How Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell has empowered Kirk Cousins

Rookie coach Kevin O'Connell and quarterback Kirk Cousins have led the Vikings to a 13-4 record and an NFC North title. Quinn Harris/Getty Images

EAGAN, Minn. -- In his first team meeting as coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Kevin O'Connell did what coaches typically do: He turned on the film. It was the spring of 2022, and O'Connell wanted everyone -- players, assistant coaches and staff members -- to know what he thought of the starting quarterback he had inherited.

He chose a play from the Vikings' 2021 game at the Los Angeles Chargers, where Kirk Cousins stood in against a fierce pass rush to fire a downfield strike to wide receiver Justin Jefferson. After showing it on the big screen, O'Connell paused the video.

"I remember him saying to everyone in that room that it takes a special ability to sit here, stare down the barrel, get hit in the face and throw with accuracy," Cousins said. "He was empowering me in front of the whole team. That was kind of a funny moment where I was sitting there like, 'Wow. He's kind of just complimenting me and encouraging me.' That was cool. He was doing it for a few other guys too. He didn't just single me out. But those kinds of moments just empower you as a person and a player.

"You feel like he's not just building a football team. He's building people."

That moment helped spark a coach-quarterback relationship that lies central to the Vikings' 13-win season. Employing the sunny personality that Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf sought after firing former coach Mike Zimmer last year after eight seasons, O'Connell -- a former NFL quarterback himself -- has conjured the weirdest but most effective season of Cousins' 11-year career with Minnesota and Washington.

O'Connell has trusted Cousins to throw as many passes per game as he ever has (37.9) in his seven seasons as a full-time starter. Cousins finished, however, with some of his worst numbers, including a career-high 14 interceptions and a career-low 49.9 total quarterback rating.

But Cousins excelled late in games, engineering eight fourth-quarter comebacks and a total of 11 one-score wins (an NFL record), which fueled a playoff run that will begin Sunday against the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium (4:30 p.m. ET, Fox). At O'Connell's urging, Cousins targeted Jefferson at a level that yielded one of the most productive seasons ever for a receiver (1,809 receiving yards, sixth most in NFL history). Along the way, Cousins felt liberated enough to reveal new levels of his quirky personality, dad humor and dance moves in public.

"I wanted Kirk to understand what he was going to mean to us, not only this year but moving forward," O'Connell said of that film clip from his first team meeting, "and what he had accomplished in this league that would allow me to make sure that our entire locker room and coaching staff understood what I thought of him at that point. And that was on Day 1.

"And each and every time I can have an opportunity in team meetings, after a game, a breakdown at the end of practice, I don't ever want to miss out on an opportunity to allow Kirk to know that he's got my trust, my faith in him as our leader and our quarterback."

In separate interviews with ESPN, Cousins and O'Connell described the meticulous efforts they have taken to build, maintain and enhance a relationship that began in 2017, when O'Connell was Cousins' quarterbacks coach with Washington.

Cousins has worried so much about O'Connell's schedule as an offensive play-caller, first-time head coach, husband and father to four children -- including a daughter who was born in November -- that he has waited to be invited into one-on-one film study. Ever the dad himself, Cousins said: "He needs a nap when the season is over."

O'Connell, meanwhile, has wrapped Cousins in a steady stream of compliments, demonstrating what Cousins called a "warm, relational, affirming" personality. One of O'Connell's fears, it seems, is hurling an accidental insult.

During a recent outdoor practice, for example, O'Connell felt compelled to tell Cousins he was throwing the ball well. After the next play, according to Cousins, O'Connell added: "I didn't mean to say it like you don't normally throw it well, but just because it's extra cold today."

The effect, whether it intentional or coincidental, has been to equip Cousins better for twists and turns late in close games.

"It just seems like things had to go a certain way for him to operate at a high level," said former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber, now a Twin Cities media personality who covers games for KFAN-100.3 FM. "Then you compound that with an old-school authoritarian approach like [Zimmer's] and you take a guy that thinks in a linear fashion and you make him tense. You go from being linear to being rigid. Now looking at it with a fresh approach, that's maybe not the best way to handle a personality like that.

