Kevin O’Connell: The History of First-Year Coaches in the NFL

Since the beginning of the Super Bowl era, certain NFL head coaches, from Vince Lombardi to Bill Belichick, have repeatedly provided their teams with the preparation, resources, and leadership required to win a championship. The role of head coach has proven time and time again to be one of the most important aspects of a team, regardless of sport. While this is clear in football, and the victories of Lombardi and Belichick are celebrated throughout the nation, few know about their accomplishments prior to the Super Bowl championships. But did the wins begin rolling in as soon as these men were placed on the head coaching throne?

This question is one of many that have begun to linger in the minds of Minnesota Vikings fans, anxiously awaiting the 2022 NFL season. This season will be a historic one, as former Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell will make his debut as Vikings head coach after being hired in February this year. While his successful past and incredible energy have clearly brought a greater sense of positivity to TCO Performance Center, US Bank Stadium, and the state of Minnesota as a whole, Vikings fans are awfully familiar in dealing with false hope.

Though predicting the future is obviously impossible, in order to get just a glimpse of what O’Connell will bring to the Vikings this season, it is necessary to visualize his potential both in a broad context, and microscopically. These analyses can be conducted through looking into the past, gathering samples, and interpreting them.

At a broad glance, certain signs give Vikings fans plenty of reason to feel excited. Since 2010, head coaches in their first year have increased their respective teams’ win totals by approximately 1.5 wins. An effect this great would place the 2022 Minnesota Vikings at a record closer to 10-7, which would likely be enough for a playoff push in a weaker NFC. Additionally, one out of every four first-year head coaches have taken their teams to the playoffs during this time period. Surely, with the Vikings sitting just outside of the playoffs in 2021, they can at least sneak in with O’Connell at the helm.

The Sad Reality
However, even with just a glimpse, it is clear to see that not each of the 80 first-year head coaches led teams identical to the 2022 Vikings. Thus, it becomes necessary to also separately analyze teams with more in common with the one O’Connell will be working with. Unfortunately, doing such shows much more negative signs.

Since 2010, 49 newly-hired head coaches have led teams which have had significant contributions from veteran quarterbacks. The Vikings plan on employing a similar strategy in 2022, as they extended quarterback Kirk Cousins through the 2023 season this March. Unfortunately, among these 49 teams with rookie head coaches, only 11 have made the playoffs (22%). Furthermore, these new head coaches have only increased previous win totals by an average of only about 0.6 wins.

Besides having a veteran presence in Cousins, this Vikings team also stands out in that the organization hired a new staff after a relatively average season, after having finished 8-9 in 2021, while most teams search for new beginnings after far more miserable performances. History has shown that hiring a head coach after a relatively better season does not lead to a similar increase in wins in the first year under the new coach.

Teams that have hired a head coach after having between seven and nine wins in a season since 2010 have on average decreased their win total by 1.4 wins. Similarly, only three out of the 19 were able to make the playoffs immediately in that first year.

Given this data, the current Vikings situation, with 34 year old Cousins at quarterback after a disappointing 8-9 season, seems to lower hope that 2022 will bring much joy to Vikings fans. However, as we see so often in sports, there are always surprises, and the past can never truly tell us what the future has in store.

While prior experiences may not hint towards success this year, there are many reasons why the Vikings will still have a chance at making a run. Cousins, although a veteran quarterback, has not had a great amount of support from coaches past, and has far more talent than many of the “bridge” veteran quarterbacks that new coaches inherit in their first year. Additionally, the 2021 season was filled with many slight wins and heartbreaking losses; if a few plays went differently, the Vikings could have had far more or far fewer total wins. Finally, and most importantly, this year will depend greatly on the abilities of the head coach himself, Kevin O’Connell. Not only has O’Connell impressed in media interviews and in the locker room thus far, but he also comes from a line of very successful coaches. Head coaches from the Shanahan/McVay coaching tree have on average increased team win totals by nearly 3 wins in their first year. If O’Connell is able to replicate what those around him have done, the sky’s the limit.

While it is impossible to know whether O’Connell will ever reach the likes of Belichick and Lombardi, his first year will surely begin to give everyone a hint of what’s to come. History has shown that this season is likely not primed to be a great one, but just as Vikings fans have done throughout history, excitement is spreading across the state of Minnesota. Hopefully, O’Connell, unlike the nine others before him, can be the first to bring home a championship.