“A Young Man’s Game” — The KOC Version

The Strange Odyssey of
Kevin O'Connell

The head coach for the Minnesota Vikings before Kevin O’Connell, Mike Zimmer, once said, “It’s a young man’s game,” when projecting some roster turnover heading into an offseason.

Now, there’s an O’Connell version of the quote.

“A Young Man’s Game” — The KOC Version

O’Connell took over the Vikings 15 months ago and promptly led Minnesota to its first division title in five years, tabulating a surprising 13-4 record while producing an impeccable 11-0 record in one-score games as a rookie skipper. It was a ride.

A Young
Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell at U.S. Bank Stadium after Minnesota lost to the New York Giants in the Wildcard Round of the postseason, 31-24.

But the club lost at home to the New York Giants in the 2022 postseason, a disappointing outcome for a 13-win team, especially because the Giants weren’t an overly daunting group. Correspondingly, fans wondered, “Now what?” as O’Connell embarked on his second offseason.

Well, the now what is a commitment to younger players, particularly on defense, while shedding contracts of aging veterans. Eric Kendricks departed for the Los Angeles Chargers, and Adam Thielen became a Carolina Panther, among several other notable exits.

O’Connell told SI.com’s Albert Breer last week about his team’s newfound youth, “It’s like, ‘Hey, I think you’ve earned the right. Your performance and production is one thing, but now you’re filling a void of some players that aren’t here anymore, that were here since you’ve been here. And you’ve become the player you’ve become, maybe because of the exposure to those guys.”

after revenge game
Dec 17, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell reacts during the third quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

“Now it’s, ‘Can you take your own personal leadership to the next level and help guide this team?’ And, time and time again, in those conversations, it’s something that those players are excited about,” O’Connell added.

And the men he’s referring to seem identifiable as Lewis Cine (S), Andrew Booth (CB), Akayleb Evans (CB), Brian Asamoah (LB), and Khyiris Tonga (DT) — possible starters.

All told, these players have left the Vikings this offseason: Cameron Dantzler (CB, Commanders), Eric Kendricks (LB, Chargers), Patrick Peterson (CB, Steelers), Adam Thielen (WR, Panthers), Dalvin Tomlinson (DT, Browns), Duke Shelley (CB, Raiders), Irv Smith (TE, Bengals), Kris Boyd (CB, Cardinals), and Chandon Sullivan (CB, Steelers). Za’Darius Smith was also traded to the Cleveland Browns.

Vikings Will See Beloved
Oct 23, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Minnesota Vikings middle linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) runs onto the field for action against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. The Philadelphia Eagles won 21-10. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports.

That’s a lot of defensive beef slipping out the backdoor, with an influx of youthful newcomers, chiefly from the 2022 and 2023 drafts. After hiring the ultra-aggressive Brian Flores as defensive coordinator in February, Minnesota is banking on Flores’ prowess with youth and speed to rectify a Vikings defense that ranked 27th leaguewide per DVOA.

Or, in O’Connell’s words, the youngsters will be asked to ascend the club’s leadership realm and “help guide this team.”

They basically have to if the Vikings want to avoid win-loss regression.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Vikings obsession dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ Basset Hounds, and The Doors (the band).

All statistics provided by Pro Football Reference / Stathead; all contractual information provided by OverTheCap.com.