Kene Nwangwu fielded the kickoff at the 3-yard line.
He controlled his acceleration, watching his blocks play out. He glided toward the sideline through traffic, reached the edge and mashed the gas to the end zone.
Nwangwu's 97-yard score tied the Thanksgiving game between Minnesota and New England at U.S. Bank Stadium at 23 in the third quarter and helped spark the Vikings to an eventual 33-26 win.
It wasn't until later that week that Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Matt Daniels divulged a little secret about the play: The team had never run it before that moment.
Excuse me, what?
"It was a brand-new return [for our group]. Had never worked it before, never ran it before," said Daniels, adding that he scribbled the concept on paper with permanent marker just beforehand.
"It was like … 'Hey guys, this is what we're doing right here, so let's get it done,' and the first time we ran it, we struck gold," Daniels said.
Nwangwu said it's a moment that wouldn't have come together if it wasn't for the trust between Daniels and his players – and vice versa.
"He trusts the guys that he puts out there in a unit. So we told him, 'Hey, we might need to try something different, maybe try [a play similar to one] we ran last year [with a different coaching staff],' " said Nwangwu, who noted that Daniels, Assistant Special Teams Coordinator Ben Kotwica and C.J. Ham quickly put it together. "They drew up something at halftime, and we went out and we executed it."
It's not exactly typical to use live game reps for testing a new play.
Vikings long snapper Andrew DePaola, who's spent a decade in the NFL, has never seen anything like it.
"We as a unit, starting in the spring, had never, ever run that return. We hadn't even talked about it. Like, it wasn't even in the playbook," DePaola said. "I guess at halftime they were like, 'This is what they're doing. Let's run this.' … [Daniels] drew it up, showed the guys, 'Hey this is what we're gonna do on the next return'; they did it, and they scored.
"Just drew it up in the sand, in the dirt, and we scored in a professional game," DePaola added. "This isn't eighth-grade football. This is the NFL. And just drew it up, and it went for a touchdown. That's amazing. It's just amazing. That's great coaching, great players."
'This guy is different'
Talk to any of Daniels' special teams players in the Vikings locker room, and they all say the same two things:
Leader of men
In just his first season as an NFL special teams coordinator, Daniels has garnered respect wherever he's been and earned the trust of his guys.
Vikings safety and special teams ace Josh Metellus recalled speaking with Daniels over the phone in February, weeks before the two met.
"He seemed like a great guy, and you could sense his energy through the phone," Metellus said. "Then when I met him, the same thing translated. He was easy to connect with, talk to. I think the first time we talked in person, we went straight up to his office and sat down, spoke a little about what he expected from our group this season, stuff like that. It was a really good encounter, and he did a great job of making us feel comfortable."
Nwangwu detailed a similar experience.
"I think it's his passion. You can tell he has a passion for the game, a passion for the guys that he's coached and is coaching," Nwangwu said. "And we felt it. It wasn't fluky; it wasn't fake. He didn't have to do something to win us over. … I was like, 'Hey, this guy's invested in me; I'm invested in what he's coaching me to do.' "
Early in Daniels' time with the Vikings, cornerback Kris Boyd entered the special teams meeting room and heard music playing.
"I'm looking around like, 'Somebody's about to get a fine, quick!" Boyd laughed.
But then he realized Daniels was the one letting the tunes roll.
"He's like, 'Oh yeah, that's me. I play music for everybody to keep the vibes good, you know? When you play music, it keeps people more in-tune to what's going on,' " Boyd explained. "This guy is different."
At just 33 years old, Daniels isn't that far removed from many of the players he coaches; in fact, he's two years younger than DePaola. It's nonetheless never been difficult for him to garner respect as the room's leader.
"He doesn't need to exert his authority. Guys want to be around, they want to follow a guy like that, and I think him being a former player and being younger helps," Vikings kicker Greg Joseph said. "Because he's been in our shoes, guys can connect to him easily, it's easier to break down that barrier when talking ball and talking life. He does an amazing job at making himself available to each and every one of us."
Added Nwangwu: "And he's never anybody but himself."
Strengthened by support
Always be yourself.
It's a life lesson instilled in Daniels by his parents, Swannette and Bruce, who were his biggest supporters throughout his playing career and beyond.
Bruce tragically passed away in August but not before he and Swannette, along with Daniels' wife Tiffany, helped him through his first coaching job.
He still vividly remembers back to September 2017, wrestling with his eyelids at 2 a.m. to stay awake and alert while watching Colorado State film.
Daniels was prepping for his first game as the University of Colorado's defensive graduate assistant coach.
"My eyes are red, feels like they're bleeding," he recalled. "And I'm like, 'Oh my gosh … and we have to do this for 12, 13, 14 weeks. This is just college.'
