Recently, one of the hottest trends in the world of NFL head coach hirings has been targetting coaches from the Kyle Shanahan-Sean McVay tree, and adopting this strategy has resulted in tremendous success for several franchises.
There’s reason to believe the Broncos could be the latest team to experience this success if they choose to follow this in-vogue model and hire McVay’s latest protégé, Kevin O’Connell.
Kevin O’Connell’s Background
O’Connell’s football career started at San Diego State, where he started 21 games at quarterback and retired as the best mobile quarterback in the history of the Aztec’s football program.
From there, he was a third-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, and served as Matt Cassel’s backup for a season, before the Patriots released him ahead of the 2009 campaign. He then bounced around the league as a backup, before he finally retired in 2012.
O’Connell quickly entered the coaching realm once his playing days were done, and became the Cleveland Browns’ quarterback coach following the 2014 season. His next major NFL job came in 2017 when he joined the Washington Football Team’s offensive staff, under Jay Gruden, that had already produced tantalizing young offensive minds in Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan.
After working as Washington’s quarterback’s coach for two seasons, he was promoted to offensive coordinator ahead of the 2019 season. That said, O’Connell was unfortunately unable to show off much of his offensive vision during this campaign.
Case Keenum was the best quarterback on the roster by far, and there wasn’t much talent elsewhere on offense, severely limiting what O’Connell was able to do. Plus, to make matters much worse, Jay Gruden was fired five weeks into the season, and when Brian Callahan took over, he overhauled the offense.
Callahan’s old school vision for the team led to the offense playing old-fashioned football that relied almost entirely on simple run concepts and the offensive line. It made sense that this strategy would come from one of the game’s most legendary offensive line coaches — Callahan — but it was far from inventive and certainly limited O’Connell’s creativity even further.
Following the 2019 season, Washington’s staff was swept out and O’Connell joined the Rams as Sean McVay’s latest offensive protégé.
Kevin O’Connell does lack play-calling responsibilities with the Rams, but that also shouldn’t prevent him from receiving credit for experiencing tremendous offensive success while overseeing the offense during its most tumultuous period of the Sean McVay era.
O’Connell didn’t become McVay’s offensive coordinator in 2017, when all the answers were easy and the NFL had yet to adapt to the wunderkind’s exciting new offense.
He became the coordinator in 2020, when Jared Goff bottomed out so hard the Rams had to turn to John Wolford to save them.
He then helped the offense transition to a new starting quarterback for the first time in the Sean McVay era, and he had to help the offense adapt to the new talent. He also had to do all this while losing two of the team’s three most valuable skill position players — Cam Akers and Robert Woods — for large majorities of the season.
That lack of surrounding help could have led to defenses suffocating Cooper Kupp and removing him from the game plan, yet under O’Connell, Kupp had one of the most productive seasons in NFL history.
O’Connell isn’t play-calling, but he’s still in charge of managing the offense, and despite being greeted by a bundle of managerial nightmares, he’s continued to find tremendous success.
O’Connell is in charge of managing the offense, that’s true. However, although that’s his responsibility, we have no way of knowing how involved Sean McVay is from our outsider’s perspective.
Plus, even if he was heavily involved with the offense in Los Angeles, he would be one of the least qualified candidates that Denver is interviewing. With one year of play-calling experience and three years as a coordinator, only Aaron Glenn, Jonathon Gannon, Jerod Mayo, and Luke Getsy have less experience in premier roles than O’Connell.
Also, the one time he was responsible for an offense outside of McVay, it was pretty ugly. Washington finished the season 3-13 and Dwayne Haskins struggled to develop as a rookie. While Callahan had a heavy hand in the offense’s outdated strategy, it was ultimately O’Connell calling the plays.
In fact, the only success O’Connell has really experienced away from McVay, was in 2017, when Cousins had a strong season in his final campaign with the Washington Football Team.
We have to acknowledge the fact that O’Connell’s lack of coaching, coordinating, and play-calling experience are all major concerns. He only was one year of play-calling experience, and the offense he was calling was pretty damn dreadful.
So how on Earth can you justify making this man a head coach already?
With the past branches off the McVay tree, that lack of experience hasn’t exactly mattered.
Zac Taylor was the subject of many jokes and memes when he was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals. “Who is this guy? He’s not even a coordinator. I guess if you have a cup of coffee with Sean McVay that qualifies you to be a head coach,” the football cognoscenti guffawed.
Yet, in 2021, his third year as the team’s head coach, he gifted the Bengals franchise their best team since the 2005 Bengals, who had their dreams tanked by a Carson Palmer injury.
Matt LaFleur, another branch off the tree, was met with many of the same snide comments when he took the Packers job after play-calling for only one season. Not only that, but in his one season of play-calling, the Titans’ offense got worse than it was the year before LaFleur got there.
Now, LaFleur has the best winning percentage of any coach in NFL history, and just became the first coach ever to win 12 or more games in each of his first three seasons on the job.
Now, all that isn’t to say that the lack of experience doesn’t matter. It certainly does matter. However, although it does matter, the Broncos shouldn’t let lack of experience alone dissuade them from pursuing someone who very well could be a great head coach.
If O’Connell knocks their socks off, it would be hard to fault them for making him their next head coach.