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Is Kevin O’Connell the most underrated loss of the Sean McVay era?

The Rams offense has gone in the tank since Kevin O’Connell went to the Vikings

NFL: Los Angeles Rams Minicamp Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

There has always been a bit of mystery surrounding the L.A. Rams offensive coordinator job since Sean McVay took over the team in 2017: How important is that coach? How much does he do? Doesn’t McVay run everything? Does the offensive coordinator just do the coffee runs?

Only two things have been abundantly clear: Being an assistant for McVay has come with a life changing career boost for many and also that anything good that the Rams have done on offense since 2017 is “because of Sean McVay”.

Usually any time the Rams are doing poorly, “blame the offensive coordinator”.

And yet the coach getting the most love for his offensive game plan this week is Kevin O’Connell after the Minnesota Vikings beat the San Francisco 49ers with Kirk Cousins passing for nearly 400 yards despite not having Justin Jefferson at his disposal.

Could O’Connell’s departure in 2022 be a much bigger loss for the L.A. Rams than anyone previously expected? The two offenses do seem to be going in opposite directions since he left.

Who is Kevin O’Connell?

A former quarterback who was a third round pick in the 2008 draft, O’Connell didn’t have a very long or notable career but did get to spend some time on teams with Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, and Philip Rivers, usually on the practice squad or IR. As a rookie in 2008, O’Connell became an unexpected backup to Matt Cassel after Brady tore his ACL in Week 1, which sort of gave him an early opportunity to be in a service role to the most important player on the team at the time:

“I always knew he had my back,” Cassel said. “There’s other guys where you feel like, look, they’re trying to fight to take your job. He always worked hard and wanted to be ready to go, but I always felt like he had my best interests in mind.”

O’Connell also noted that being around Josh McDaniels and Brady for almost two years taught him a lot about the importance of preparation.

“I’m still very close to Josh McDaniels, who was obviously a huge reason why I got drafted there,” O’Connell said. “He was the quarterbacks coach and coordinator at the time, obviously Tom Brady being there, being around him for a year and a half, almost two years — it’s not by accident the players that go through there try to emulate what he does.

“He takes a lot of the reps, and it requires you to do a lot of learning in the classroom, and it requires you to learn an offense where one guys been doing it now, and I mean this was 2008, but you start talking about one guy running an offense for 20 years, I can remember in college running an offense for two or three years and you feel like you have it mastered, so you can only imagine where they have gotten to, and the volume they are able to carry.”

After working as an analyst and advising young quarterbacks on how to prepare for the NFL, including soon-to-be-rookie Johnny Manziel, O’Connell was hired as the Browns quarterbacks coach in 2015. Veteran Josh McCown knew nothing of O’Connell, but signed with the Browns after that initial meeting with the new QBs coach.

“It took less than 10 minutes to go, ‘This dude is sharp,’” McCown said. “Like, he gets it. All the way around. I knew he could help me.”

After a one-year stint as an assistant with Chip Kelly’s 49ers, O’Connell was hired as quarterbacks coach in Washington by Jay Gruden, as offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh had known him from their days on the Jets: Cavanaugh was New York’s quarterbacks coach in the Mark Sanchez era and O’Connell was one of the backups. In fact, quarterbacks Sanchez and Greg McElroy told the New York Times in 2011 that O’Connell would become a great coach.

”He’s a coach with a lot of football talent,” McElroy said, adding that O’Connell could “see the game vertically, as if watching film, from the sidelines.”

Cavanaugh had been promoted from QBs coach to offensive coordinator in 2017 after Sean McVay went from Washington to the L.A. Rams.

O’Connell spent one year coaching Kirk Cousins, then Washington gave O’Connell pass game coordinator duties and transitioned to the Alex Smith era in 2018, but that was also the season of his unfortunate and devastating leg injury. The team cycled through three quarterbacks that season, including Mark Sanchez.

In 2019, Cavanaugh moved to an offensive assistant role and Gruden promoted O’Connell to coordinator. His rapid rise in the ranks at 34 was compared to that of McVay. O’Connell was ready for the role and as a former quarterback, unsurprisingly put success on those shoulders:

“Being a coordinator in my opinion, it’s about putting the people, your personnel, in situations where they can be successful,” he said. “Ninety percent of that in my opinion is the quarterback, and if the quarterback has success, the other ten guys around him if they’re doing their job will feel that success as well.”

