Culture shock

It’s a New Day for the Minnesota Vikings, Part I: Culture Shock

Artwork by Brave Buffalo

EAGAN, Minn. — He grasped the magnitude of every word. It was the most important speech of his life as a footballer.

When Kevin O’Connell first won over the Minnesota Vikings – his Vikings — the new head coach of the team realized that he had an opportunity to make a first impression. He had spent “a lot of time” preparing this message but, no, he didn’t worry about it. I didn’t rehearse a soliloquy. The best speeches he’s heard in his life have accomplished so much in so few words. Bill Belichick didn’t joke to hear his own voice. Neither is Sean McVay.

O’Connell also knew what this group of players had just been through. The Xs and Os could be discussed later. That first assignment was pretty simple: the 10th head coach in Vikings history wanted everyone in this room to have fun coming to work again. After first stating that the Vikings change the culture – three words surgically drilled into players’ skulls since the sport’s inception – O’Connell explained exactly what it would mean here. Because, to tell the truth, he himself is not a big fan of the cliché. For him, it is a “thrown term”.

He told everyone in the room that “player ownership” would drive the Vikings.

“About it, it’s our team, our way, our process,” O’Connell says, “and really going into detail about what that means and having visual aids with our shield and our mantra on how which we want to do things. So they see it. Whether you mention it or not, they see it in the building. They see on t-shirts. They see this. We do not miss an opportunity to show it. But once you establish it, it’s kind of an unsaid thing.

Now, when players walk through the extravagant Vikings training facility – out of the locker room, through a hallway – they are greeted with the words: “Our team. Our way. Our process. Skip this as a gimmick straight from a nerdy CW show if you like. O’Connell is certain such messages will lead players to genuinely believe this is their team. Not that. Not the GMs. Their crew. Get everyone to think that way day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute and that’s what fuels the best teams in football, in sports, in life. O’Connell goes that far here. Any group of people trying to accomplish any task in life, he argues, must embrace true group ownership.

What if it happened here? “This thing,” he said, “can take off.”

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The more you talk to everyone around the Vikings – the leader, the players, the old regime – the more obvious it becomes that O’Connell is right.

The culture is real and these Minnesota Vikings can win. Soon.

First, let’s be clear. In this newsletter, we have often mocked #culture as a fallacy. We have decried the term as nebulous. Too often, such talk is presented as red meat to adoring fans of a new head coach when in reality, it’s little more than a shriveled crouton in a word salad. Still, zoom in close on these Vikings and… holy hell. This is unquestionably of paramount importance. You may remember one of the first series we launched Go Long with in November 2020. Life under Mike Zimmer was described as unequivocally miserable for Vikings employees and – 1.5 years later – people here assure it only got worse until he was fired in January 2022. Everyone, star players to construction workers around the TCO Performance Center, seems… happier. The burst of newfound joy is overwhelming.

Light a candle. Cue the Bon Iver. Happiness is in the air.

By Adam Thielen“When you can wake up before your alarm goes off and you can’t wait to get ready for practice, that’s not a very common thing.”

To Kirk Cousins“So it’s still early. But you see the shield as you enter the building. That’s really what Kevin preaches. It’s our.’ We are together. And we have to be on the team.

To Brian O’Neill: “It was really nice.”

To Danielle Hunter“The players are waking up and they want to come to work. They are not too worried. They wake up and want to play football. This is the main. Young people are eager to learn. Older guys are able to teach younger ones. It’s a good general atmosphere. »

Which is in stark contrast to how everyone felt before. One of Zimmer’s former players (in Dallas, Cincinnati and Minnesota) who also coached with him is outspoken. Cornerback Terence Newman knows countless players have been “dreading going to work” in recent years because all the fun has been drained from the organization. “It got toxic,” Newman says. “It was a ripple effect. If players are worried about getting insulted and crap like that, then it’s going to be a long day for everyone. Others are more direct. With a tinge of hyperbole, the One of Zimmer’s former coordinators predicts immediate success for Vikings 2022. “Because,” says this coach, “the devil is gone. Satan is out of the building.”

