The Vikings' final joint practice with the Cardinals has concluded a half-hour early on a refreshingly seasonable Minnesota August afternoon, buying Kevin O'Connell a slice of extra time with his family in his office that overlooks the four grass fields where the team just finished training camp.

O'Connell is just 38, the second coach in Vikings history to win a division title in his first season and the only one to coach a playoff game before his 40th birthday. He presided over a 13-win season that included an NFL-record 11 one-score victories, providing near-weekly backdrops for victory speeches about the connectedness that had carried the Vikings through their toughest moments. An NFL Players Association survey of 1,300 current players ranked the Vikings the most player-friendly team in the league, praising the changes during O'Connell's first season and calling the team "a shining example of what is possible when a concerted investment is made in both staffing and facilities."

After a few minutes playing with his kids, O'Connell says goodbye to his wife, Leah, and their four children — their sons Kaden and Kolton, their older daughter Quinn and their 9-month-old girl Callie, born in Minnesota last November — before returning to his office and reclining in the chair behind his desk.

It appears, from a certain angle, like a vignette of a man who has it all, and O'Connell is quick to express his gratitude for the moment he's in. "I care so much about the opportunity I have to coach the Minnesota Vikings," he said. In reality, the moment is a respite for a coach with no intent of slowing down.

This offseason, the Vikings worked at a pace that suggested little about their 13-4 season satiated them. They dispatched popular veterans like Adam Thielen and Eric Kendricks, traded discontented pass rusher Za'Darius Smith and released Dalvin Cook after building a push for a more efficient run game around Alexander Mattison. O'Connell fired defensive coordinator Ed Donatell days after the Vikings' NFC wild-card playoff loss to the Giants, bringing in Brian Flores to add some punch to one of the NFL's worst defenses. Training camp featured scenes of Justin Jefferson doing the Griddy in the end zone, juxtaposed with a flustered Vikings offense gathering to talk through the Flores pressure look that had just bested them. Both O'Connell and Flores seemed to view the creative tension as healthy.

The source of the urgency is easy to trace: Days before he became the Vikings' head coach, O'Connell celebrated a Super Bowl title as the Rams' offensive coordinator. With such a recent taste of championship success, a division title wouldn't be enough. Especially not when the Vikings followed it with their first playoff loss at U.S. Bank Stadium.

O'Connell ached over the 31-24 wild-card loss to the Giants because it meant the end of all the joyous locker room scenes. He agonized over all the little details he believed could have made the difference — yes, right down to his call on that play at the end of the game. The faces of Vikings fans who would stop him at the grocery store or the airport with a "Just once before I die" stayed with him, too.

"You're just responsible for everything," he said. "And if you're leading from the front, all those moments in locker rooms where we came from behind or did this and this ... if you're going to enjoy that as much as you do, the harder moments hit you probably 10 times worse. If you're leading the right way, you look inward first. That one really stuck with me for a while."

He's past dwelling on the loss, but it impacted the Vikings' frenetic offseason, and stoked their coach's conviction for 2023.

"We don't know what will transpire in the future," O'Connell said. "But I tried to focus on not letting that be the defining moment, for anything other than doing things with that much more passion moving forward."

Building a championship standard

The play that inflamed sports-talk radio debates, about whether Kirk Cousins should have tried Jefferson in double coverage rather than throwing short for T.J. Hockenson on fourth-and-8 against the Giants, is not in the Vikings' 2023 playbook.

"I don't know if that play will ever be in an offense again," offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said. "Not because it's not a good play. Sometimes, you just have those memories."

O'Connell revisited it, as part of his postseason self-evaluation, asking himself if he could have done more to help his quarterback. "It's easy to focus on the end," he said. "Any time you call a play that doesn't work out, there's always a better play that lives somewhere on the call sheet."

His introspection went deeper than that, though, and the changes it produced were more substantive.

Donatell was fired after a run of 400-yard games for opposing offenses at the end of the year, while the head coach called publicly for a more aggressive defense. As O'Connell revisited the season, and particularly the 17 unanswered points the Vikings gave up after an opening touchdown drive in the playoff game, he wondered if he could have made his defensive philosophy clearer all along.

"Was I enough of an influence on the defense to where, maybe even without 'Flo' here, football philosophy could have come to life?" he said. "Because that's my job: to help the coordinators understand the intent I have for that time of the game and the decisions they make as play-callers. That's where you look back on the overall process. Ultimately, we won a lot of one-score games, came back from behind a lot, but we didn't in the end."

Much of the work to help coordinators and players understand what he wants from them, he said, happens more effectively during the offseason or the practice week.

Doing it during a game "is hard for this reason only: It's not fair for me to do it in the moment. It's not fair to the players; it's not fair to the coaches. But it is fair if, throughout the week or the offseason, you're building that philosophy, so everybody can feel the same confidence that I do in that moment.

"That's probably the biggest part of it, just making sure everything we're doing in this building has a championship standard. When we reach it, acknowledge it. And when we don't reach it, acknowledge it."

It drove the shift to heavier personnel on offense, as O'Connell and Phillips brainstormed new ways to support Cousins and punish defenses for focusing on Jefferson. And it drove the move to bring in Flores, who'd been on O'Connell's short list of candidates in 2022.

When O'Connell fired Donatell in January, Flores emerged with Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero as the top candidates for 2023. At Flores' introductory news conference, he and O'Connell talked extensively about how this was a match built on a shared aggressive approach.

Hiring Flores was something O'Connell thought about in 2022, he said last month, "because I knew what I wanted to build offensively."

O'Connell said he still believed in the system he'd had success with in Los Angeles with coordinators Brandon Staley and Raheem Morris and implemented with Donatell. "But," he added, "I wanted to build a system a little more in alignment with my overall philosophy. As hard as last year was, to make the decision I did, it just feels like the total coordinator alignment is a real thing."

Flores, the Dolphins' head coach from 2019-21, still has the most head coaching experience on the staff. Like assistant head coach Mike Pettine, he's an adviser of sorts for O'Connell. But the defensive coordinator said he's already "learning a lot about leadership" from O'Connell, "and I feel like leadership is a strength of mine."

Flores then compared O'Connell to longtime Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, whom Flores worked for last season.

"Mike T. has got a way about him around folks," Flores said. "K.O. is the same way. Even when he might be perturbed in a moment, you'd never really know. It's a skill."

Coach as CEO

O'Connell, Phillips said, is in his sweet spot when he sits in on a quarterback meeting or offensive installation session. "When he gets up there and starts talking ball, the passion for the game and the knowledge come through," Phillips said. "I've always thought the smartest people have a way of taking something people think is complicated and making it sound simple. And he's certainly got that."

But after a year as head coach, O'Connell has made peace with the job's CEO-like nature. Even if things like roster-building, contract negotiations and the oversight of TCO Performance Center's amenities take him away from football, they merit his involvement.

"It's easy to look the other way sometimes, but I try to never do that," he said. "What I've learned is, right, wrong or indifferent, there's always time. It might take personal sacrifice to find that time. But it's important."

Unearthing precious minutes in his day, then, is a vital task. O'Connell has too many roles to play to sit around for long.

"I truly feel like it's a special thing to do it the way I want to do it," he said. "The relationships matter. People matter. Culture matters. And the Xs and Os and the football, it all matters. I have a direct role and influence on all that, and that's not a responsibility you can take lightly. I feel as comfortable as I ever have to take on this challenge every single day."