"I didn't know if I was built for this, you know?" Daniels added. "As a player, you get the luxury, you're off at 5 o'clock and head home to your family."
But he's proven he's built entirely for both: to be an NFL coach and to be a husband and father to his two young children.
For Daniels, the decision to turn in his game-day jersey for a coach's whistle and tablet was a difficult one … but it was always the right one.
He knew football. He lived and breathed the sport. He'd never coached, though.
Daniels had excelled at Duke, garnering attention and being signed by the Rams as an undrafted free agent in 2012. He spent two seasons in St. Louis, then a season each with the Jaguars and Chargers.
But Daniels suffered repeated injuries that sidelined him for all or most of every season. Consequently, he annually found himself seen as a "fringe" player on his respective team. In a way, dispensable.
"I just felt like it was in my best interest from a growth and development standpoint, and having decided to become a family man, I didn't want to put my wife through the ups and downs," Daniels said. "It felt like the perfect timing for me to make that transition, as hard as it might have been."
Buffaloes Head Coach Mike MacIntyre had been Daniels' defensive coordinator at Duke and offered him the G.A. position. So just like that, Daniels found himself trading in the oft-posh player's life for one in which he made $100 less per month than the cost of his rent.
He and Tiffany had gotten married in Atlanta in July, then driven cross-country to Colorado.
"I would go Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and I wouldn't see her until Thursday night," said Daniels, who quickly committed to learning new time-management skills.
"Week 1, going to play Colorado State, that was a true eye-opener moment. 'This is hard. This is tough,' " he added. "But it's the satisfaction you get out of it, you know?"
For the Daniels family, "hard" has never meant "impossible."
Tiffany whole-heartedly got on-board with the coaching lifestyle, standing lovingly beside Matt every step of the way.
"I can't emphasize enough the support that I've had from her through and through," Daniels said. "We've moved now, let's see – Colorado, L.A., Dallas and now here in Minnesota – that's four times in five years.
"The support, I can't emphasize enough, has been everything for me to allow me to be able to do my job and still maintain a good, wholesome relationship with my family, my wife," Daniels added.
Four moves in five years.
Each of those stops have helped Daniels get to where he is now, a first-year special teams coordinator for the Vikings.
Cowboys Special Teams Coordinator John "Bones" Fassel has played a foundational role in Daniels' career journey, starting when he held the same role he does now with the Rams, while Daniels still was a player.
"He was very tough and very sharp. He understood the game within the game," Fassel recalled, noting that Daniels was one of few players who could play, gunner, punt protector or the wing position on punt team.
"That's a rarity to have guys who can do that," Fassel explained. "Because you've gotta have enough speed to go out and be a gunner, you've gotta have enough brains to be P.P. and you've gotta have enough strength to be a wing. So he just kind of possessed it all. And then he was super tough, which is why we call him 'Hat D' – just layin' the hat."
All the traits Daniels possessed as a player – toughness, intelligence, physical and mental fortitude – made him a perfect candidate for coaching.
"I knew that coaching would just be second nature to him," Fassel said. "He has all the intangibles."
While it could be difficult to suddenly coach those who recently were your peers, Daniels so easily garners respect that he didn't encounter any issues.
As a player, Daniels shared the Rams locker room with punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg Zuerlein; both specialists were still on the team when Daniels came back in 2018 as Fassel's assistant.
Hekker said it was like Daniels "never skipped a beat" in being part of the team – just this time in a different role.
"He was the same guy," Hekker said. "Always very professional in everything he does. Passionate about football and has a great scope for being able to build relationships with everybody on a roster.
"That's a really special quality to have as a special teams coordinator because you interact with every single person … and have your hands in a lot of different position meetings," Hekker continued. "He's a guy that, yeah, the move felt very natural for him. Whatever Matt did, you knew he was going to be successful."
Zuerlein played for Daniels and Fassel in Los Angeles before moving with the coaching duo to Dallas for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
Now with the Jets, the 35-year-old kicker (two years Daniels' elder, by the way) pointed to the way Daniels has always carried himself, whether as a player or a coach.
"It speaks volumes about the kind of person he is," Zuerlein said. "Him coming back and stepping into a leadership role where he's now your boss and telling you what to do – I think all true and good leaders, they don't have to yell at you or tell you to do stuff, because they lead the way. They show you. That's what Matt Daniels has done since Day 1."
Fun & games
Daniels makes it a priority to get to know each of his players. Their ins, their outs, what makes them tick, what motivates them.
It's something he learned from Fassel and took it with him as he left the nest this season.
