Don’t sleep on Kevin O’Connell as future head coach of the Broncos
The Denver Broncos continue their search for a new head coach this week. There are 10 gentlemen on the list of prospective coaches, and the Broncos have a few remaining to talk to in person or via Zoom. After that, we should see a second round of interviews with a couple of prospects. Then, a new head coach should be named. The rest of this process should take another week to 10 days to complete.
This week, the Broncos are heading west to talk to Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell. Many in Broncos Country don’t know much about O’Connell and there are some who think he’s not a serious candidate for the Broncos top spot.
I have a different view of O’Connell that comes from scouting him as a player and following him through his coaching career. If the Broncos want to improve their offense and get up to speed in the modern game, then I think there are few who could give them that the way O’Connell could.
Nobody should sleep on O’Connell as the future head coach of the Broncos. In this article, I will tell you why.
O’Connell was a quarterback in college at San Diego State University. Before the 2008 NFL Draft, O’Connell was one of the passers I watched at the East-West Shrine Game in Houston, Tex. O’Connell was a tall passer with a strong arm and the athleticism to keep plays alive. In fact, during his college career with the Aztecs, he set several passing and rushing records for the team.
During the week of the Shrine Game, and man it is fun to go over my notes on him from 14 years ago, I liked what I saw from O’Connell. His strong arm meant he could make all the throws required in the NFL, but during that week the one thing I seem to note the most was his leadership.
During All-Star games, players are working with other players they are not used to as they are from several different teams and different levels of college football. I noted that O’Connell did a good job of communicating with his receivers in between plays to make the most of their practice reps.
After the Shrine Game, O’Connell prepared for the Scouting Combine that year. He was a star at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis during that week and continued to rise up draft boards in the pre-draft process. O’Connell seemed to be ahead of the curve when it comes to modern football because he primarily worked from the shotgun in college but could also hurt a defense with his legs.
In the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots were happy to get O’Connell. His future in the NFL was always bright, but things worked out differently than most would have imagined.
Worked with the GOAT
As he was drafted by the Patriots, O’Connell spent lots of time with Tom Brady. As a rookie, they trusted O’Connell so much that he was the No. 2 quarterback on their depth chart. Matt Cassel was gone to be the starter for the Kansas City Chiefs, and O’Connell was there to potentially develop as a quarterback of the future. It’s funny to think that some felt Brady would not play that much longer in 2008, and here we are in 2022 and he’s still playing while O’Connell is interviewing for a head coaching job.
Some veteran superstar quarterbacks don’t like to share their secrets with a young quarterback. You hear stories about Brett Favre not really warming up or sharing information with Aaron Rodgers while they’re on the same team. That’s one example, but that is certainly not the only one. You don’t hear anything like that with Brady.
No, I don’t think Brady goes out of his way to teach a young quarterback. However, I do know that he is willing to answer questions when asked and seems to care about the passers behind him for the benefit of the team. O’Connell wasn’t behind Brady for long, but he was the primary backup to him during his rookie year in 2008 – and that’s an impressionable time for a young player.
Once thought of as a developmental prospect who could take over when Brady was done, O’Connell was waived by the Patriots in the preseason of 2009. He then bounced around to four more teams (including two stints with the New York Jets) over the next three years before announcing his retirement in 2012.
Jump in with Two Feet
Most coaches spend time at the high school or college level before they get a chance in the NFL. Some coaches, especially former players, never rise above the ranks they originally start in. The NFL is a tough business, and the coaching circle is one of the tightest ones to get into professionally.
O’Connell jumped into NFL coaching right away without working as a college coach previously. In 2015, O’Connell was hired by the Cleveland Browns as their quarterbacks coach. That season, the primary quarterback for the Browns was Josh McCown, but he also tried to get something out of former first-round pick Johnny Manziel, as well. After one year with the Browns, O’Connell moved on but stayed in the NFL to continue his coaching career.
He was a special projects coach for the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, but O’Connell seemed to get things on track with Washington in 2017 as their quarterbacks coach. He also worked as a passing game coordinator in 2018, and that role expanded to be their offensive coordinator in 2019. Then in 2020, O’Connell was hired by the Rams to be their offensive coordinator.
Former players can find opportunities hard to come by in the coaching world. O’Connell has not only worked hard, but he’s impressed as he’s worked his way up the ladder.
O’Connell has been blasted by some since he doesn’t call the plays for the Rams. Those play-calling duties fall to head coach Sean McVay. However, each week McVay allows O’Connell to script the first 15 plays of the game. Any long-time Broncos fan, or a person familiar with the Shanahan offense, know how important the first 15 plays are.
Everything builds off those 15 plays. The rest of the game is set up by the play design of those initial plays, and a good plan can help get the offense off to a good start. McVay is seen as an offensive genius, and he’s the one calling the plays, but he has delegated the duties of scheming the first 15 plays to O’Connell and that’s a great sign of the trust he has in him.
From my scouting notes on O’Connell as a player… His football intelligence is high, and you can tell when watching film that he understands where to go with the ball. O’Connell’s athleticism affords him the opportunity to pick up yards with his legs, but he’s always looking to pass. I like the way he uses his eyes to manipulate the defense and he regularly goes to second and third reads in his progressions – even when under duress.
I know O’Connell is bright – incredibly bright – just like he was as a player. Yes, things didn’t work out for him in his short/journeyman career. However, he’s built a strong reputation as a coach and will be a head coach in the NFL someday soon. He’s unlikely to be the head coach of the Broncos – but you don’t want O’Connell to be “the one who got away” like Kyle Shanahan was years ago when they passed on him for Vance Joseph.
While many, including myself, think Dan Quinn will be named the Broncos head coach in a week or so, I do know that someone like O’Connell could “wow” them. I hope general manager George Paton has an open mind, especially is O’Connell proves to be ready for the opportunity. Not only does he need to show he’s ready, but if O’Connell shows the leadership he did years ago as a player – it might catapult him near the top of Paton’s list.