"It seems like Kevin O'Connell is a little like a tech entrepreneur who comes in with optimism and youth and the free spirit to say, 'We're going to be aggressive, but we're going to let you play free.' We're going to challenge everybody to enjoy what you're doing and to enjoy taking risks. You have this guy that comes in with the great smile and this nice personality, but underneath all of those cosmetic layers is this aggressive guy that says, 'Let's take risks, and let's do it in a manner in which I'm not going to berate you and hold you to the fire on Monday morning when we're watching film and make you feel bad."

THE EASY STORY would go something like this: Cousins and the Vikings' offense have flourished under the coach with the friendly, optimistic demeanor and offensive background after years of grinding under the grumpy, defense-first authoritarian.

Cousins, for one, doesn't think it fits.

"It's just a lazy narrative," he said. "I'll tell you this: I got better every year as a player under Coach Zim. I got to go to two Pro Bowls under Coach Zim. I won my only playoff game under Coach Zim. And every year I played, I got better. ... I feel like Coach Zimmer gave me everything I needed to be successful, and his style really meshed well with what I was used to when I played at Michigan State and had a ton of success with Mark Dantonio.

"A defensive-minded head coach, very much about discipline, and was going to see it through a defensive coach's eyes. I saw how well that worked. I saw how much we won and, really, how successful I was able to be at quarterback in that mindset. There were a lot of ways where I think it really helped me."

The Vikings were 33-29-1 in games in which Cousins started under Zimmer, who was not available for comment for this story.

Cousins himself acknowledges that, from an individual standpoint, the 2022 season is far from his best. He agrees his public persona has blossomed but attributes it to factors other than Zimmer's departure.

The first, he said, is simply how much the Vikings have won. Cousins entered the season with a 58-59-2 record as an NFL starter. Their 13-4 record in 2022 represents his second double-digit season win total in his career.

The second was simply growing comfortable with where he fit into the profile of an NFL quarterback.

"When I was playing early in my career, my first year here, early years in Washington, I was still trying to learn who I am in the league," Cousins, a fourth-round draft pick in 2012, said. "What am I capable of? How do I play best? What do I need to succeed?

"But as the sample size got larger and larger and larger, I was able to pretty comfortably say, 'Look, this is what I am.' I know what I am. I know what I need to do to prepare, to win, to stay healthy, to have success, and I don't need to reinvent the wheel or change anything or fix anything. I know my recipe for success."

The most public manifestation of that comfort, of course, has been the emergence of "Kirko Chainz." Beginning with the transatlantic flight home from London after beating the New Orleans Saints 28-25 in Week 4, teammates began placing their chains around his neck during in-flight celebrations. Cousins understood and embraced the gentle mocking that ensued. Ribbed for tucking his white T-shirt into his sweatpants one week, Cousins agreed to take off his shirt entirely the next.

But those who have spent the season around him have noticed many other new glimpses of his personality in public. He has peppered his weekly news conferences with stories about a neighbor who plows his driveway in exchange for tickets. He plugged long-snapper Andrew DePaola's soon-to-open bagel shop. He credited his wife, Julie, for "dressing me" by placing his game-day outfits, including a Norseman-print sports coat in Week 15, on their bed before he leaves for the team hotel.

And he told a long story about how he nicknamed left tackle Christian Darrisaw, one that revealed as much about Cousins as it did his young teammate. It goes something like this:

During a pregame warmup in 2021, Cousins noticed a video board displaying a rotation of trivia about Vikings players. It noted that Darrisaw played first base as a 10-year-old in youth baseball.

Cousins found the randomness of the nugget hysterical and began calling Darrisaw the "Crime Dog" -- a reference to Baseball Hall of Fame first baseman Fred McGriff. "You know, Crime Dog, 'CD,' same initials," Cousins said by way of explanation to Darrisaw, who is 23 and had no idea who McGriff is.

But Darrisaw was the first Vikings player to put a chain around Cousins' neck, a turning point in the development of a fierce line of defense and admiration Cousins has experienced from younger players on the roster. More recently, Jefferson defended Cousins from social media criticism and was still on edge when asked about it later.