It's easy, Daniels emphasized, to talk about culture and chemistry and connection. But how are you really living that out within the organization? He challenges himself consistently with that question.
He's grateful to lead special teams, the only group that combines offensive and defensive players in one meeting room, and the opportunity it presents to further bring the team together. Daniels – who also dubs players' with creative nicknames – selects weekly captains that not only are looked to on game day but throughout the days leading up to kickoff.
Every week, that game's special teams captain is asked to present to the group as part of a "What About You" series implemented by Daniels.
"They send me pictures of family, hobbies, whatever the case may be, and they get to tell their story to the guys, because that's how you truly get to know people," Daniels explained. "What type of adversity did they face? What is their experience?"
Vikings linebacker Troy Dye is grateful for Daniels' philosophies and the atmosphere he's helped foster under first-year Head Coach Kevin O'Connell.
"He does a really good job of intermingling different position groups and having guys open up and talk about different things," Dye said. "I think that's a big thing because it helps you understand what some of the guys you go to battle with every single Sunday have been through in the past, and you relate to a lot of guys more than you think. It's pretty dope to see that type of connection.
"We're all in support of each other no matter the situation, and I think it starts with things like that," Dye added.
The Xs and Os of football are important, certainly. Daniels has helped elevate Minnesota's special teams on the field and garnered respect from all around the league.
But it's not all about the Xs and Os.
Rather than typical meetings the night before games, Daniels hosts "Saturday Fella-Ship" sessions for his group and anyone else from the team who would like to attend. Fella-Ship is all about camaraderie and competing and nothing about football.
Rock-paper-scissors tournaments – during which tight end Johnny Mundt and football video coordinator Mia Stephens have shined – and spins on game shows like Jeopardy and Family Feud have been favorites throughout the season.
"At the end of the day, when Saturday nights roll around, the hay's in the barn, and guys aren't truly trying to think about football too much," Daniels said. "They're trying to zone in and take their minds off of it as they prepare to win a football game the next day.
"Plus, it's just another way for us to connect as a team," he continued. "Who doesn't love to compete? Who doesn't love to have fun? Whoever wants to come to Fella-Ship, they can."
Recently, Daniels even surprised the group by playing a blooper reel that covered the entire year, going all the way back to OTAs at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
"People falling, coaches falling," Nwangwu laughed. "It makes it, you just feel the brotherhood, companionship, that being in that special teams room and having a coach like Coach Daniels and B.K. (Ben Kotwica), you feel that it's genuine.
"I didn't make it on there, but Coach Hat made the blooper reel twice, him falling," Nwangwu added. "It's just funny. It makes it feel like we're a family, for real."
Just as Daniels' demeanor invites players to feel comfortable and be themselves, his physical space does the same.
Located near the end of the coaches' hallway, Daniels' office clearly has been designed as a destination. Just to the side of his desk, a pair of white plastic buckets are filled with candy. Above those is a dart board with a running score between Daniels and Vikings rookie Lewis Cine, whose season was cut short by a significant leg injury in London.
A row of five pennants hangs on the wall, repping the alma maters of Daniels (Duke), Kotwica (Army) and the three specialists: DePaola (Rutgers), kicker Greg Joseph (Florida Atlantic) and punter Ryan Wright (Tulane).
And just above that? "Victory Row," where a Photoshopped illustration of each winning week's captain is framed. They range in themes, from "Sir Po" (DePaola) as Game of Thrones' Jon Snow to Wright's face added to the cover of A Christmas Story for Minnesota's defeat of Indianapolis.
In addition to the Fella-Ships, Daniels also implements "Competition Thursdays" with the trio of specialists, with everything from putt-putt to trashcan basketball; on Fridays, players take turns throwing a football at the indoor uprights for the week's "Crossbar Challenge."
"It's a lot of fun. He does a really good job of keeping guys engaged, you know?" Joseph said. "One of his first rules is 'start sweating fast' … which is just a fun way of saying, 'Let's get to work.' Just by doing that, the level rises, the competition rises, and guys want to work hard for him because of who he's shown to be and who he is as a man – which we appreciate more than he knows.
"We know he's got our back, and just like, we want to have his and do our best for him," Joseph said. "And then the games – we're all obviously competitive, and I think that brings out the best in us. The highest amount of effort. Because it's fun, also."
An enlightened perspective
When Daniels does talk football, though, people listen.
DePaola appreciates the way Daniels brings a new perspective to some of the group's schemes and puts his own spin on coaching the game.
"He'll just say it. 'Hey, this technique, blah, blah, blah – but that doesn't work. I did it, everybody does it, but no one excels at it, so we're just gonna get rid of it.' Things like that," DePaola said with a chuckle. "You can just tell he's a guy that did it, did it at a high level, did it well. He just kind of gets it, speaks the language of a player.