So these new Vikings represent the biggest case study in “culture” we’ve seen in years. Exit Zimmer and his Neolithic ways. In is this user-friendly and player-oriented operation. But even beyond the 180 degree turn is the fact that – unlike most regimes seeking culture change – O’Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah did not drop an atomic bomb on the entire list. They took a careful look at it and decided, for now, to keep the centerpieces in place. To go there. If you were to follow professional football by depth charts and analytics alone, it doesn’t seem like the new guys are doing much different than the old guys, but no, it’s not a sport played on the spreadsheet. They weren’t afraid to take an unpopular position.

Anecdotally, it sure seemed like a lot of this team’s fans would have been A-OK with a hard reset. Graceful tanking is forbidden these days. Reducing wages and pledging assets for choices shouts to all: “Stay with us! Be patient! We’re trying ! However, O’Connell resisted. Eight of the team’s nine losses in 2021 have been by a touchdown or less. If “player ownership” can turn around a few games, the Vikings can realistically compete for a Super Bowl. This season.

What if they do? The impact is expected to ripple throughout the NFL.

Let’s remember what we’re dealing with: a franchise redefining sporting grief over generations. From four Super Bowl losses in the ’70s… to Gary Anderson’s NFFCG loss in ’98… to Daunte Culpepper breaking his knee in 2005… to Brett Favre’s NFCCG crossover pick in 2009… to Blair Walsh snagging a 27-yarder in that igloo from a 2015 playoff game… to Nick Foles morphing into a cross between Joe Montana and Troy Aikman in the 2017 NFC Championship… to… to… OK. Sorry. We will stop twisting the knife. The thing is, Vikings fans have every right to be extremely skeptical. To a large degree, this may all sound like the past few offseasons with just-fired general manager Rick Spielman. (We also caught up with Spielman for this series.) They hear the new manager talking and roll their eyes because it’s not a TED Talk they want. He’s a new quarterback. Or draft picks. Something new.

So, after that summer training, I gently remind O’Connell that everyone who listens to his plan has been tortured for decades.

How on earth can he inspire hope in those who feel hopeless?

O’Connell stares at the empty training grounds and continues to speak with calm conviction.

“You never, never, never discount that fan passion and loyalty,” says O’Connell. “What happened before us may not have directly been something we were a part of. But we are part of this organization and the great history of this organization. We had captions at our practices. All that entails. At the end of the day, all we can do is worry about today and tomorrow and make sure we build what hopefully will be a successful season, and we also have to deal with adversity.

It is a guarantee. For sure, these Vikings will fall victim to a ghost flag, a last-second kick in Lake Minnetonka, an injury. Adversity is inevitable for all NFL teams and the football gods are especially cruel to this team. While Vikings teams of the past weren’t built to respond – especially under Zimmer’s wrath – these O’Connell-led Vikings are built to mentally handle anything. What he preaches matters. He’s trying to build something that lasts for years.

On the pitch, it’s as true as it was four years ago: Kirk Cousins ​​must elevate the Vikings. The starting quarterback is the player who can benefit the most from O’Connell’s vision.

On this day, a gaggle of Viking legends hangs out with the current team – and Cousins ​​loves it. Cousins ​​knows how close so many of these players were to winning a Super Bowl and can’t help but let his mind wander. He imagines how special it would be for him and his teammates to create something they are proud of and visit that training ground one day. He’s been around long enough to understand all the pain this franchise has felt. He is part of this pain.

All of this will make the breakthrough – Kirk Cousins ​​is sure – all the more enjoyable.

“I want to win,” Cousins ​​says, “I want to retire a Viking. I want to play here for a long time. I want to leave a mark.

“The fact that every home game is sold out. We travel and the violet and gold is in the stands. The story. Constant victory. Never having won a Super Bowl – being part of the team that does? It would be…”

He pauses. He smiles. And it’s not nothing.

The Vikings are happy again, and when are you happy? You start dreaming.

“You could go through the NFL team roster and it could beat any other team that could win a Super Bowl in terms of what that would mean. So what an opportunity. Great moments are born of great opportunities. Let’s make it happen.