Jay Gruden noted in 2019 that O’Connell would have “more freedom” to work on game planning and X’s & O’s, and finding the best ways to attack a defense.

“It’ll be great. He’s very, very bright, knows what we’re looking for, the types of defenses we see week in and week out and the plays that we like that we think fit for the style of defense that we see — protection wise, how to pick up certain blitzes — so I think it’ll be a big-time help.”

Washington had one of their worst seasons in franchise history, going 3-13 and ranking dead last in points, passing yards, third down conversions, and first downs.

However, the quarterbacks were Dwayne Haskins and Case Keenum. Though Keenum was relatively acceptable at times and rookie Terry McLaurin broke out for 919 yards and seven touchdowns, this was certainly one of the least talented offenses in the NFL. Gruden was fired midseason and replaced by Bill Callahan. When the season ended, the team hired Ron Rivera as the new head coach and he of course decided to hire Scott Turner, son of Norv and his quarterbacks coach in Carolina, as the new offensive coordinator.

Now a coaching free agent, O’Connell was in luck: McVay had not had an official offensive coordinator since Matt LaFleur in 2017 and decided he wanted to recruit someone who had gotten a strong endorsement from Jay Gruden and probably several other mutual friends. The Rams hired O’Connell and defensive coordinator Brandon Staley in 2020, giving L.A. two future head coaches in a single round of hiring.

Staley was seen was the real wunderkind of the two and sure enough the Rams ranked first in defense in 2020 and he immediately left to become the head coach of the L.A. Chargers.

O’Connell’s role was seen as more of a formality, at least as a general external take, even if people closer to the team knew that McVay wasn’t taking the offensive coordinator title lightly. After all, the Rams already had Shane Waldron as a passing game coordinator and Aaron Kromer as a run game coordinator, Wes Phillips as a tight ends coach, and Thomas Brown as a running backs coach.

Waldron, Phillips, and Brown are all current offensive coordinators. O’Connell jumped the line over all of them.

Two years separated from a Super Bowl run with a top-ranked offense, the L.A. Rams were disappointed with results in O’Connell’s first season: 22nd in points, 26th in passing touchdowns, 25th in points per drive, 17th in yards per carry.

However, most of the blame was put on Jared Goff, who was pseudo benched for John Wolford at the end of the season and maybe only saved for a final chance in the playoffs when Wolford was hurt in the wild card win over the Seahawks. The Rams of course traded Goff to the Lions for Matthew Stafford in the offseason and now O’Connell was cooking with a former teammate and first overall pick.

The Rams finished 7th in points and points per drive, 2nd in net yards per pass attempt, 2nd in passing touchdowns, and they did just enough offensively to get past the Bucs, 49ers, and Bengals after stomping the Cardinals in the wild card round. Now a Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator, O’Connell had multiple head coaching interviews, including with the Houston Texans, and was ultimately hired by the Vikings to reunite with Cousins.

When he left the Rams, the general consensus was “whatever” because McVay had offensive success before O’Connell, would likely have success after O’Connell, and so as long as the head coach, quarterback, and Cooper Kupp were in place...Who cares?

But in the last 1.5 seasons, almost nothing has gone right for the L.A. Rams offense while the Vikings feels like maybe they’ve found their best offensive coach since the Denny Green era, if not one of their best head coaches, period.

Rams vs. Vikings

There was nothing especially different about Kirk Cousins from 2021 to 2022, in fact his QBR of 52.3 is identical before and after O’Connell, but the Vikings did go 13-4, including famously 11-0 in one score games. Cousins managed 8 game-winning drives last season, as many as he had in his previous four seasons combined. The Vikings went from 14th in scoring to 8th in O’Connell’s first season.

The player who probably benefited the most was receiver Justin Jefferson, who led the NFL with 128 catches and 1,809 yards, coming very close to the triple crown numbers put up by Cooper Kupp in O’Connell’s final season as L.A.’s offensive coordinator. Jefferson averaged 106.4 yards per game in 2022 and was averaging 114.2 yards per game this season prior to his injury.

Minnesota is 3-4 this season, but again every single game has been decided by one score.

