Kevin O’Connell and his staff have created a thriving atmosphere for the Vikings. Call it environment, culture, relationships, or what have you, the players are comfortable with their coaches, teammates and themselves.
Prior to O’Connell becoming head coach in February of 2022 there was criticism of the team culture. Linebacker Eric Kendricks talked about a “fear-based” organization under head coach Mike Zimmer. Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins had a contentious relationship per numerous media reports.
But under new leadership the Vikings overachieved last season going 13-4 and winning the NFC North Division. After a 0-3 start this season, they showed resolve by bringing their record to 5-4 after last week’s improbable win over the Falcons when quarterback Joshua Dobbs played hero ball after joining the team mid-week to replace the injured Cousins.
O’Connell could have contributed to a potential panicky environment with the loss of Cousins for the season and a new quarterback who had the most minimal knowledge and familiarity with the plays and personnel. Instead, Dobbs played with poise and success like he was on the school playground with old friends, rallying Minnesota to a 31-28 win despite his situation and having replaced injured starter Jaren Hall in the first quarter.
“…I know K.O. believes that you play your best when you’re enjoying yourself and having a good time and playing free,” offensive tackle Brian O’Neill told Sports Headliners. “The last thing anybody wants is to be afraid to make a mistake, and they’ve cultivated a culture in that we can feel confident that they believe in us, and we believe in ourselves, and just go out and play clear minded football.”
Guard Dalton Risner signed with the Vikings as a free agent after the first two games of the season. He had visited the Vikings in the summer and been impressed with O’Connell when the coach agreed to pray with him. Risner said the gesture was “pretty awesome” and suggested to him the kind of organization he could be joining.
The positivity that Risner found in the locker room was evidenced by how Cousins connected with Dobbs and welcomed him. “…He’s been awesome,” Dobbs said. “The first thing he said was, ‘If you need anything, want to know more about the offense, whatever you need – don’t hesitate to call, text.’ And he’s been in our meetings. So just being able to bounce ideas off him, ask him how he sees different plays that we’re installing, it’s been awesome, and I’ll continue to use him as a resource.”
Success can’t be realized, of course, without preparation and game plans. “I think it’s a credit to both the players and the coaches for being ready to roll and consistently having that standard of preparation that we kind of hang our hat on around here,” O’Connell said. “It’s on us as coaches to have a game plan that our guys can absorb and then go thrive in, whether they get the reps or not, and then players making it come to life by their execution. …”
O’Connell’s savant like work as an offensive strategist, play caller, quarterback developer and team leader have positioned him among the early favorites for NFL Coach of the Year. You can be sure he will have the “vote” of his players.
NFL media authority Mike Florio, talking on Paul Allen’s KFAN show last week, said Dobbs is faster than elusive Super Bowl champion quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Fans are often impatient but Gophers’ redshirt sophomore QB Athan Kaliakmanis deserves understanding. Going back to his junior year of high school in Illinois he missed part of the schedule because of injury. COVID dictated a reduced senior season schedule in the spring of 2021. That fall he redshirted with the Gophers before getting five starts in 2022. A starter in 10 games this season, Kaliakmanis is working under his third offensive coordinator in three years.
Recall that Bo Nix was a struggling quarterback for Auburn when the Gophers won the 2020 Outback Bowl. Fast forward to this fall when Nix, now playing for Oregon, has started more college games at QB than any collegian ever and is forecasted as an NFL first round draft choice.
Matt Millen, who was here November 4 to work the Minnesota-Illinois game for the Big Ten Network, waited about 100 days in 2018 to receive a heart from a donor and have a successful transplant.
Joe Mauer is eligible for election into the National Baseball Hall of Fame with an announcement coming in January as to who will be inducted in the summer of 2024. It’s certainly possible the former Twins catcher, whose accomplishments include three batting titles and the 2009 American League MVP Award, will not make it on his first try. Famous players who didn’t receive enough votes in their first year of eligibility include Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Harmon Killebrew. It’s fair to say, though, that in the present era voters (baseball writers) aren’t as persnickety as they once were.
The Brewers would be savvy to consider Paul Molitor as their next manager. His knowledge of baseball is extraordinary, and he has the experience of managing the Twins for four seasons. A former Brewers star, Molitor’s name is legendary in Wisconsin as it is in Minnesota, including from his playing days with the Twins.
Molitor is 67 but older managers can have success. Dusty Baker just retired at 74 and three years ago the White Sox hired Tony La Russa at age 76. Both had storied managerial careers. The Angels hired Ron Washington, 71, as their new manager several days ago.
Jack Wilson, the 6-11, 285-pound grad transfer center, plays hard for the Gophers and with his hulking appearance, effort and limited finesse could become a fan favorite coming off the bench. He may follow in the legacy of past reserves who were fan favorites like Hosea Crittenden, Russ Archambault, Rob Schoenrock, Ryan Saunders and David Grimm.
Kyle Counts, the 6-7 basketball forward from Wilsonville, Oregon who signed with St. Thomas last week as part of the Tommies’ 2024 recruiting class, is the grandson of Mel Counts, the former 7-foot NBA center and 1964 Olympian.
Astute hockey observer and Sports Headliners reader and advertiser (Iron Horse) John Justice points out this state has a history of on-ice tragedies with the most recent being Adam Johnson. The Hibbing native died last month in England while playing hockey and having his throat slit by an opposing player’s blade.
Hockey historians will remember in January of 1968 Bill Masterton, 29 and playing at Met Center for the expansion North Stars, hit his head on the ice during a game and died about 30 hours later. Another North Star from the 1970s, Warroad native Henry Boucha, tragically was poked in the eye by the hockey stick of Dave Forbes from the Bruins and the resulting blurred vision curtailed his promising career.
Duke Pieper was only 15 in 2008 and about to play his first varsity game for Hill-Murray when he suffered a brain bleed and was given about a five percent chance to survive. Surgeries and multiple complications made his life extraordinarily difficult for years, but he earned a college degree at Minnesota and has written an inspiring book called I’m Alive: Courage, Hope and a Miracle.
In 2011 Jack Jablonski, playing on the Benilde-St. Margaret’s junior varsity, suffered a neck injury that left him paralyzed. His spirit for life continues, though, including with his efforts to raise money for spinal cord injury research.