There will be a familiar face on the sideline across from the Patriots this Thursday night when the Patriots take on the Minnesota Vikings as their 2008 third-round pick Kevin O'Connell has risen up the coaching ranks to land his first head coaching gig and will now take on his former team. O'Connell spent just one season with the Patriots, occupying a role as Matt Cassel's backup during the year that Tom Brady was injured and lost in the opening quarter of the first game, but it was a foundational football year for both the player and his teammates and coaches around him.
"What an opportunity it was for me to go there and be around the people and coaches there, it really started my football journey," O'Connell told Rich Eisen this past offseason. "I feel like it helped me, I feel like it put me in the best possible place to be where I'm at now, where my feet are planted. I'm very grateful for my time there."
O'Connell had a five-year career as a player, spending time with Lions, Jets, Dophins and Chargers after his year with the Patriots, before transitioning to coaching in 2015. First, he joined the Browns as the quarterbacks coach, then was an addition to Chip Kelly's staff in San Francisco in the same capacity. He'd rise up the ranks in Washington, promoted to offensive coordinator in 2019, then joined Sean McVay's Rams in 2020 where he spent two seasons as the OC, winning the Super Bowl in 2021 which opened the opportunity to become Minnesota's head coach.
"Yeah, smart, smart kid out of San Diego, had a lot of things to like about him, his size, arm, and all that," said Bill Belichick, recalling O'Connell's arrival in 2008. "He's done a heck of a job and climbed through the coaching ranks quickly. Based on the way the Vikings are playing this year, you could see why he's done it. He's done a great job."
"I know I'm old now playing against my old draft mate," said Matthew Slater, also a 2008 draft selection by the Patriots. "If you asked me who would be a head coach out of our class it would've been [Kevin] and Jerod [Mayo]. I think those two guys are obvious, one's doing it and the other's on track to do it. Super proud of Kevin. I stood at his wedding, he's one of my best friends... I just can't tell you how proud I am of him to see him grow, to see him accomplish so much as a young coach of this league. Obviously, he's having a fantastic year, he's got his team playing some really good football. But it does make me feel old when guys that you used to room with him when we were rookies at the hotel, and now he's the head coach and I'm still playing. I guess we've both been very blessed."
O'Connell has his team off to an impressive 8-2 start as the rookie head coach has brought a talented Vikings roster together to play winning football. Both teams
"It starts with [Kirk] Cousins, outstanding quarterback, has had tremendous production throughout his career," said Belichick, offering his initial scouting report of Minnesota's firepower. "Again, this year [Dalvin] Cook's one of the top running backs in the league. He's had tremendous production in the running game and in the passing game since he's come into the league, really. [T.J.] Hockenson at tight end and then with [Justin] Jefferson and [Adam] Thielen, and so they've got a wealth of talent at the skill positions and a lot of guys to stop. So yeah, they're as explosive as anybody we've seen."
The success comes as no surprise to Slater, who saw the potential in O'Connell for a variety of reasons.
"I think the intangibles, I think his character is second to none," said Slater. "He's just a tremendous person and I think that matters a lot when you talk about leadership and leading men and getting a locker room to buy into your vision and what you believe in. He's got a great deal of character and then I think the way he sees the game, obviously as a quarterback I've always felt like the guys I've been around here have seen the game a little bit differently than most. He's got a very high football IQ. Speaking with him over the years he's been able to learn from a great deal of guys, from Chip Kelly to Gruden to McVay, he's been around some great offense of minds. I think you take his natural gifts and abilities to see the game, to dissect the game and to teach the game and then you put him around those types of guys and you end up with a pretty good football coach."