For most casual NFL fans, Kevin O’Connell is not a familiar name outside of Washington and Los Angeles. He will not be one of mainstream media’s highlighted head-coaching candidates this offseason. However, in the next few years, he will be. Every year a couple of head coaching hires seem asinine until they are not.
When Kliff Kingsbury, Matt Lafleur, Kevin Stefanski, and Zac Taylor were all hired, each was greeted with a degree of ridicule from fans or the media. However, those head coaches are proving, yet again, that fans and members of the media are impatient and thoughtless when it comes to a vision in the NFL. Each of the aforementioned head coaches is finding success in different ways, so before expanding on the conventional candidates, I will feature a diamond in the rough.
O’Connell is a former quarterback, playing his collegiate ball at San Diego State. After being drafted in the third round of the 2008 draft by the New England Patriots, O’Connell bounced around the league playing for five different teams before retiring in 2012. He got his first coaching gig with the Cleveland Browns in 2015, working with the quarterbacks.
Since then, he has had an impressively quick climb up the coaching ranks. He was promoted to offensive coordinator for the Washington Football Team last year, but a new regime was brought in this offseason. During his time in Washington, O’Connell got a hopeless offense to connect behind a provisional offensive line, with no talent at wide receiver and incompetent quarterback play. But for the 2020 season, Ron Rivera decided to go with Scott Turner, effectively pushing O’Connell out and towards the offensive coordinating position with the Los Angeles Rams.
Sean McVay has not filled his offensive coordinator position since Matt Lafleur left after the 2017 season, who went on to be hired by Green Bay a year later. Other members of McVay’s staff have also received attention for head coaching vacancies. Former Rams quarterback coach Zac Taylor is in his second year with Cincinnati, and even Shane Waldron garnered interviews back in 2017. McVay’s subordinates are riding his success, using him as a figurative platform for head coaching opportunities, and O’Connell could be next.
Last year, O’Connell excelled early on developing Dwayne Haskins but was not afforded the necessary time to fully cultivate him. Haskins’ best performance came against the Philadelphia Eagles, a game Washington lost. O’Connell devised a plan to get him in a groove early, resulting in a 68% completion percentage and two touchdowns. Using slants over the middle and shallow out-routes towards the boundary, O’Connell’s aggressive play-calling was on full display.
He was brought in to work directly with Jared Goff, install offensive game plans, and analyze offensive performance. O’Connell’s offensive philosophy is predicated on early comfortability from the quarterback through quick game concepts to get the offense in rhythm by exploiting favorable matchups with formations and alignment, a mixture of Jon Gruden’s system and a west coast system. Transitioning towards a similar but different offensive philosophy with McVay will only expand O’Connell’s understanding and creativity.
O’Connell’s presence is clear; Goff has returned to the play of 2018 that earned him a massive contract extension. The Rams offense is ranked fourth in total yards through five weeks, second in net yards gained per pass attempt, and 11th in average points per drive. Jared Goff’s completion percentage, yards per attempt, and net yards gained are all the highest of his career. His 12.6 yards per catch is even more confirmation of his return, slightly under his personal best of 12.9 yards per catch in 2017 and 2018.
Although there is a concern from O’Connell’s lack of experience calling plays, I say Arthur Blank would rather be early to the party than late, potentially losing out on the next great offensive mind. O’Connell could be brought in to pull out what is left of Matt Ryan, while simultaneously developing the future behind Ryan as he has already proven capable of doing. The Falcons could remain competitive with Ryan at the helm avoiding a total roster reconstruction. O’Connell is noted as a quarterback guru who prides himself on putting his players in positions to succeed.
When promoted to offensive coordinator in Washington, he had this to say, “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.”
Offensive-minded head coaches are becoming more and more common as the NFL shifts to an offensive league. Andy Reid, Sean Payton, Sean McVay, Matt Lafleur, Kyle Shanahan, Doug Pederson, Jon Gruden, Matt Nagy, Kliff Kingsbury, Kevin Stefanski, and the combination of Matt Rhule and Joe Brady are all examples of upward trending franchises with their offensive play-calling head coach.