It's clear that Kevin O'Connell loves to be on the football field.
At a recent Organized Team Activity practice, the first-year Vikings head coach buzzed around the green grass, chatting up players and coaches and putting his enthusiasm on full display.
O'Connell soon showed a serious side, too, as he watched in a corner of the field by himself toward the end of the session. The Vikings were working on a red-zone period, and the man who will call Minnesota's offensive plays this season was dialed in as he relayed the calls into the huddle.
Perhaps it's no surprise that O'Connell feels at home at practice. After all, the practice field is where he did most of his work in the NFL.
"I've used this joke before, but my career as a player provided a great platform for me as a coach because I did spend a lot of time watching games from the sideline," O'Connell said back on Feb. 17, the day he was introduced as Minnesota's head coach. "I will say that with that becomes the ability to see the game in a way that I feel very prepared to call the game."
View photos of new Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell during his introductory press conference with the media on Feb. 17 at the TCO Performance Center.
A 2008 third-round pick by the Patriots out of San Diego State, O'Connell spent time with five different teams as a backup quarterback over five seasons in the NFL. Yet he only appeared in two games, playing a couple handfuls of snaps and attempting six total passes.
That doesn't mean O'Connell didn't make an impact, however.
Vikings.com recently chatted with the following trio to retrace O'Connell's time as an NFL player and find out more about how his experiences then have shaped the 37-year-old first-time head coach:
Matt Cassel (O'Connell's teammate with the Patriots in 2008); Mark Sanchez (O'Connell's teammate with the Jets from 2009-11); Mike Pettine (served as Jets defensive coordinator from 2009-11; hired O'Connell as the Browns quarterbacks coach in 2015; is currently the Vikings Assistant Head Coach under O'Connell)
Cassel, Sanchez and Pettine each offered a unique and in-depth look at the 10th head coach in Vikings history.
What was your first impression of Kevin? And what one word comes to mind when you think of him?
Cassel: "My first impression when he came in, I was like, 'Look at this guy!' He was strong, big, fast. And he was there to take my job, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. He was drafted in the third round, right? But he could not have been nicer. He's just easygoing. He's a go-with-the-flow type of individual. He was a guy that had no ego, could relate to everybody. He wanted to learn, was eager to learn, was willing to put the work in on and off the field. He understood he was a rookie and wasn't a guy who came in trying to prove everything. He just wanted to get to work, and that's what I always liked about Kevin. And that's why we got along from the first time we met."
Sanchez: "One word, I would say 'adaptable.' But he's also intelligent, he's resilient. Big, tall, strong guy. Could really throw it. I knew he was from San Diego State, so we had that California thing in common. That was really cool. We didn't have a ton of guys from California, so I kind of felt like an odd duck out there. I was the only one who knew about Rainbow sandals. And it was really cold. He was always very helpful, just eager to jump in. He could tell when I needed something. He was great at reading the room, just funny as heck."
View photos of new Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell during his first day at the TCO Performance Center on Feb. 17.
Pettine: "First impression? I heard it from the [Jets] offensive staff before I really connected with him because I was on the defensive side. I kept hearing, 'This guy is sharp as hell.' Then we were getting close to New England week and it was, 'Hey, you have to make sure you talk to him.' That's when we started to connect. He'd come into my office and the next thing you know, 10 minutes turned into 20. It was easy with him, and the maturity struck me. This was a guy that was already a high-level thinker and could process the game quickly, and you just don't see that often. I know Bill Belichick had said something like this to him, but I told him, jokingly, after a period of time, 'Hey, you're not very good as a quarterback, but you're going to be a hell of a coach someday.' "
Were there things that stood out as a player or position coach that you knew he'd become a head coach someday?
Cassel: "It started really early that season, because that was the year Tom [Brady] got hurt. I was thrust into the role of being a starting quarterback midway through the first quarter of the first game. Kevin became my primary backup, so it was Kevin and I in the room. It was pretty cool to see because he knew that at any point he could potentially play. The way he prepared and went about it was outstanding. He asked all the right questions. But I knew he'd be a great coach because of the support factor in that room. You didn't feel he was there to take your job. He was there genuinely to support you, make you better, be a sounding board. He was a guy I trusted and a guy I loved having in the room. If you look back at that situation, that's what Kevin is and who he is as a person."