"It's just about the fact that people don't show the amount of work that he's been putting in," Jefferson said. "Everybody wants to make jokes about him and stuff like that, always want to talk about him, but his numbers are showing differently."

Before Minnesota's Thanksgiving game against the New England Patriots, wideout Adam Thielen pulled Cousins aside to give him a pep talk. "You're a dang good football player," Thielen said. After the Vikings' 33-26 victory, Cousins revealed the anguish he had been putting himself through during an uneven statistical season and said he was nearly moved to tears by his teammates' encouragement -- the exact support O'Connell had hoped to build around him.

"He's such a process-driven guy that sometimes it catches him," O'Connell said. "In either those team meeting moments or postgame or even in the game, it sometimes catches him where he feels like, 'Man, I feel the support and love of my teammates and coaches.' Not that he didn't ever feel that before, but it's direct and authentic in a way that if he didn't feel it, I would be telling our guys, we've got to let him feel it even more."

THAT ASSESSMENT EPITOMIZES O'Connell, who speaks easily but not freely, measuring every word relative to the way it might be interpreted. In saying Cousins is loved in the locker room, O'Connell makes clear he isn't suggesting the quarterback wasn't loved before. In telling Cousins he is throwing well, the coach would never mean to imply he hadn't thrown the ball well previously.

And after returning to the locker room after games, O'Connell puts himself through an agonizing process of ensuring he doles out the appropriate credit during his postgame speech. Leber has seen the process play out on a weekly basis as part of the flagship radio team that conducts in-house interviews.

"It eats at him sometimes," Leber said. "He really wants to make sure that he's giving out game balls to the important players in that game. You can tell that he wants to make sure that the team hears and understands that those players' performance was valued and validated. That seems really important to him. It probably comes from being a player himself and how uplifting it is for a head coach or any coach to single you out when something's good."

In several of those speeches, O'Connell has told players he loves them. Asked if O'Connell ever speaks negatively about them in front of the team, Cousins said: "He does try not to throw people under the bus. I'll put it that way. But this league will always let you know when you're not meeting the standard." In training camp, Thielen said that O'Connell's reticence to criticize players "almost feels awkward."

For Cousins, the frequency and authenticity of that message evoked "Season of Life," a book tracking former NFL star Joe Ehrmann as he coaches high school football in Baltimore. Cousins read it while at Michigan State and appreciated Ehrmann's advocacy against traditional terms of masculinity -- and for overt expressions of love.

"Just because we're rough and tough football players doesn't mean we can't love each other," Cousins said. "In fact, it might make you a better football player."

The combined mindset of Cousins and O'Connell has led, at times, to a superpolite tap dance to avoid the mere possibility of imposition. Ideally, Cousins noted, he would love to have a standing weekly meeting with the head coach and play-caller. "But I try not to take up too much of his time," he said, "knowing how demanding his job is."

Their one-on-one interactions are usually more informal, perhaps a flurry of late-night text messages, quick phone calls or five-minute FaceTimes.

"I never want to disrupt from his routine that he has had in place," O'Connell said of Cousins. "But he's just so aware of my time that I have to sometimes poke my head in the quarterback room, and say, 'You and me, let's go.'"

O'Connell calls those occasions "red pen meetings," because the intent is to edit the game plan and/or call sheet with Cousins' preferences and suggestions based on his own film study. It can take a while -- an hour or more, O'Connell said -- for them to make a substantial change.

"I celebrate that," O'Connell said. "Sometimes, I'll have to say, 'We've got to get one. Let's find one on here.'"

It has all added up to make Cousins, the player with an inclination to tense up, one of the NFL's top late-game quarterbacks. He threw for the league's second-most yards (1,339) and tied for the most touchdowns (13) after the start of the fourth quarter and ranked No. 10 in raw QBR (58.6).

Teammates have noticed the shift and appreciate its origin.

"This is not to take a shot at Zim," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "Some players react different to that type of authority. Kevin is just a total opposite. He is a guy that loves to shed light. He's a guy that loves to smile. High energy. I just think when you have a guy like that, it brings out the best not only of your quarterback but your entire team."

Some matches, it seems, may be simply better than others.