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Foundation Laid, Adofo-Mensah & O'Connell Begin Vikings Path Toward New Standard

EAGAN, Minn. — Eleven months and a day after Kwesi Adofo-Mensah helped introduce Kevin O'Connell from a temporary stage constructed in Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center's Indoor Practice Facility, the men sat together at a table on a small riser in the Media Center.

The riser was lower than the previous stage, but the team they've led for about a year has been elevated from an 8-9 squad to one that won 13 games for the third time within a Vikings season.

So have expectations going forward, until "someday" can become "the day."

What was initially pitched as a competitive rebuild and trying to win on the margins morphed into setting an NFL record for the most one-score wins in a season (11-0) thanks to players who were led to become situational masters at key moments of close games.

Sure, there were unsightly losses along the way, including a couple of regular-season defeats to Philadelphia and Dallas teams that each won 12 plus in the regular season and have advanced to the Divisional Round of the NFC Playoffs. There also were road losses at Detroit and Green Bay after the calendar flipped to December.

But in between 16-point wins against the Packers in Week 1 and Bears in Week 18 were plentiful memorable moments during a wild ride.

The victories and records set on the way to winning the NFC North for the first time since 2017 enabled Minnesota to host a playoff game for the first time in five years, but that excitement ended abruptly Sunday when the Giants topped the Vikings 31-24.

Adofo-Mensah shared an anecdote from after the game when he was walking the concourse behind a group of fans.

"One of them said that she had been a long-time Vikings fan and always felt let down, and this team felt different to her," Adofo-Mensah said. "And then, sure enough, she ended up in the same place. I'm sure a lot of fans will be going through that right now, and that hurts to hear, I can't lie, but I understand where that's coming from. So, ultimately, we didn't accomplish the goals we wanted to accomplish, and I always want to be respectful of that. But the things we did accomplish, I think, were incredibly impactful. I think we laid a foundation for where we want to go.

"I think we showed a building full of people, players, coaches, staff, ownership group, this guy next to me, would have the ability to be their best when their best is required. I think that's where we want to go eventually," Adofo-Mensah continued. "Like [O'Connell] said in his final meeting, 'It's supposed to hurt. It's supposed to sting.' We're still feeling that here, but I will say that hurt, that sting, that will drive us. That will motivate us to lead this organization to the place we want to go. I know this guy next to me and myself will lead and push and drive, because we don't want to feel this way, this early, ever again. We want to be there consistently with the chance to win it."

View images from the Vikings locker room at TCO Performance Center on Monday as players cleaned out their lockers at the end of the 2022-23 season.

O'Connell and Adofo-Mensah have emphasized collaboration throughout their first year together, and the first-time head coach picked up where the first-time GM left off:

"As I told our team … it's supposed to sting. It's supposed to hurt. But I did want to take the time to reflect and to move forward in the right way," O'Connell said. "Reflecting on what we were able to accomplish as a football team – an NFC North title and 13 wins – it goes beyond that. Understanding the goals of culture and the goals of building up through our leadership and setting a foundation and platform for every individual in this building to feel like they can thrive and grow and eventually reach their truest, highest potential.

"I feel like that foundation's in place. And when I think about all that went into it, from a coaching staff standpoint, our players, our leadership of our core leaders and foundation of such a great leadership group that I was able to have in my first year as a head coach in the National Football League, I truly feel very fortunate and blessed," O'Connell added. "But as we reflect, I think it's important to understand, be honest with our evaluations, understand – taking a look at all the little things – no detail is too small in how we're trying to improve as a team, improve as a coaching staff, and most importantly, improve myself. To better myself and make sure I'm doing everything that I can in this role that I feel so lucky to have and also so prepared to have."

O'Connell said the next step is "a championship standard" and that he wanted to wrap his evaluations and dialogue about the 2022 season the "way it should, with the same type of connection" with players and the "foundational building blocks of what we want to be."

"Making sure that the standard of knowing we've got the culture, knowing we've got the right things going in this building," O'Connell said. "Now, we've got to all – the last phase of that is the accountability to each other, to make sure that that standard is championship worthy, and we're putting ourselves in that conversation – to a man and to a woman in this building – that we're looking at each other and asking ourselves the question, 'With everything we do, is it championship worthy? Is it to that standard? Is it to that line?' And just in all of our dialogue Monday with our players, getting a chance to meet with each and every one of them, they understand that, and they're motivated for that. At the same time, proud of what they've accomplished this year and look forward to the first day of the offseason program, when we get those guys back in here."

The Vikings have not gone to the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2008-09. Since then, there have been postseason appearances after the 2012 (loss in Wild Card), 2015 (loss in Wild Card), 2017 (loss in NFC Championship), 2019 (loss in Divisional) and 2022 (loss in Wild Card) seasons.

Adofo-Mensah, who previously worked on Wall Street, was asked to assess where the Vikings stock is.

He said it's between a startup and one with an ability to earn, adding "in our business, earning is wins."

"We've shown that we have a culture and an ability to do those things at a really high level," Adofo-Mensah said. "But I wouldn't say that we're that established, 'there' team because we haven't shown it yet. We haven't shown our ability to come in year-in, year-out and do those things. We want to be."

While they can feel reinforced by the results of the foundation laid in their first year, they also know a multitude of decisions await and all teams change from year to year.

In addition to impacting the culture within the building through an emphasis on building connectivity across the roster, the Vikings installed O'Connell's offense with Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips, a defensive system led by Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell and changed their special teams under first-year coordinator Matt Daniels.

They worked with players they inherited, quickly assessing who was set to return and how to try to add pieces they deemed missing through a strategic approach to free agency and proceeding through the 2022 NFL Draft. The personnel department continued to be on the lookout for players who became available after their release by other teams, and the coaching staff usually helped integrate the acquired player quickly, whether it was Za'Darius Smith in Week 1 or T.J. Hockenson in Week 9.

The assessments of inherited players were made a year ago through film study and advanced metrics. The direct work together began in April when Minnesota could start its offseason workout program and was followed by Organized Team Activities before a summer break that was followed by training camp, he preseason, regular season and postseason.

Along the way, personal relationships grew.

Part of their jobs during the comprehensive evaluation process will be setting aside those personal relationships and not letting them interfere with the process of building the 2023 Vikings to have the best chance at a championship and be within the constraints of the NFL's salary cap.

O'Connell, a former backup NFL quarterback who spent time with five different teams, knows the business from a player's side and coach's side. Adofo-Mensah admitted his elevation to GM brought him more exposure to the human elements than when he was advancing through the research-and-development departments with the 49ers and Browns.

"It's so easy from my background to sit in front of a spreadsheet and make decisions and talk about things. Kevin will tease me about that sometimes. [But you] sit in exit meetings with players, and it becomes personal at that point," Adofo-Mensah said. "I came from a business where your job is to not be emotional and if you make emotional decisions, you typically make bad decisions.

"When you involve people, it can make the job a lot tougher, but I also think the people aspect is what culture is and that's important," Adofo-Mensah added. "That's what led to a historic number of one-score games and so that's probably been the hardest job is adjusting to those things. One of the last times I spoke with you [after roster reductions to 53], I was up here, and I think someone told me my appearance was a little more dour than it normally is and that was because that was two emotional days of having to tell people no and having to say, 'Your dream is stopped for the day.' "