Sanchez: "He's definitely a team-first guy. Coaches started to realize how sharp he was and what a commodity he was. You know how you're going to play a team and you snag a person from their practice squad to try and download [info]? We did it here and there, and they'd let us sit down with that player, like a DB from a team you're about to play. Kevin would be in on those meetings and would ask brilliant questions. At the time, I'm a young guy, but I know football and came from a good pedigree. But I was learning a ton, and the questions he'd ask these DBs and linebackers, it was like he was speaking at a coaching level. It was, 'Are you going to combo that guy in the slot? Or, what's your responsibility if No. 2 goes vertical? Are you going to halo this or trap this?' He was asking questions deep into their scheme and philosophy. Then we'd get the game plan and he'd say, 'Remember, [Player X] from the Eagles said they would do this, so we don't want double slants inside because the safety is going to take his head off. What we want is …' and he'd come up with a combination that would beat that specific version of a coverage. I was just like, 'Holy s*. That's really what this game is.' It's all predicated on matchups. You have to have 10 to 15 passes [per game] where the QB has to drop back, go through multiple reads and throw an accurate ball when it comes down to crunch time. We'd get into some dicey third downs, and that's where he'd teach me and coach me. He'd have plays picked out for certain situations. It was uncanny, dude."
Pettine: "Usually when you're talking scheme, it's some sort of math where, 'We're trying to get an advantage here,' or 'We want one more at the point of attack here,' or 'We want to stress this player here.' He understood all that, and not just what the offense wanted to do, but from our end, too. Sometimes offense and defense, it's like speaking a foreign language. One is speaking Italian and the other is speaking German, but he was fluent in both. Those were just easy conversations with him."
What has it been like to watch him grow over the years to get to where he is now?
Cassel: "It's been incredible. When he first started coaching, he was in Cleveland, in Washington. We had some practices where we crossed over. Kevin is a great friend of mine; I went to his wedding, know his wife and family. So, to watch him go from a quarterbacks coach to work his way up the ladder to being with the Rams and an integral part of their success, and now he's hired as the head coach, it's been a lot of fun for myself, my wife. We know him personally, and he's such an incredible guy, an incredible person. It speaks to his work ethic and the impression he makes on people. Everyone feels confident when he's around. He's willing to work with others, has no ego and wants to do the best he can. I'm so happy for him, so proud of him. He deserves everything he's gotten."
Sanchez: "Dude, this is so cool for him, and I'm thrilled for his success. It's well-deserved. But he's been on the fast track, and he's got such a range and variety of [coaching] trees he's been around, from Belichick to Chip Kelly to the Shanahan and McVay tree. He's been around Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine. Really good defensive and offensive styles. In this league, you can win a lot of different ways. There are staples, but there are different styles of those staples, and Kev' has seen a million of them. You want to be a defensive powerhouse and win 14-6? Kevin has seen that. If you're going to be an offensive machine, Kevin has been there. He has such a breadth of knowledge, but he's still the same dude. Laughing, smiling. Beautiful family. Me, him and [Mark] Brunell got so tight. For the bye week, you usually want to get away from everybody. But we're like, 'Hey, where can we go? Let's go camping with the boys.' He's just such a good dude.'
Pettine: "His development as a person, that was a given. You just knew what a quality person he was and how he takes such genuine interest in every person. All you have to do is meet his parents because it's no surprise he turned out how he did. From a football standpoint, I remember talking to him early on about getting into [coaching]. But he wasn't sure and he had to talk to his wife because that's a lifestyle choice now. I know it was on his mind. He talked about staying close to the game as an announcer, and I know that just wasn't doing it for him. I got to my first year at Cleveland and just knew, 'This was a guy, it was a no brainer to get him on staff.' It was just when he was ready. That was one of the easiest decisions I've ever made. I remember getting some pushback, but I was adamant. He was legit, and I didn't care that he didn't have a résumé or years of experience. I had to push to get that done, but once people spent 10 minutes with him it was like, 'Oh, OK. Sorry! We get it.' A big part of it was making that commitment, and he wanted to make sure he painted the picture of what this coaching life would be like. Seeing him now, it's like a proud father moment. I got him into coaching, but it just happened to be me. It would have happened with someone else. When he started to get head-coaching interviews, I knew he was going to get [a position]."