"And then he asks guys, 'Hey, what do you want to do? You're out there, you're the one doing it.' … I think that's been amazing," DePaola said. "It just goes to show what kind of man he is where he can say, 'Hey, if I'm wrong – I'm wrong. OK. Let's make it right.' I think that's been a breath of fresh air for the guys."
Joseph pointed out that even veteran starters who play little-to-no snaps outside offense or defense – such as Eric Kendricks, Jordan Hicks and Harrison Smith, a draft classmate of Daniels' – regularly sit in on the Vikings special teams meetings.
"Partly because, I think, they want to learn from Hat and love watching ball. And then it also shows guys that it's such an important aspect of the game," Joseph said. "They come to almost every meeting. They come to the Saturday night Fella-Ship, and it's just cool – especially for me to see and the young guys to see.
"These guys don't have to be there. They carve the time out to come and sit," Joseph continued. "I like to think, too, it's because they respect Hat and because they respected him as a player, and now as a coach, they just want to learn from him."
Daniels' fingerprints are visible across the 2022 Vikings, and not only on game day.
Players and coaches wear black baseball caps with a purple ST (Special Teams) logo embroidered on the front. Small notecards placed in lockers read the following:
You are not the most important person on the practice field. Your teammate is. He sacrifices his time, his energy, his body in order to train, hone you. For without him, you can't train. He helps make you the best version of you. Respect your teammate. Vikings special teamer.
On some teams, doing anything other than starting on offense or defense could be considered lesser than; special teams is seen as a springboard – a temporary landing spot before meeting the real goal.
But Minnesota special teamers take genuine pride in their work.
Some of that simply comes from Daniels' own excitement and season-long endurance – the latter of which Fassel noted is a key quality of his former Padawan. Players also look up to Daniels' passion for and knowledge of the game – and it's their desire to play as well as they can for him.
"He brings that put-it-on-the-line mindset. He's shown us that he'll do it for us, so guys want to reciprocate that," Joseph said.
Zuerlein expressed similar sentiments about his friend and former coach.
"It's something about certain people that when you're around them, they have this character that you just want to do well for them," he said. "I think a big part of it is [the way Daniels cares] about you as a person first and foremost, and then gets to the football stuff. I think all football coaches care about their players. It's just, maybe, how they go about displaying it [in different ways]."
Special teams, special coach
According to Hekker, one of Daniels' most valuable assets is his ability to adapt.
"Just like Matt displayed as a player, he's very coachable. He's someone who's not stubborn or stuck in his ways," Hekker said. "He has standards, and he has his ways he's gonna coach, and he's gonna stick to those methods. But being a good coach is being a good educator, and you can't teach everybody the exact same way.
"I'm sure all the things he does in his meetings – getting guys to stand up, getting guys to come and draw on a board or walking and talking … those are the things that really help," Hekker added.
There's no question that Daniels has the full belief of his group, and it paid off throughout Minnesota's 13-4 regular season.
"There was always something we talked about that, really, I think is his mantra: simple approach, aggressive mindset," Fassel said. "Guys can buy into that because there aren't big learning curves – there's kind of freedom to play. And being a former player himself, he probably realizes the same thing – 'I was better when I didn't have as much to think about.' That's a big special teams approach.
"There's some really good players who have been there for a couple years ... from C.J. Ham to Troy Dye to Metellus, to Kris Boyd. There's a lot of really good players who are kind of in their prime, and I think Matt has really helped push them over the top," Fassel added. "He's taken those guys who are veteran guys, who are good football players, and just raised their game. Which is what a coach should do."
Fassel has enjoyed watching Daniels spread his wings and find success in Minnesota.
When the Vikings hosted the Cowboys Week 11, the elder coach compared the scenario to playing ping-pong against a sibling.
"You want to win and compete, but you give him a big ol' hug after the game," Fassel said. "Just to see him was great. We spent two-and-a-half years together when he was a player and four years together as coaches. During that time, we spent more time together than with our families. That's just the way it is. So I see him as a brother to me, and I just love him and am so happy for his success now and in the future. I know he's always going to do great."
It's a confidence shared by his former players, as well. Zuerlein and the Jets visited U.S. Bank Stadium in Week 13, and Hekker has kept an eye from afar during his time with the Panthers.
"It's a great feeling. Being with him for so many years and then him being a head guy now, it's really cool to see the product that Minnesota is putting out and the success they've had," Zuerlein said. "It just makes you happy. You want good things for good people.
"I'm very happy to see all his success, and I know he'll continue to be successful and carry it forward," Zuerlein added. "That's just the type of guy he is."