Sports

How Kevin O’Connell’s fizzled taking part in profession with Patriots opened a door to teaching Vikings


EAGAN, Minn. — Kevin O’Connell’s soccer world was settling properly in the summertime of 2009. The quarterback instantly forward of him on the New England Patriots‘ depth chart had been traded away. The Patriots had added two free agent quarterbacks as depth, however O’Connell — a third-round draft decide the earlier 12 months — was the favourite to emerge from coaching camp as Tom Brady‘s prime backup.

As it turned out, O’Connell did not emerge from camp with the Patriots in any respect. He was waived in August, sooner or later after a disastrous preseason outing, and inside weeks he was shifting towards the sluggish sundown of his on-field profession.

O’Connell’s time in New England is a biting instance of the story so many NFL gamers expertise. He was a less-than-elite prospect whose window to show himself was opened earlier than he was prepared, after which it was closed perpetually.

Upon his departure from the Patriots, O’Connell obtained caught in waiver wire gamesmanship and finally landed with the New York Jets, who had simply drafted quarterback Mark Sanchez with the No. 5 general decide. Their curiosity was piqued partly by O’Connell’s familiarity with AFC East rival Patriots, and never essentially a projection that he may sooner or later assist them on the sphere.

More than a decade later, that sequence of occasions has taken on new relevance. O’Connell will coach the Minnesota Vikings towards the Patriots on Thanksgiving night time (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), a reminder that when one door closes one other opens. The Jets have been so impressed along with his data of the Patriots’ scheme that he grew to become an off-the-cuff member of their teaching employees over the subsequent three seasons, with out ever stepping on the sphere in a regular-season sport.

A 12 months in New England did not make O’Connell a coach — however getting minimize by them set him on that path.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever accepted how it all went,” O’Connell instructed ESPN of his taking part in profession. “But when enough people tell you you’re going to be a great coach, I think they’re also telling you something else at the same time — that you may not necessarily be the great player you wanted to become. I guess everything happens for a reason.”


SCOTT PIOLI WAS in his seventh 12 months because the Patriots’ vice chairman of participant personnel when he began getting ready for the 2008 draft. Much just like the Green Bay Packers of the Nineties, these Patriots aggressively pursued QB prospects even with a future Hall of Fame starter nonetheless in his prime.

It did not take lengthy for Pioli to zero in on O’Connell as a really perfect Patriots goal, one who may probably again up Brady, develop of their tradition after which both succeed him or be a commerce asset in a couple of years.

“From a physical tools standpoint, he was fantastic,” stated Pioli, now a broadcaster for the NFL Network and CBS. “The stature that you want. But his makeup, and that was always a big part of what I always paid attention to, was off the charts.”

Indeed, O’Connell would go on to report the quickest 40 time amongst quarterbacks who ran on the 2008 mix: 4.61. More importantly although, Pioli and Patriots coach Bill Belichick worth prospects who had been crew captains. O’Connell had been a captain for 4 years at San Diego State. The Patriots adopted by means of by making him the No. 94 general decide of the draft, the fifth quarterback chosen after Matt Ryan (Atlanta), Joe Flacco (Baltimore), Brian Brohm (Green Bay) and Chad Henne (Miami).

O’Connell remembers being “honored” to be valued by a crew that had received three of the earlier seven Super Bowls, however admitted questioning: “How am I ever going to be able to play here knowing that maybe the best quarterback that’s ever played is currently the starter?”

Brady suffered a torn ACL in his left knee throughout the first sport of the common season. The damage elevated backup Matt Cassel to starter for the rest of the season. O’Connell spent the 12 months as Cassel’s No. 2, showing in two video games and finishing 4 of 6 passes for 23 yards.

Speaking this week on WEEI radio, Belichick recalled O’Connell as a “smart player” who “was always really good with understanding all the things we were doing in the passing game: line-of-scrimmage checks, managing the team, running the offense, stuff like that.”

O’Connell stated he was “very excited going into Year 2” and felt like he “was going to take the next step.”

But by their requirements, the Patriots have been about to expertise important organizational upheaval. Pioli departed after the season to be the Kansas City Chiefs‘ basic supervisor. Pioli quickly acquired Cassel by way of commerce. And offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was employed away because the Denver Broncos‘ new coach. So whereas Cassel’s departure cleared a spot on the depth chart, two of the crew’s prime three decision-makers on the quarterback place have been additionally gone in a matter of weeks.


TO HEDGE THEIR bets in 2009 as Brady rehabilitated his knee, the Patriots signed undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer in addition to veteran backup Andrew Walter. Hoyer caught the attention of coaches and different coaching camp observers instantly, whereas O’Connell’s efficiency was uneven.

And then O’Connell had his worst day. In the crew’s third preseason sport towards Washington, O’Connell was 3-of-10 for 18 yards with two interceptions. The subsequent day, Belichick summoned him to a gathering with director of participant personnel Nick Caserio and first-year offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. The Patriots had made the choice to waive O’Connell and preserve Hoyer as the only backup with Brady able to resume his beginning function.

Belichick instructed New England reporters this week it merely “didn’t work out here” for O’Connell. While it was “tough” to enter the season with solely two quarterbacks, Belichick stated, “It’s what most teams did in those years.”

In retrospect, O’Connell stated he “maybe tried to do too much” to impress coaches that summer season. But it wasn’t as if he had displayed a poor perspective or work ethic, flaws that might lead groups to waive a excessive draft alternative after one season.

