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Dane Mizutani: Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell can’t mess up his next call

Ultimately, hiring a defensive coordinator will be O’Connell’s call, and he has to nail it

Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell walks off the field after losing a wild card playoff game against the New York Giants on Jan. 15, 2023, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell walks off the field after losing a wild card playoff game against the New York Giants on Jan. 15, 2023, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Becker / USA Today Sports
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The life of an NFL coach is really quite simple: You get praised as a genius when something works; you get condemned as a fool when something fails.

Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell can attest to both of those things after his first season in charge. He led the Vikings to a 13-4 record during the regular season and could seemingly do no wrong. After his team lost to the New York Giants in the first round of the playoffs, he had critics questioning him at every turn.

The sequence that sparked the most criticism from the 31-24 playoff loss at U.S. Bank Stadium came when, facing third-and-one in his own end in a 7-7 game, O’Connell had Justin Jefferson go in motion before the snap, take a pitch at full speed, and then throw back to Kirk Cousins on the opposite side of the field.

The whole thing got blown up behind the line of scrimmage and the Vikings punted the ball away to the Giants — who scored a go-ahead touchdown. Asked about that particular play postgame, O’Connell admitted it probably wasn’t the best decision given the down and distance.

As much as O’Connell deserves credit for being accountable about that moment, he still needs to make amends for his biggest mistake to date.

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He took the first step in doing so by firing his first defensive coordinator, Ed Donatell, last week.

The move needed to be made. Not only did the Vikings rank No. 31 in the NFL in total defense during the regular season, they promptly got sliced and diced by Giants quarterback Daniel Jones in the playoffs. Someone had to answer for that ineptitude.

General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah clearly will be involved in this decision, but at the end of the day deciding who to hire as the next defensive coordinator will be up to O’Connell. He needs to prove he can make the right decision, especially after making an early mistake by hiring Donatell in the first place.

According to multiple reports, the Vikings already have requested interviews with Pittsburgh Steelers assistant Brian Flores, New Orleans Saints assistant Ryan Nielsen and Seattle Seahawks assistant Sean Desai. It’s unclear how many more candidates O’Connell plans to talk to before he makes an offer.

MORE MINNESOTA VIKINGS COVERAGE:
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Whoever head coach Kevin O’Connell decides on will be tasked with fixing a group that recently finished No. 31 in the league in total defense
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A replacement for Eagles OLB Hasson Reddick, Hunter will join five teammates Sunday in Las Vegas
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Winners to be announced at the NFL Honors event on Feb. 9
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Jefferson led the NFL with 128 catches and 1,809 receiving yards in his third season. He would become the first wideout ever to win AP MVP honors.
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Analyst Jason Fitzgerald, using a possible cap number of $225 million, has the Vikings now at $24.55 million over the cap, which gives them the third-least amount of room among all NFL teams.
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Minnesota fired Ed Donatell on Thursday after the Vikings’ first-round playoff loss to the New York Giants
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Peterson, 32, will become a free agent in March after playing the past two seasons for Minnesota
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The Vikings ranked No. 31 in the NFL in total defense during the regular season. The issues continued in the playoffs, when they gave up 431 total yards to the New York Giants.
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The playoff game was a microcosm of the past few months with Donatell at the helm. No pressure. No adjustments. No success.
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Head coach Kevin O’Connell, still in ‘evaluation mode,’ and had no news on whether the defensive coordinator will return

Nonetheless, it’s imperative that O’Connell finds someone he can trust to run the defense the way he sees fit. There was a clear disconnect with Donatell over the last few months of the season. The defense was too predictable, and Donatell relied too much on soft coverage and rarely sent pressure.

That has to change.

Never mind that the aging roster could look a lot different a few months down the road. It’s reasonable for O’Connell to expect the next defensive coordinator, whoever it is, to have a scheme in place that brings out the best in the players he has at his disposal.

Maybe more important than scheme, though, O’Connell needs to find someone with whom he can establish some continuity. He’s been able to grow with offensive coordinator Wes Phillips dating back to their time together with the Los Angeles Rams. He should strive for a similar relationship with whoever he chooses as his defensive coordinator.

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This can’t be like former Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and the revolving door of offensive coordinators he had during his tenure.

There’s no doubt that Year 1 of the Kevin O’Connell era was a smashing success. The assessment of him in Year 2 starts with his next call — and this is much bigger than dialing up some trick play in a short-yardage situation. For better or worse, this is a decision will have a major impact on the franchise for the foreseeable future.

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Related Topics: MINNESOTA VIKINGS
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