Jason Fabini was a rookie fourth-round draft pick of the Jets in 1998. Bill Parcells was his head coach, which became a flabbergasting fact when it was announced Fabini would start at right tackle on opening day.
Parcells didn't hate rookies, per se, but he liked when they thought of themselves as invisible and useless to him until they had put some pelts on the wall first.
"Normally, you equate rookies with mistakes," Parcells said at the time. "But this kid has been one of the rarest rookies I've had. This kid makes zero mistakes."
Why in the world is Bill Parcells being referenced in a Vikings article 11 months after the Wilfs sacked Mike Zimmer, expunging from Purple Nation forevermore the Parcells protégé and all his old-school tales from Parcells' Hall of Fame career?
As Kevin O'Connell, Zim's decidedly different new-school successor, would kindly say, "That's a great question."
Parcells' thoughts on rookies probably came to this NFL observer's mind along with an eyeroll or two back in March when O'Connell, as a rookie head coach at his first combine in Indianapolis, first said the Vikings' intent was to become "situational masters." He said this while finalizing his staff with six assistants, including Ryan Cordell as "game management coordinator."
"C'mon, rook," this mind said. "Just worry about beating the Packers in Week 1 before you become a, what did you say it was? Situational whatchacallit?"
Twelve games later …
Not saying O'Connell makes zero mistakes. There's been two beatdowns from Philly and Dallas, and third quarters are still a weekly bugaboo. But this 37-year-old kid is separating himself. He's becoming one of the rarest of rookie head coaches at 10-2 with a record nine straight wins in one-score games to start a season — one year after Zim played in a record 14 of them and went 6-8.
In many ways, O'Connell was set up to win with the team he inherited. So was Nathaniel Hackett, another rookie head coach who's turned Russell Wilson and a great defense into a fireable disaster in Denver.
O'Connell's mind has moved quickly, decisively and astutely far more times than it hasn't during stressful in-game moments. He's known when to be aggressive, like going for the touchdown with two long passes in the final minute against Detroit. He's known when to be patient, like taking a field goal off the board in a tie game, draining the clock to 16 seconds and then trusting a struggling kicker to make the kick a second time to beat Washington.
O'Connell maneuvers the fine line between analytics and gut instincts by being unafraid to overrule the former in favor of the latter. Like the times he wins the coin toss, takes the ball and reaches the end zone while every analytics person worth his pocket protector says he should have deferred.
It's a sense that's helped O'Connell know when to go for it on fourth down. He's 7-for-11, a 63.6% success rate that would be the team's best since the 2012 team finished the season 7-for-12.
"I'm always going to treat each [fourth down] situation as its own," O'Connell said Monday, a day after going for it on fourth-and-2 from the Jets' 49-yard line late in the first quarter of a 3-3 tie. "Sometimes, it's a 'feel' thing based upon where we are in the game, how the other three phases are competing at that time, and then where I think we can ultimately take that drive."
On that particular fourth down, star receiver Justin Jefferson ran a rout that created a pitch-and-catch window opening from which K.J. Osborn, the team's most underrated player, grabbed a 7-yard reception to extend a drive that ended in a touchdown in a game the Vikings won 27-22.
That victory caused the Star Tribune to run a graphic listing all the Vikings teams that have won at least 10 of their first 12 games. It's a Who's Who of both greatness and Purple pain.
The Super Bowl teams in '69 and '73. The Drew Pearson Pushoff in '75. Four NFC title game losses, including the '98 team, the 41-donut squad from '00, Brett's Bountygate loss in '09 and Zim's Philly fiasco five years ago.
Looking at that list reminds us that the lasting tale of 2022 won't be written until the postseason. If the Vikings win the Super Bowl, O'Connell should indeed be crowned Minnesota's very own "Situational Master." But, until then, even Parcells would have to admit this rookie coach is a "Situational Pretty Darn Goodster."