“I just missed out on some early opportunities that may have given me a clearer path to maybe finding more playing time by earning that,” O’Connell stated. “I truly feel like I didn’t take advantage of some genuinely great opportunities. No matter whether you’re a free agent or a third-round pick, eventually you’ve got to prove your arrow is pointing up and you’re continuing to improve and grow, and then when your number is called, you’ve got to be ready.

“Because you simply by no means know when that point goes to come back when your analysis goes to be full from a crew. It actually helps me right this moment speaking to gamers about making the most of alternatives.”

And once that opportunity was lost, the games began.


THE DETROIT LIONS claimed him on waivers, even after having drafted Matthew Stafford with the No. 1 overall pick a few months earlier and having veteran Daunte Culpepper on the roster as a backup. The Lions, fresh off their 0-16 season in 2008, were using their top spot on the NFL waiver priority system to build up future draft picks. They claimed O’Connell so they could trade him, and five days later, he was sent to the Jets.

In New York, O’Connell faced a similar situation: The Jets had drafted Sanchez and felt comfortable with backup Kellen Clemens as well. But O’Connell survived final cuts as the No. 3 quarterback, in part because the Jets had a game against his former team in Week 2.

So as a matter of course, then-Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine scheduled a meeting with O’Connell. Pettine was eager, he said, to talk to “someone from behind the Iron Curtain” of Patriots insider knowledge.

“You all the time try this when somebody comes from a crew you are taking part in,” said Pettine, who is now the Vikings’ assistant head coach. “Quite a lot of instances it does you extra hurt than good, however you could possibly inform instantly with Kevin that the knowledge he gave us can be very useful.”

That meeting turned into regular sessions with Jets coaches. O’Connell, for example, would add notes to the scout-team play sheet to refine coaches’ understanding of what opponents were doing. Then-Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum recalled O’Connell was especially adept at attacking the protection schemes. At one point, Pettine said, O’Connell designed a blitz that led to a sack of Brady. (The Jets were 3-4 against the Patriots in O’Connell’s three seasons there, including a playoff win in Foxborough during the 2010 postseason.)

Soon, Tannenbaum said, O’Connell had earned the deep respect of coach Rex Ryan.

“Rex stated to me, ‘Mike, this man is the most effective defensive coordinator within the constructing, myself included,'” said Tannenbaum, now an ESPN analyst.

O’Connell would spend parts of three seasons with the Jets. A 2011 New York Times profile, rare for a No. 3 quarterback, noted that then-offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Jets players referred to him as “Coach O’Connell.” He retired in 2012 and took his first coaching job three years later with the Cleveland Browns as QB coach. The Browns’ head coach at the time? Mike Pettine.

“I realized in New England to do no matter you possibly can to assist the crew, and to do your job, no matter that could be,” O’Connell said. “So my aim shifting ahead was to offer worth in any means form or type that I may. If that meant serving to the protection put together for a sure offense, if that meant serving to Mark Sanchez put together for the upcoming opponent any means that I may, I simply began taking somewhat bit extra of a view that nevertheless I may assist, I used to be going to do this.

“Maybe that’s where the confirmation came to me that I would eventually get into coaching, because I loved that side of it.”

Pettine was extra succinct.

“Kevin wasn’t a great quarterback,” Pettine stated. “I remember joking with him and saying, ‘You’re not worth a s— as a player, but you’re going to make a hell of a coach. I wasn’t the only person who told him that.”


LIKE SO MANY different retired gamers, O’Connell can solely marvel the place his profession might need gone have been it not for a few of these fateful twists. Pioli stated he submitted a waiver declare on O’Connell in 2009. So did McDaniels in Denver, in keeping with a number of stories on the time. Their waiver precedence was merely decrease than the Lions’, who had the worst report in soccer in 2008.

What if O’Connell had wound up with the Chiefs or Broncos? What if the Lions had traded him to a crew that had extra of an instantaneous want on the sphere?

“Player development is extremely circumstantial,” Pioli stated. “Particularly at the quarterback position. There are a lot of talented players that wind up in the wrong circumstances, and it doesn’t work for them. It’s cultural.”

It’s not as if O’Connell was a flop as a participant, Tannenbaum stated.

“He probably at the time was somewhere between the 40 to 60 best quarterbacks on the planet,” Tannenbaum stated. “That was nothing to be ashamed of. Really, really good but just not elite, elite, elite. When you’re at the level he was, anything can impact a career.”

It’s tempting to say that O’Connell will coach Thursday night time towards Belichick and the Patriots on the energy of what he realized as a participant there 15 seasons in the past. And he acknowledged he has tried to include Belichick’s “attention to detail” and willingness to reinvent his schemes based mostly on personnel and developments.

“I don’t think I would be sitting where I’m sitting right now without the opportunity to go there and learn so much football at such a high level from some of the best coaches and players that have been in our game,” O’Connell stated. “I never took that for granted one time. Although it didn’t end up successful in the short term, I do feel like it helped me in the long run.”

But the reality is crucial lesson did not take till he walked out the door.

“I eventually went down that coaching road and I’m very lucky for all of my football journey. Because I think it’s made me the best possible head coach now by experiencing all the things I experienced. Not all of the experiences that help us grow in life are positive ones, and that’s probably the biggest lesson that I’ve learned — to turn negative outcomes into some sort of positive and push forward.”



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