Illustration by Brave Buffalo

EAGAN, Minn. — He grasped the magnitude of every word. This was the most important speech of his football life.

When Kevin O’Connell first stepped in front of the Minnesota Vikings — his Vikings — the team’s new head coach understood he had one opportunity to make a first impression. He had spent “a lot of time” preparing this message but, no, he didn’t agonize over it. Didn’t rehearse a soliloquy. The best speeches he’s heard in his life accomplished so much in so few words. Bill Belichick didn’t blather on to hear his own voice. Neither did Sean McVay.

O’Connell also knew what this group of players had just been through. The X’s and O’s could be discussed at a later date. This first mission was quite simple: The 10th head coach in Vikings history wanted everyone in this room to once again enjoy coming to work. After first declaring that the Vikings would change the culture — three words surgically drilled into the skulls of players since the sport’s inception — O’Connell articulated exactly what that’d mean here. Because, truth be told, he’s not a huge fan of the cliché himself. To him, it’s a “thrown-around term.”

He declared to all in the room that “player ownership” would drive the Vikings.

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

Now when players walk through the Vikings’ extravagant practice facility — out the locker room, through a hallway — they’re greeted with these words: “Our team. Our way. Our process.” Dismiss this as a gimmick straight from a corny CW show if you’d like. O’Connell is certain such messaging will get players to sincerely believe it’s their team. Not his. Not the GM’s. Their team. Get everyone to think this way day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute and that’s what fuels the best teams in football, sports, life. O’Connell takes it that far here. Any group of people trying to accomplish any task in life, he claims, must embrace true group ownership.

And if that happens here? “This thing,” he says, “can take off.”

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The more you talk to everyone around the Vikings — the head man, the players, the past regime — the more it becomes obvious O’Connell is correct.

Culture is real and these Minnesota Vikings can win. Soon.

First, let’s come clean. At this newsletter, we’ve often mocked #culture as a fallacy. We’ve decried the term as numbingly nebulous. Too often, such talk is presented as red meat for a new head coach’s adoring fan base when, in reality, it’s little more than a shriveled crouton in a word salad. Yet zoom in closely 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 back in November 2020. Life under Mike Zimmer was detailed as unequivocally miserable for Vikings employees and — 1 ½ years later — folks here assure it only got way worse up to his firing in January 2022. Everyone from the star players to the construction workers around the TCO Performance Center seems… happier. The gust of newfound joy is overwhelming.

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

From Adam Thielen: “When you can wake up before your alarm goes off and get excited to go and get ready for practice, that’s not a very common thing to happen.”

To Kirk Cousins: “So, it’s still early. But you see the shield as you walk into the building. That’s really what Kevin is preaching. It’s ‘our.’ We’re in it together. And we’ve got to be about team.”

To Brian O’Neill: “It’s really been enjoyable.”

To Danielle Hunter: “Players wake up and they want to come to work. They’re not worried too much. They just wake up and want to play football. That’s the main thing. Young guys are eager to learn. Older guys are able to teach the younger guys. It’s a good overall atmosphere.”

Which all runs in diametric contrast to how everyone felt before. One of Zimmer’s former players (in Dallas, Cincinnati and Minnesota) who also coached with him is blunt. Cornerback Terence Newman knows countless players “dreaded going to work” those final years because all fun was drained out of the organization. “It became toxic,” Newman says. “It was a trickle effect. If players are dreading getting cussed out and shit like that, then it’s going to make it a long day for everybody.” Others are more blunt. With a tint of hyperbole, one of Zimmer’s former coordinators predicts immediate success for the 2022 Vikings. “Because,” this coach says, “the devil’s gone. Satan is out of the building.”

Thus, these new Vikings represent the greatest case study in “culture” we’ve seen in years. Out is Zimmer and his neolithic ways. In is this player-friendly, player-driven operation. But even beyond the 180-degree turn is the fact that — unlike most regimes seeking a culture change —  O’Connell and GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah did not drop an atomic bomb on the entire roster. They took a careful look and decided, for now, to keep the core pieces in place. To go for it. If you were to follow pro 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, this is not a sport played on the spreadsheet. They weren’t afraid to take an unpopular stance.

Anecdotally, it sure seemed like a large swath of this team’s supporters would’ve been A-OK with a total reset. Graceful tanking is championed these days. Slashing salaries and pawning off assets for picks screams loudly to all, “Stick with us! Be patient! We’re trying!” However, O’Connell resisted. Eight of the team’s nine losses in 2021 were by a touchdown or less. If “player ownership” can flip a few games, the Vikings can realistically compete for a Super Bowl. This season.

And if they do? The impact should reverberate through the entire NFL.

Let’s remember what we’re dealing with: a franchise redefining sports heartbreak over the course of several generations. From four Super Bowl losses in the 70s… to Gary Anderson’s ‘98 NFFCG miss… to Daunte Culpepper wrecking his knee in ’05… to Brett Favre’s ’09 cross-body NFCCG pick… to Blair Walsh hooking a 27-yarder in that igloo of a ’15 playoff game… to Nick Foles shape-shifting into a cross between Joe Montana and Troy Aikman in the ’17 NFC Championship…to…to…OK. Sorry. We’ll stop twisting the knife. Point is, Vikings fans have every right to be extremely skeptical. To a large swath, this may all resemble the last few offseasons with the GM who was just fired, Rick Spielman. (We caught up with Spielman for this series, too.) They hear the new guy in charge speak and roll their eyes because it’s not a TED Talk they want. It’s a new quarterback. Or draft picks. Something new.

So, after this summer practice, I gently remind O’Connell that everyone listening to his plan has been tortured for decades.

How on earth can he inspire hope in those feeling hopeless?

O’Connell stares off at the empty practice fields and continues to speak with calm conviction.

“You never, ever, ever discount that fan passion and that loyalty,” O’Connell says. “What’s happened before us might not have directly been anything we were a part of. But we are a part of this organization and the great history of this organization. We’ve had legends at our practices. All that it entails. Ultimately all we can do is worry about today and worry about tomorrow and make sure we’re building what’s hopefully a successful season, and we’ll have to deal with adversity as well.”

That’s a guarantee. Without fail, these Vikings will be victimized by a phantom flag, a last-second shank into Lake Minnetonka, an injury. Adversity is inevitable for all NFL teams and the football gods are particularly cruel to this team. Whereas Vikings teams past were not built to respond — especially under Zimmer’s wrath — these O’Connell-led Vikings are being constructed in a way to mentally handle anything. What he preaches matters. He’s trying to build something that lasts for years.

On the field, 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 most from O’Connell’s vision.

This day, a herd of Vikings legends past hang 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 cannot help but let his mind wander. He imagines how special it’d be for him and his teammates to create something they’re proud of and visit this exact practice field one day. He’s been around long enough to understand all of the pain this franchise has felt. He’s part of that pain.

It’ll all make the breakthrough — Kirk Cousins is certain — that much sweeter.

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

“The fact that every home game is a sellout. We travel and the purple and gold is in the stands. The history. The consistent winning. To have never won a Super Bowl — to be a part of the team that does it? That would be…”

He pauses. He smiles. And it’s no small thing.

The Vikings are happy again, and when you’re happy? You start to daydream.

“You could go right down the list of NFL teams and it might beat any other team that could win a Super Bowl in terms of what it’d mean. So, what an opportunity. Great moments are born from great opportunities. Let’s go make that happen.”

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