Vikings’ astonishing victory raises, then dashes Minnesota’s hopes


Photo by Safiya Ahmed

CHHS math teacher Mr. Daniel Honigs shows his Vikings spirit in the classroom during the NFL season, even when the team doesn’t live up to its potential.

While the 2023 Vikings season ended as a disappointment to many fans, others see it as great progress from last season. When the Vikings fired former coach Mike Zimmer, it was a relief for all Vikings fans; finally, someone new would come to Minnesota and hopefully lead the team to a championship. Kevin O’Connell was chosen for that job, and not only did he lead the Vikings to a successful season (13-4) and a playoff appearance, it seems like Coach O’Connell came to Minnesota and magically changed the whole atmosphere, culture and attitude of the team in only one season.

The most overlooked part of any sports team’s success is the front office, and that’s exactly what the Minnesota Vikings have built. After firing General Manager Rick Speilman, the Vikings went out and searched for a new person to manage all the roster activities. After a fairly quick process, they went on to hire Kwesi Adofo-Mensah. Adofo-Mensah had been the Vice President of Football Operations for the Cleveland Browns. He was highly experienced and had years of work under his belt as he had previously worked for both the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers.

The Vikings had also gathered together an impressive coaching staff, starting off with the head coach himself: O’Connell was the offensive coordinator for the defending Super Bowl champions, the Los Angeles Rams. O’Connell’s offense in Los Angeles was ranked seventh in points, fifth in passing yards, ninth in total offensive yards and fourth in average yards per play. But O’Connell wasn’t the only coach that had come from the Rams — the Vikings’ current offensive coordinator Wes Phillips was the Rams’ passing coordinator and the tight ends coach. Phillips was a key piece for Matthew Stafford’s success, helping him achieve a career-high passer rating of 102.9 and throwing for the second-most touchdowns during the 2021 NFL season, not to mention he’s the son of legendary football coach Wade Phillips. In addition, Ed Donatell, who has over 30 years of coaching experience, called the shots on the defense this past season. With 3 Super Bowl appearances, 4 different jobs as a defensive coordinator, and two Super Bowl rings, he has racked up an impressive coaching resume, but it hasn’t shown on the Vikings.

Fortunately, Adofo-Mensah cooked up another masterpiece by firing Donatell and hiring Brian Flores as the defensive coordinator. Brian Flores had many years of experience as a coach in New England, working his way up the rankings and eventually becoming the defensive play caller. Flores coached up an absolute sensation of a game during Super Bowl 53, which resulted in a Patriots victory AND the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in History. He also held the high-powered Rams offense to only 3 points.

Super Bowl 53 would be one of the four Super Bowls that Flores would win in his tenure with the Patriots. In February 2019, the Miami Dolphins hired Flores to be their head coach. In his first year as a head coach, he led the Dolphins to a 5-11 record and in his second and third year, he led them to 2 straight winning seasons. In 2021, after starting out 0-7, he led them to a 9-8 record, but in a surprise move by Miami, Flores was relieved of his duties as head coach. Shortly after, he was hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a senior defensive assistant and a linebackers coach. Almost three weeks after the dismissal of Donatell, Flores was officially hired by the Vikings to be their defensive coordinator. Minnesota came up with an absolute steal, as many other teams were also interviewing Flores for many different coaching spots.

Former head coach Mike Zimmer had a philosophy of being a run-heavy team offensively. But times have changed, and now the NFL is a pass-dominated league. They have arguably the best-receiving corps in the NFL. The young generational talent Justin Jefferson leads the group, as well as veteran Adam Theilen and solid third option K.J Osborn. Also, in the midst of the season, they traded for superstar tight end T.J Hockenson and a 2021 first-round pick: wide receiver Jalen Reagor. As of January, ESPN had the Vikings ranked seventh in total passing and sixth in total passing touchdowns.

A team can’t always have the same rosters every year; that’s why the NFL draft and the off-season exist. General Manager Adofo-Mensah wasted no time and went to work right away. In the off-season, they signed two superstar defensive players, cornerback Patrick Peterson and pass rusher Za’Darius Smith. Both are among the best at their respective positions. Adofo-Mensah stayed aggressive and kept the streak going, as they went on to select defensive back Lewis Cine from the College Football National Champions, the Georgia Bulldogs, during the draft. Not only that, the Vikings also drafted cornerback Andrew Booth from Clemson. Cine was ranked 26th and Booth was ranked 23rd in Pro Football Focus’ college prospect rankings. Adofo-Mensah also re-signed a crucial player: quarterback Kirk Cousins. As Cousins was in his last year on his contract, he signed a one-year $35 million deal to stay on as the quarterback for Minnesota. In hindsight, it seems like the Vikings just dumped all their money to him, but he has definitely proved that he’s worth that contract.

Schematically, the Vikings improved dramatically. Kevin O’Connell has brought over the zone-run/play-action offense from Los Angeles, and it has been nothing but successful. The Rams changed the league back in 2018 with their unique style of offense, and Kevin O’Connell has done an amazing job at replicating it. There’s no surprise that the coach who was credited with starting it, Sean McVay, is also the head coach that worked in Los Angeles during O’Connell’s coaching tenure with the Rams.

In an interview with ESPN, Justin Jefferson revealed that he had never once stepped inside previous Head Coach Mike Zimmer’s office. When O’Connell was asked about the incident, he confirmed it, going so far as to say he had even had to give directions to Jefferson. Now that says a lot about how bad of a culture Zimmer had created. It also shows the culture change that O’Connell has implemented. One huge difference between Zimmer and O’Connell is that Zimmer only cared about his offense and let his Defensive Coordinator just do whatever, whereas O’Connell cares about both sides of the ball. In an interview with the Pioneer Press, O’Connell expressed exactly that.

“I want to be visible to the defense, let them know that I’m learning their side of the ball just as much as they are,” O’Connell said. “I can complement them on detailed things they can do within our coverages, within a pressure, how we stop the run, and they can look at me as not just an offensive head coach.”

The grit of this team could also be categorized as a part of O’Connell’s culture shift. Having the largest comeback in NFL history by coming back from a 33-point deficit is impressive by itself, but going and winning in dominant fashion is very impressive. Giving up 33 points in the half, having a measly 82 yards, 2 turnovers and a blocked punt for a touchdown is bad enough for any team to curl up into a ball and just give up. But that’s exactly what the Vikings didn’t do — they went out and dominated in complete Vikings fashion. Kirk Cousins dominated in the 2nd half with 417 passing yards and four touchdowns. There has been a spark this season that has been ignited by Kevin O’Connell.

Obviously, every team has its own superstars. But no team has its very own Justin Jefferson. Jefferson, the 3rd year wide receiver, leads the league in receiving yards and has the most receptions in the league by a fair margin. The Vikings have unlocked Jefferson’s absolute full potential and have taken advantage of it. He’s broken many different records and he’s made a case to be the best receiver in the NFL. There’s no doubt that a majority of the Vikings’ success has been due to the pure talent and athleticism of Justin Jefferson.  

And then there’s the discipline. More discipline equals fewer penalties. And that’s exactly what the Vikings excelled in this season — fewer penalties. Compared to first place in penalties (118 by the Arizona Cardinals), the Vikings are 9th and have a measly 88. 

Unfortunately, the Vikings couldn’t show up when it was time to show up. They were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs against the New York Giants. A great season spoiled by an unfortunate ending. This season for the Vikings was very, very impressive, and at times, they showed that, at their highest, they can still be one of the best teams in the NFL.