwards a little bit, because you're learning very basic stuff right now."