Do you have a favorite memory of Kevin?
Cassel: "A Kevin O'Connell moment? It was probably the day before his wedding. A group of us went and played golf, and I was lucky enough to be in his group. We had a blast before the rehearsal dinner and all that stuff. So, Kevin goes to take a nap and we were supposed to wake him up. Well, we're getting ready and all of the sudden we're like, 'Where's Kevin at?' We wake him up, and we're like, 'You've got to be there in 30 minutes!' To his credit, there was no panic. I would have been in a full panic, full sweat. He's like, 'We're good to go.' No panic in his eyes."
Sanchez: "The night before the game, it was my favorite. We'd do a fake 2-minute drill, and he'd have a call sheet and I would do the signals. We're sitting in hotel room 408 with Mark Brunell. We'd have the same room every time. Kevin would run through the scenarios. He'd be like, 'All right, you've got 1:58 on the clock, just got the ball back on your own 23-yard line. One timeout. What's your first call?' I'm like 'OK, we want to do a high completion play.' So we'd go, and he'd dictate what happened, and we'd do it multiple times. These were scenarios he'd learned in New England or with other teams. He'd say, 'You have 36 seconds left, and he didn't get out of bounds. What are you doing, clocking it or burning your timeout?' And then we'd talk about it, because when you get in those situations, you don't have time to talk about it. That's where Kevin was so instrumental. Even now, once a month, someone will randomly text '408!' in our group text. It was just the best."
Pettine: "In Cleveland, it wasn't just one incident, but I just remember spending a lot of time in his office. Sometimes as a head coach, that job can get very lonely at times because sometimes you don't want to interfere with a particular side of the ball. He and I have even talked about it, hit-and-run-coaching, when you feel like the room changed when the head coach comes in. It was kind of an escape for me to go down and sit in his office and not just have talks about football, but other stuff in general. Kevin, he's just so easy to talk to."
Finally, what are your expectations for Kevin as a head coach, and why do you think he will succeed?
Cassel: "He's been brought up in different systems; he's worked with Kirk Cousins. He's got a great offensive mind and has been around one of the best in [Rams Head Coach] Sean McVay. He's got a great head on his shoulders, he's level-headed, communicates well. A great teacher. Anytime you come into a new situation, there's challenges ahead of you. They'll have to re-establish the defense, bring in the right guys. But he should be able to put together a dynamic offensive structure with Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook. I think he can be successful very early because I don't think this is a team that's very far away from competing, not only in that division, but within the NFC."
Sanchez: "He has that resilient quality, that adaptable quality. He understands what a team dynamic looks like. He's been around great motivators. He's seen different styles, but now it's time for him to assert himself with his own. I'm excited to see how he does it. Of the available coaching jobs [in 2022], the Vikings aren't a bad deal to step into. That was probably the best place, and the Vikings offensive roster is similar to what he had in Los Angeles. That's a good ball club. That's a really good setup. I don't want to put any extra pressure on the guy, because I know how tough it is to win, but I feel like he's in a good spot."
Pettine: "Football is a game of a million little things, and he has so many of those bases covered already. But the biggest reason is just how he is with people. We use the corny cliché, 'Players don't care what you know until they know that you care.' He's a guy that, I know these guys feel that, whether that's seeing him and [General Manager] Kwesi [Adofo-Mensah] together or seeing him and the coaches. Kevin is so nice, you wonder, 'Can Kevin have the hard conversations?' But he's already shown he can have hard conversations — and not in a way where it's tough on the other side. It's, 'Hey, this is how I want it,' but he's demanding without being demeaning. That's a trait you need to have, and he certainly does."