EAGAN, Minn. — Not long after he was named the Minnesota Vikings‘ new coach, Kevin O’Connell made a request. He wanted a logo designed to capture the values he planned to impart on the team. The final product was shaped like a shield and carried these words: Our Way, Our Process, Our Team.
The Culture Shield, as it is known around the Vikings’ practice facility, provided a clear metaphor for O’Connell’s first summer in Minnesota. He stood behind it as he pursued an alternative training approach that prioritized health over preseason playing time, teaching over browbeating and technique over hitting.
It revealed a coach who is confident in his approach but itching to justify it with some early success in a schedule that opens with consecutive opponents — the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles — who are considered consensus playoff teams.
“You never want to say [imposing culture] was easy,” O’Connell said, “but I just think it was the right time and the right place for me with these players.”
Initially, at least, O’Connell’s style prompted whiplash amid an organization inured to the cantankerous ways of former coach Mike Zimmer. Veteran players waited for emotional outbursts that never came.
“Sometimes it almost feels awkward,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “You’re like, ‘Is he not going to rip us? What’s going on here?’ And it has nothing to do with the old coaching staff we had here. That’s how it’s been my whole life, whether high school, college, first year in the NFL when I had a different coach. It’s different, but it’s exciting because it’s like now we can go in there and we can teach. We can learn. Even if we do some things wrong, and have some mental errors, it’s like, ‘Hey, that wasn’t OK, but let’s focus on the process.'”
They also appreciated the relative lack of pounding on their bodies. No established starter played more than 14 snaps in the preseason, and all of them came in Week 1. Nine of their top-line players — quarterback Kirk Cousins, running back Dalvin Cook, receivers Thielen and Justin Jefferson, linebacker Eric Kendricks, pass-rushers Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith and defensive backs Patrick Peterson and Harrison Smith — were healthy scratches for the entire preseason.
Cousins, for one, said he wouldn’t have minded some preseason work. But he noted the Vikings lost tight end Irv Smith Jr. for the entire 2021 season because of a knee injury he suffered in the Vikings’ final preseason game last summer.
“There is a reason for what we’re doing,” Cousins said. “There is drawbacks to it too, but you have to make the best decision you can and go with it. No excuses and be ready to go [when the season begins].”
Practices were rarely grueling. Players followed an individualized sports science plan designed to minimize injuries, especially soft-tissue strains. There were no “live” periods, meaning no tackling to the ground, and key players regularly limited their reps and sometimes took entire days off. The most intense periods of camp came during two days of practice against the San Francisco 49ers.
There were no fights, but it was notable that the only chippy moments came when Vikings offensive players objected to the 49ers defense’s aggressive post-contact attempts to wrap up ball carriers and punch out the ball.
“I think it’s a different style from what their defense [does],” 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said afterward. “We attack. We’re [an] attack-first mentality, so it’s a different style I know for their scheme, for their offense and our defense going against them.”
The immediate results, however, seem obvious. Only one Vikings player suffered a significant injury during training camp practice; Irv Smith Jr. injured a thumb ligament while blocking on the first day of pads, requiring surgery. Otherwise, the team was so healthy that general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah did not need to make a single roster move until the first NFL-mandated cutdown.
The philosophy was not dissimilar from the one employed by the Los Angeles Rams when O’Connell was their offensive coordinator for the past two seasons; he hired former Rams director of sports science Tyler Williams as his executive director of player health and performance in Minnesota. And by all metrics, the Rams were ready for Week 1. They started the 2020 season 7-1 and were 4-1 after five games in 2021 en route to winning Super Bowl LVI.
Za’Darius Smith said there was a “big difference” in the O’Connell’s training camp compared to his other stops with the Baltimore Ravens and in Green Bay and added: “It was great. It was big for us. We didn’t have too many injuries, and it’s good that coach showed us the system that he used previously with the Rams. It really worked. … You can see now that I’m healthy.”
Those seasons, of course, were the fourth and fifth of Rams coach Sean McVay’s tenure. A traditionalist could argue that the Vikings, in the first year of a new coaching regime, would have benefitted from a more physical summer.
O’Connell took several opportunities to note the parts of camp that were undeniably taxing, from the 49ers practices to an early stretch of five full-pads practices in six days to an Aug. 25 intrasquad scrimmage designed to simulate long drives.
“There’s a positive of keeping starters healthy by not playing in preseason games,” O’Connell said. “Is there a negative? I think it depends how you look at it. If you’re a team that just kind of practices in a standard way, there’s a lot that can be taken out of the traditional model of kind of preparing guys in normal practice, playing them slightly in each game building up.
“We choose to kind of do things a little differently, a little bit different model where if you ask our guys physically where they’re at, they probably would say they’re as healthy as they’ve been. But at the same time, I think they’d say they’re feeling more and more prepared by the day. … They should feel like they’re right on schedule from a physical standpoint, stamina-wise of being able to play a full game.”
The Vikings have left no confusion this summer about their postseason expectations. Instead of tearing down a roster that missed the playoffs three times in the past four seasons, they retained and supplemented the core.
When they waived second-year quarterback Kellen Mond last week, O’Connell noted the risk of an untested backup “being a snap away” on a team with a strong competitive outlook.
Did his “way” and “process” put the Vikings in position to open the season strong against two tough opponents? We’re about to find out.