The night of the NFL Honors is an exciting one. After playing 17 hard-fought regular season games, NFL players, coaches, and teams get recognized for their achievements. However, over the past few years, I cannot say I have been all that excited to see the results. The last time the Vikings received an award on the night of the NFL Honors was in 2018 when the team earned the “Bridgestone Elite Performance Play of the Year” for the Minneapolis Miracle. While the play is one of my favorite memories as a Vikings fan, I would much rather see my team win an award not sponsored by a tire company. This year the Vikings have contenders for two big awards: Justin Jefferson for Offensive Player of the Year and Kevin O’Connell for Coach of the Year. We Vikings fans knew Jefferson would get here eventually, but the freshman coach has surprisingly paved a legitimate path to take home the hardware.
A Culture Change
At 37 years old, O’Connell is the second youngest coach in the NFL and has been a refreshing new face for the players and the fans. He has been a stark contrast to Mike Zimmer. This team has gone from run-focused, conservative, and hapless to creative, unafraid to let loose, and promising. This swing is due, in large part, to Kevin O’Connell. He has shown faith in the offensive by going for it on fourth down more often and being more aggressive in the air. It may be a risk, but it is one that Vikings fans want to see. The team has stars all around this offense that are finally getting used. O’Connell understands it is no longer time to focus on the run game and lean on the defense. That is why Jefferson is a candidate for Offensive Player of the Year.
Justin Jefferson has spoken out about Kevin O’Connell’s impact on this Vikings team in O’Connell’s first year with the team. Most recently, after the Thanksgiving Day win against the Patriots, Jefferson commented that “KO called a great game.” This quote is not exactly eye-popping, however it speaks to the culture change that has taken place surrounding the team. Justin Jefferson has always been a very marketable player due to his vast, fun personality. His playful comment, giving Kevin O’Connell a nickname, is a signal that these players are enjoying their new coach. Anyone following the team can see that this Vikings team is, simply, fun, from Kirko and his chains to every Griddy to the parties on the plane. This ability to let loose has created a team culture of fun that has translated to wins on the field.
Currently, O’Connell has the fourth-best odds to win Coach of the Year at +550 according to BetMGM. Now, I am not one to give betting advice, but those odds are a steal. Nick Sirianni, Mike McDaniel, and Robert Saleh currently sit ahead of O’Connell in that order. However, Sirianni is the only one who poses a threat to O’Connell. Voters for the Coach of the Year award tend to favor first-year coaches, three out of the last five winners have been first-years. McDaniel and O’Connell are the only two first-years with a good shot at the award. However, McDaniel’s Dolphins have the ninth most difficult remaining strength of schedule and play three divisional games in a very tough AFC East. Though McDaniel has done an impressive job turning the Dolphins into a legitimate threat for the Super Bowl, the extremely tough division that is the AFC East may hinder their coach’s chances at Coach of the Year.
Meanwhile, in New York, Robert Saleh’s Jets have found surprising success without certainty at the quarterback position. Saleh’s job on the defense has been outstanding, which is not all that surprising considering what his defenses looked like in San Francisco where he was the defensive coordinator. However, voters’ decision between O’Connell and Saleh may be made after this week when the Jets travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings. If the Vikings’ defense can stop a surging Mike White-led Jets offense (which the Vikings’ are favored to do by three), O’Connell should be able to jump ahead of Saleh in Coach of the Year odds.
The biggest hurdle, however, lies in Philadelphia. Nick Sirianni has the Eagles in position to take the first seed in the NFC. The award may come down to who can get their hands on the top seed in the conference. The Vikings have the fifth easiest remaining strength of schedule and have a shot at running the table with the biggest test coming in Week 16 against the Giants. While the Eagles still have games against the Cowboys, Titans, and two against the Giants. The Vikings have a legitimate shot at the number one seed, despite the Eagles owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. Taking the top seed would all but lock up the Coach of the Year award for O’Connell.
There have been quite a few great turnarounds for teams this year, however, what O’Connell has done for the Vikings in his first year is nothing short of spectacular. He has taken the Vikings from a sub-500 team to a Super Bowl contender. O’Connell deserves a lot of recognition, regardless of the award. He has completely changed the culture and personality of the team and most importantly, has piled on the wins. This year I am hopeful Vikings fans will be watching the NFL Honors Awards Show with excitement that we have not been afforded in years to watch Kevin O’Connell pick up his much-deserved award.