MINNEAPOLIS - After about five months of offseason workouts and training camp under a new front office and coaching staff, it’s finally game week for the Minnesota Vikings.
Kevin O’Connell, the second-youngest head coach in the NFL, will make his debut on Sunday as the Vikings host the Green Bay Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium. He got an appetizer for the fan base during the team’s training camp night practice at TCO Stadium. A sold out crowd of more than 7,000 gave O’Connell an ovation as he took the field wide-eyed and smiling.
He joked with his players that night he would’ve had most practices at night if he knew that would be the turnout. Sunday, he’ll come out of the tunnel to more than 60,000 screaming fans at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"I’m just excited for it. Gotta remember to try to get some sleep and rest in addition to that we’re pouring into this thing pretty good. I’d be lying to you if I said that I wasn’t going to be a little extra excited, more than any other game," O’Connell said Wednesday from TCO Performance Center. "This is not just any other game, it’s my first game as a head coach, it’s a divisional rival. I’m well aware of the importance of this football game for our team."
He’s right, it’s not just any other game. Starting the season with a chance to get an early lead in the NFC North, ahead of tough road game at Philadelphia for Monday Night Football. The Vikings also play the Lions and the Bears within the season's first five games.
"It would be big man, for us period. I know KO is excited about it in meetings and practice, you can just tell man. He’s excited, a lot of energy," running back Dalvin Cook said. "It’s going to be big for us to start to fast, To start KO off right and start this thing off right, it would be big for us."
Sunday will also mark the first real game action for any offensive and defensive starters. A majority of the first-team players didn’t play in any preseason games. O’Connell felt it more important to get game-like reps in training camp, in joint practices with the San Francisco 49ers and in scrimmage-like conditions.
He would’ve played starters in the preseason if they were guaranteed to not get injured, but there are no guarantees in the NFL. That’s why we didn’t see Kirk Cousins, or any other starter.
"I think if you could tell me right now that we’d be able to get him out there in all the preseason games and get him safely off the field after getting some snaps, we’d all sign up for that," O’Connell said. "The way we challenged Kirk to practice, the way we got the 80-pluys reps against the 49ers, I think the way we’ve gotten a lot of scrimmage-esque type of routes, and obviously Kirk has played a lot of football. He’s got a lot of experience to rely on. Will there be some butterflies and things early on in the game for all of us? Probably. I think Kirk will be just fine."
Cousins was one of 27 players to not play in the lone preseason game at U.S. Bank Stadium. No starters played in the preseason finale.
"The pros are obviously you’re standing here healthy. The con would be that you don’t get that rep and that experience. That’s where every practice is so valuable," Cousins said.
We’ll get our first look how it all comes together on Sunday. The offseason talk has been about how the atmosphere is lighter, friendlier at the team facility with Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman gone. Will it translate to players being more comfortable, playing with freedom and winning games? They’ll put that theory to the test against the Packers.
VIKINGS HAVE CLEAN FIRST INJURY REPORT
The Vikings released their first injury report of the season Wednesday, and they're as healthy as they could be heading into Week 1. Every player was present and participated in practice at TCO Performance Center, and only defensive end Jonathan Bullard was limited with a biceps injury.