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John Shipley: For Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell, the hard part has started

First-year head coach must prove his team is still the one that dismantled Green Bay in the opener

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles
Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell on the sidelines against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on Sept. 19, 2022.
Eric Hartline / USA Today Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — While there’s really no soft landing for an NFL coach after a loss, it helped Kevin O’Connell that his first as a head coach came eight days after his Vikings pretty thoroughly dismantled Green Bay.

In Minnesota, that kind of goodwill has legs.

It no doubt made it easier for O’Connell to jump on the grenade in the immediate aftermath of an ugly, 24-7 loss Monday at Philadelphia, where everything that went right against the Packers went wrong against the Eagles.

“I put this on me,” O’Connell told reporters in the immediate aftermath.

When asked Wednesday to expand on that during his first media access since Monday night, O’Connell obliged, citing variations on a theme: He got away from the game plan, got obsessed with tying the game early instead of laying the groundwork for the offense to succeed.

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“I can’t tell you how many players I’ve had come up to me, reached out and, kind of early on today (and said), ‘Hey, we’ve gotta play better too,’ ” he said Wednesday.

So, that worked.

Of course, it’s easier to be magnanimous with a chip like that Green Bay win in your pocket, and it’s generally smarter to be the first to criticize yourself. On the other side of cynicism, maybe you just accept that O’Connell has a resting spot at friendly and a management style that tips toward respect.

Asked Wednesday how his new coach handled his first loss, quarterback Kirk Cousins said, “Well, as expected from a class and mature person.”

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So, score another one for the new regime for absorbing its first loss without killing a piece of the team’s spirit. It’s a low bar but certainly appreciated.

“You didn’t see coaches yelling at players, you didn’t see any negativity after the game,” receiver Adam Thielen told KFXN-FM 100.3 this week. “It was just guys trying to figure out how to get better.”

Now comes the hard part.

On a short week, with one fewer practice than normal — the Vikings had a walk-through on Wednesday as opposed to a full-pads practice — O’Connell and his staff must game plan and coach the Vikings to a win against the Detroit Lions on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

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Of particular concern was the performance of Cousins, so good against the Packers before throwing three interceptions against the Eagles. Because O’Connell made Mathew Stafford a Super Bowl-winning quarterback last season as the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator, it’s assumed he can work similar magic with Cousins, a talented passer with great stats who just can’t seem to win the big games.

As head coach, O’Connell has a lot of irons in the fire, but finding and bringing to fruition the full potential of Cousins is job No. 1. In fairness, Cousins threw what should have been a 63-yard touchdown pass to Irv Smith Jr. on Monday only to have the tight end drop it in the second quarter. And the defense was so lousy in the first half that it’s difficult in hindsight to imagine it making that much of a difference.

Cousins sure seems to like O’Connell, the offensive coordinator during Cousins’ best season in Washington, an improvement on last season’s friction with head coach Mike Zimmer. Still, after Monday, Cousins is 2-10 as a starter on Monday Night Football, both wins at moribund Chicago as the Vikings’ quarterback.

That Monday’s loss managed to be a shock says something about the faith O’Connell engendered with that season-opening win over Green Bay. It’s not so much that the Vikings lost to a good team on the road but that they were so efficiently dominated. Sunday’s game against an improved Detroit team — the Lions already have won a game — will be the rubber match for fans trying to gauge the new coaching regime.

For the players, Monday’s gone.

“It was a loss. (O’Connell) owned up to it and now we’ve got to own up to it as players,” rush linebacker Danielle Hunter said. “You can’t stay on it too long. It’s the beginning of the season. Where we are right now, we’ll be a completely different team by Week 11, Week 12.”

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