MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When Kevin O’Connell takes the field with the Minnesota Vikings for his first game as a head coach, the 37-year-old will carry with him the blank slate that’s one of the benefits of being a rookie in this high-pressure, much-coveted job.
O’Connell needn’t be concerned for now about being booed at home by impatient or inebriated fans. His play calls and game management will be closely scrutinized in the media, at the stadium and on the couch, sure, but even with a ready-made roster full of proven starters and more than a couple of stars, the heat won’t turn up every week he doesn’t win for a while.
Matt LaFleur hasn’t helped his cause.
No head coach in NFL history has fared better over his first three seasons than LaFleur, who will take his staggering 39-10 record with the Green Bay Packers and three NFC North titles to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday. The last two of those first-place finishes came in a runaway, one reason why O’Connell is here as the successor to Mike Zimmer in this attempt by the Vikings to reset without rebuilding and retake the division they haven’t won since 2017.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t going to be a little extra excited, a little bit more than just any other game,” said O’Connell, who was offensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams last season. “This isn’t just any other game.”
LaFleur was also a first-timer when he was hired by the Packers at age 39, bringing a similar background of playing and coaching quarterback and serving as an offensive coordinator on the way up. He and O’Connell both held that role under Rams head coach Sean McVay (LaFleur in 2017 and O’Connell from 2020-21), and they have the same agent (Trace Armstrong).
“Just being around him at the owners’ meetings and knowing what Sean had to say about him, he’s a guy that I definitely respect,” LaFleur said. “He’s a guy that definitely carries himself the right way. He’s worked at it, and he’s deserving of this opportunity.”
In his 18th season with Green Bay, his 15th as the starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers will be without his trusty go-to wide receiver following the departure of All-Pro Davante Adams. Allen Lazard, the leading returner at that position, is uncertain to play due to an ankle injury.
The possibilities for filling that production include two well-regarded rookies: Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs. Watson was drafted in the second round out of North Dakota State with the pick (No. 34 overall) traded to the Packers by the Vikings as they moved down to net another selection.
“I definitely feel like there’ll be a little bit of nerves, it being my first one,” said Watson, who was limited by a knee injury in training camp but fully participated in practice this week. “I’m confident in myself and confident in the playbook. If I do get the chance I feel like I’ll be ready to go.”
Doubs was a fourth-rounder out of Nevada.
“Our confidence is still high,” Doubs said. “Allen Lazard, regardless of if he plays or not, he’ll still push us the same way as he would if he was playing.”
The Vikings have an almost entirely new staff, with O’Connell bringing a new scheme with offensive coordinator Wes Phillips from the Rams. Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell has a 3-4-based system in place on the other side of the ball. Special teams coordinator Matt Daniels has supplied fresh energy and strategy as well.
This will also be Adam Stenavich’s first game as offensive coordinator for Green Bay and Rich Bisaccia’s debut as special teams coordinator. Bisaccia, who served as interim head coach for Las Vegas last season, was brought in to help fix a facet of the game that has lagged badly for the Packers in recent years.
New Vikings punt returner Jalen Reagor, who was acquired in a trade last week with Philadelphia, can attest to that. He had a 73-yard punt return touchdown as a rookie in 2020 against Green Bay.
“I’m salivating over this guy,” Daniels said. “This guy’s got some weight to him. He’s really hard to tackle. He has the ability to make you miss. He’s elusive, and obviously he has the home run speed to take it the distance. That’s what makes him so spooky.”
By all accounts, Vikings kicker Greg Joseph — whose 29-yard field goal as time expired gave Minnesota a 34-31 victory over Green Bay last season at U.S. Bank Stadium — had a strong training camp. Strong enough, actually, that O’Connell sounded open to extending Joseph’s range in games. The 28-year-old’s career long is 55 yards, one of seven 50-plus yarders he made in 2021.
“I have so much confidence in him. Our team does. I think it’s just a matter of that particular drive: Do we want to go for it in that area of the field? Do we want to try and pin our opponent deep and try to flip the field and get the ball back and play the field position game?” O’Connell said.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby, who spent training camp on the physically unable to perform list following arthroscopic knee surgery, has appeared in 241 consecutive regular season games.
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