MINNEAPOLIS — The new Minnesota Vikings regime kept much of the roster core intact this season, largely relying on a fresh environment and shift in strategy to yield a contending team.
For all the experience that exists on both sides of the ball, there has been a remarkable amount of re-learning taking place this spring during the rollout of the new schemes under first-time head coach Kevin O'Connell and his staff.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has found an old-fashioned exercise particularly helpful in the head-spinning process of immersing himself in O'Connell's offense.
“It's been a lot of time on flash cards. Just trying to memorize plays and terms and formations and protections and just the rules around all those things so it becomes instinctual,” Cousins said. "You feel like an eighth-grader studying for a quiz in school the next day, the way you go home each night and study, but that is really what it does take to come out here on the practice field and be able to just play instinctually.”
Wes Phillips is the fifth offensive coordinator Cousins has had in five years with the Vikings, but in recent seasons the successive changes were more subtle as they all followed the overarching system designed by Gary Kubiak.
Now, even though Cousins had O'Connell as his quarterbacks coach in Washington in 2017, the learning curve is real. Wide receiver Adam Thielen, beginning his 10th year in the league, recently acknowledged as much despite the fun that comes from a fresh start.
“As you teach things, you want to make things learnable, you want to make things digestible for the guys, so if you do need to make a change or a tweak, it kind of revolves around a system and it’s not just random things being thrown against the wall,” said O’Connell, who spent the past two seasons as offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams.
O'Connell worked there for Sean McVay, another one of Cousins' former offensive coordinators. That came in Washington from 2014-16.
“There's a lot that’s changed because that’s just the nature of keeping up with the times,” Cousins said. "There’s a lot that’s new. There’s foundational undertones that are similar, but I’ve just learned it all as if it’s new and just have to learn it as the 2022 Vikings offense.”
O'Connell said the offense has been “thriving” over the past few weeks since they've started formal on-field practices.
“I feel like they’re super comfortable already, like they didn’t install anything and they’ve been running these plays since last year," defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson said. "We’re going to have some tough plays in training camp.”
The defense has been in the thick of the studying process, too, potentially at a steeper rate for those players who had multiple years under head coach Mike Zimmer. His scheme was in place for eight seasons, and he called the plays the entire time. Now Ed Donatell is the defensive coordinator, with Mike Pettine in a key role as a senior defensive assistant.
While the surge of pass-first offenses and three-wide receiver formations has essentially made the three-cornerback nickel package the primary defense, the Vikings are nonetheless making the notable shift from a 4-3 base scheme to a 3-4 under Donatell with the two edge rushers in standup positions rather than three-point stances.
Za'Darius Smith is accustomed to this, having come from Green Bay where he played for Pettine, but it's mostly new for Danielle Hunter save for some occasional use under Zimmer.
The two-time Pro Bowl pick was quick to point out that the Vikings used a heavy dose of 3-4 looks against Arizona last season to better contain quarterback Kyler Murray. Hunter had three sacks that afternoon.
“That game was pretty fun. I feel a little bit more free, playing 3-4,” Hunter said.