Picture this: It was the summer of 2021. After a relaxing offseason, the Minnesota Vikings planned a trip to their remote cabin in the woods…or in Eagan, anyway. Kirk Cousins fired up his 1987 Chevrolet Astro van to go pick up his teammates and make the first step towards a magical season.
Brian O’Neill, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen piled into the van and were on their way. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and Creed was blasting on the radio. But as they came closer to Eagan, the sky grew darker, the clouds rolled in, and a dark shadow rolled over the TCO Performance Center.
“I think we should go back,” O’Neill said after he got out of the car.
“Nonsense!” Cousins replied. “We can just make the most out of it. It will be a great time.”
Cousins had made a mistake. With his back turned to the entrance, an ominous figure rose behind him. The other three passengers pointed in horror as Mike Zimmer emerged from the shadows.
“Welcome to training camp!” Zimmer screamed. “Now, let’s talk about some defense!”
For the next four months, the Vikings lived out a horror movie. Training camp did not go well and was the precursor for another mediocre season. Even with changes in the front office, they brought back the same cast of characters, almost to live out another sequel to Friday The 13th.
But even as paper airplanes filled US Bank Stadium on Saturday night, something was different. Kevin O’Connell lifted the heavy atmosphere surrounding the camp and brought something the Vikings hadn’t felt in years. It started with how the Vikings conducted their training camp, which could not have been more different.
When the Vikings arrived in Eagan last summer, they were coming off a season where they missed the playoffs for the fourth time in the past six seasons. Jobs were on the line, and the coaches weren’t afraid to let the players know about it. They would not tolerate simple mistakes, and absences could have been the end of the team.
That played out brutally when Kellen Mond tested positive for COVID-19. Kirk Cousins and Nate Stanley were deemed as unvaccinated close contacts, leaving the Vikings with Jake Browning as their starting quarterback. While some teams let similar situations blow over, Zimmer wouldn’t let this one slide.
Zimmer breathed fire at press conferences, hyping Browning as a “very smart” quarterback. He begged his team to get vaccinated and even brought in Dr. Michael Olsterholm to teach them the benefits of getting the shot. Few players listened, and it brought a heavier atmosphere to the training camp.
One year later, Cousins was in the news for COVID again. This time he had tested positive for the virus, knocking him out for the preseason opener. A similar scenario would have enraged Zimmer, but O’Connell joked that Cousins was “wearing me out” about the gameplan, turning a potential headline into a small footnote.
The same thing happened with the state of the offense. One year ago, Zimmer was in desperation mode, hiring Klint Kubiak as his offensive coordinator. Kubiak had replaced his father, Gary, but the lineage had yet to be passed down from father to son.
The offense struggled throughout the preseason. Zimmer lamented their lack of touchdowns. It drove the Vikings to play their starters in the final preseason game in Kansas City. The result? A torn meniscus for Irv Smith Jr. Still without a preseason touchdown, Zimmer banished Kubiak to the press box, never to be seen again (at least during a game).
The Vikings have lived out a similar scenario this preseason, but you could never tell the difference. While Mond and Sean Mannion filled the skies with bad passes and terrible decisions, O’Connell remained calm. He focused on the development of his young players rather than the result on the scoreboard.
There will come a time when the results matter, but O’Connell understands now is not that time. That’s why the Vikings held out 27 players against the San Francisco 49ers and could hold out more for Saturday’s preseason finale in Denver.
The most significant difference of all? Zimmer threw every weakness the Vikings had into the public eye. A halftime interview during last year’s first preseason game featured Zimmer destroying his team. A couple of weeks later, he said he only trusted half his roster to see the field. He buried Cameron Dantzler and stuck with Bashaud Breeland until he challenged the entire coaching staff to a fight in practice.
Seemingly everything was common knowledge, which isn’t the case with O’Connell. The new head coach started training camp by politely asking fans not to record practice. When they did it anyway, O’Connell replied with a shoulder shrug. When Harrison Phillips took Garrett Bradbury’s soul, O’Connell needed to be prodded until finally admitting he struggled in pass protection. Even after Mond and Mannion struggled on Saturday night, O’Connell made it sound like it was just another step in the process before trading for Nick Mullens.
There could still be serious problems for a roster that has missed the playoffs two years in a row. But while Zimmer was willing to become the man of 10,000 issues, O’Connell has kept it under wraps for other teams to find out. That’s why Zimmer’s training camp resembled Camp Crystal Lake, and O’Connell’s seemed like Club Med. His stars aren’t sitting on the sidelines while sipping Mai Tais, but they’re also not running for their lives from a football slasher villain.
It remains to be seen if the approach will help the Vikings get out of their commitment to mediocrity, but it’s an excellent place to start.