Despite cutting Dalvin Cook after a Pro Bowl season and not getting an adequate replacement, despite losing Jefferson, Cousins is on pace for his most productive season ever. He leads the NFL with 16 touchdown passes and could throw the ball over 700 times at this pace. His QBR is 60.5.

That is helped by the fact that rookie receiver Jordan Addison already has 400 yards and six touchdowns, while T.J. Hockenson is on track for almost 1,000 receiving yards, which would be a career-high.

The Vikings have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL also, including left tackle Christian Darrisaw, the first pick by Minnesota in the O’Connell era. Darrisaw looks like he could be the NFL’s next great left tackle and was compared to Trent Williams in a recent offensive line breakdown I saw by former NFL offensive linemen.

Will the Vikings rebound from 3-4? They might win their next six games with how they played against the 49ers.

Minnesota’s next six opponents are Green Bay, Atlanta, New Orleans, Denver, Chicago, and Las Vegas.

Can the Rams rebound from 3-4? Their schedule is much tougher and they haven’t played that well lately.

Since hiring Liam Coen as the new offensive coordinator in 2022, then Mike LaFleur as his replacement in 2023 after LaFleur had been fired by the Jets in the same role, the L.A. Rams are 8-16. The offense ranked 32nd in yards in 2022, as well as 27th in points, 22nd in points per drive, 27th in passing yards, 29th in net yards per attempt, and 27th in yards per carry.

The Rams do not have as good of an offensive line as the Vikings, they’ve dealt with significant injuries, but wasn’t there a general agreement that Matthew Stafford is in a different class than Kirk Cousins? That McVay was in a different class as a play caller than O’Connell? The Vikings also plucked Phillips from L.A.’s staff and he is now Minnesota’s offensive coordinator.

The Rams didn’t want Cam Akers so the Vikings said they would take him and though the sample size is limited, Akers had 22 carries for 29 yards and no receptions with L.A., but he has 21 carries for 94 yards (4.5 YPC) and seven catches for 51 yards in four games with the Vikings.

Brandon Powell, a former Rams special teamer who averaged 6.5 yards per catch with L.A. in 2022, has caught 12 passes for 132 yards (11 yards per catch) with the Vikings in 2023.

The Vikings have a lot of good weapons, like Jefferson, Addison, and Hockenson. But the Rams should also have a lot of good weapons, like Kupp, Puka Nacua, Tutu Atwell, and Tyler Higbee. But L.A.’s offense hasn’t been as effective as it needs to be or was expected to be, especially recently, and mostly in the second half of football games.

Matthew Stafford has a 99.9 passer rating in the first half of games, is averaging 8.3 adjusted net yards per attempt, is completing 65% of his throws, and averaging 8.6 Y/A with 4 TD and 1 INT.

Matthew Stafford has a 63 passer rating in the second half of games, averaging 4.5 ANY/A, 54.5% completions, 6.3 Y/A, with 2 TD and 5 INT.

But at least Stafford is playing a lot better this season than he did last season. What the Rams have not done since O’Connell was the offensive coordinator is play like a great-to-dominant offensive football team in any game at any time.

We see the talent. We don’t quite see the same level of game planning and in-game adjustments that made the Rams so deadly and a Super Bowl champion in 2021. Yet in that same period of time, the Minnesota Vikings have been one of the deadliest teams in the fourth quarter, the one you just can never count out.

Kirk Cousins has a passer rating of 103.7 in the first half and 99.8 in the second half.

Kirk Cousins has 8 TD/4 INT in the first half and 8 TD/1 INT in the second half.

Kirk Cousins has a ANY/A of 7.5 in the first half and 7.1 in the second half.

Do we attribute to Cousins or to adjustments, schemes, and game plans?

There’s always going to be some level of “a little bit of column A, a little bit of column B” because football is the ultimate team sport. But what McVay can’t afford forever is a lot of talk about how the Rams offense should be better coupled with conversation that Kevin O’Connell is the next great offensive mind in football.

Did the Rams win the Super Bowl because of O’Connell? Not even O’Connell would say that. Of course not.

But do the Rams miss O’Connell? The burden of proof has probably now shifted to McVay to answer that question. The Rams would need to do a lot better and stop shifting blame to other areas when it’s convenient. O’Connell’s success has made it a little more suspect and his role with L.A. a little less mysterious.