INDIANAPOLIS — A year ago, as he prepared for his first season as the Vikings head coach, Kevin O'Connell had a roster full of accomplished veterans and a plan he believed would get the most out of them. He felt so good about it, the idea of dethroning an NFC North champion that was coming off three straight 13-win seasons seemed reasonable to him.
"I truly believed if we established some things early on in our offseason, built upon those, had a plan of attack for how we wanted to go about training camp and then got off to a good start, I thought we'd win our division," O'Connell said matter-of-factly as he sat at a roundtable with four Vikings beat writers on Wednesday.
"It wasn't going to be easy. I thought we would have to really grind out some wins and probably play some close games. Especially for a team that hadn't really performed in that area of the game well enough to win football games previously, I thought it was really important."
O'Connell's hunch proved correct, as the Vikings beat the Packers in the regular-season opener and went 13-4 on their way to their first NFC North title since 2017. All along the way, though, the coach relied on a philosophy he learned from Sean McVay, evaluating the job he'd done as a leader and offensive play-caller on a weekly basis. When the season ended with the Vikings' first-round playoff loss to the Giants, O'Connell turned the microscope on himself again, to examine where he needed to improve before Year 2.
The results of a 1,300-player survey, conducted by the NFL Players Association on how each team treats its players, validated O'Connell in one sense. The Vikings were ranked first among the league's 32 teams, with players praising the team's facilities and its decision to overhaul its training staff while ranking O'Connell as one of the most player-friendly coaches in the league.
"I don't think it's directly applied to us finishing where we did on that survey, but there's a lot of thought about everything we do with our players," he said.
For the former offensive coordinator, though, managing all three phases of a team on game days was a new experience. Each week during the season, O'Connell would present details to players and coaches about what the Vikings would need to do on offense, defense and special teams to win each game. As he evaluated the job he'd done in 2022, he found himself asking whether he'd done enough on game days to keep the Vikings on track with his vision.
"What I've really looked at is, [from] that meeting [early in the week] through zeroes on the clock in that game that week, what did I do that was in my control to make sure that things were done a certain way?" he said. "That's important because that falls in line with, if you're going to stand up in front of your team, you're going to say something to your football team and want to be authentic and true to your football philosophies, your culture philosophies, I also then have to evaluate, 'Did we do what we said?' That's where some of the changes kind of came about with personnel and our coaching staff but also with how I'll change moving forward."
O'Connell fired defensive coordinator Ed Donatell after the season; new defensive coordinator Brian Flores could take a more aggressive approach on defense after O'Connell called for such changes late last season. Given the fact the Vikings need to clear more than $23 million in salary cap space before the league year begins on March 15, their defense could look markedly different if veteran starters are released.
The coach has talked about a "shared philosophy" with Flores. O'Connell said he's also talked to some of his coaching mentors this offseason about how he can make sure his vision for the Vikings comes through on game days.
In the end, he said, he wants the Vikings to be an "extension" of what he believes is the right way to win games. He spent the first part of his offseason thinking through ways he can be clearer about his vision on game days.
"It's one thing to hope for that, but I feel like I've got a path to getting that done in a way that's clear, open and honest with our organization, and the personnel side of it will obviously take care of itself," he said.
"We've got some real decisions to talk through and things to work through, but ultimately, however that shakes out, we're gonna have a football team for 2023 to coach and build off of what we did in 2022. That's my hope: that [progress] shows up and then a high level of football comes from that."