EAGAN, MINN. -- As he finalized his first offseason program as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach, Kevin O'Connell took a seemingly innocuous step. He decided against planning a third day of minicamp, instead informing players that on-field work would end a day early in mid-June.
Believe it or not, this bit of scheduling was notable and offered an early glimpse into how a rookie head coach will operate behind the scenes with his first training camp practice looming this week. O'Connell rejected the late-spring charade that typically plays out around the NFL, wherein coaches schedule a full minicamp and then cancel the final day as a "reward," a move designed to generate positive vibes as players head into their summer break.
Mind games are a part of coaching at all levels, and during an interview this summer, O'Connell said they often achieve the desired result. But early signs suggest O'Connell prefers to avoid them.
"I just feel like it's part of empowering our team," O'Connell said. "From the first day I set foot in this building, I talked about player ownership. They can't own something that they're not completely in understanding of. I just feel like you communicate intentions of what we're trying to get done. You have a clear-cut plan. You give these guys the why behind everything we do, and then it's remarkable how easy it is to connect with them and coach them hard from there, because they understand it.
"There's no Wizard of Oz behind a curtain somewhere. It's, 'Here's the plan for the week. We have to get this, this and this done. Here's how we're going to do it.' And then you've got to be able to have the tough conversations when you don't. You say, 'We didn't do the things that we needed to do, so this is why we have to alter and change.' It's not because of some old trick or some philosophy thing. It's just, 'We're trying to get done some things that need to get done.'"
O'Connell has been in the public eye for more than a decade, as an NFL player for four seasons and then an assistant coach for seven more. He was the Los Angeles Rams' offensive coordinator the past two seasons. But relatively little was known about his personality, approach and leadership values when the Vikings hired him in January at age 36. Much is left to be learned, but during the first few months of his tenure, he has positioned himself in two key ways: (1) as a straight shooter who emphasizes direct communication and (2) as a coach with an inherent understanding that players appreciate attempts to minimize wear and tear on their bodies.
To that end, O'Connell's offseason program and practices prioritized injury prevention and mental reps over physical exertion. He limited most 11-on-11 drills to a "jog-through" pace, and in 2-minute drills, only the skill players went full speed. Even the scope was notable, as O'Connell resisted the urge many first-year coaches feel to use every minute available to him under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement.
The CBA, for example, gives new coaches an extra two weeks at the front of the offseason program, but O'Connell used only one of them. His tentative training camp schedule features 11 full-pads practices; the NFL maximum is 16.
O'Connell said much of his practice planning is based on sports science -- he hired Tyler Williams as executive director of player health to overhaul the team's medical staff -- and players said the difference was clear this spring. Veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson said he had never felt better at the end of an offseason program.
"No doubt about it," Peterson said. "My body feels great. Guys ask me all the time, 'Does it feel like I'm a Year 12?' No, it really doesn't. I don't know if it's been this offseason, the way Coach has been taking care, or just the sports science in general. ... [But] you can see [the team is] really taking the necessary steps to making sure that guys are on the field on Sundays when we need them."
Whether subconsciously or by design, NFL teams often hire coaches whose approaches differ starkly from their predecessors. Former coach Mike Zimmer was known for conventional, physical practices. By the end of his tenure, the culture of the organization was "fear-based," linebacker Eric Kendricks said in January. Suffice it to say, O'Connell's approach appears far friendlier -- both on and off the field -- and will ask players to take their share of the responsibility.
"It's on us now as well," Kendricks said. "It can't just be on them. It can't just be on who we appoint the head guy. It has to be on the players as well, like myself, who have put those years and time into this league. If I want change, I've got to be that change myself."