What Will J.J. McCarthy’s Development Tell Us About Kevin O’Connell’s System? - Zone Coverage (2024)

In Kevin O’Connell‘s first year as head coach, Kirk Cousins used flashcards to learn O’Connell’s complicated play calls. Adam Thielen said he was “swimming” in the material he had to know before the season started. “It’s wild,” Thielen said on The Pat McAfee Show. “It’s the most learning I’ve ever had to do. … I’m trying to figure out ways as an old man to learn fast and try to figure out the little details.”

Cousins was 34 and entering his 11th season in 2022, and Thielen was 32 and entering his ninth. They were NFL veterans who had learned multiple offenses. Still, they found it challenging to internalize O’Connell’s Sean McVay-inspired offense. Imagine being J.J. McCarthy, 21, who the Minnesota Vikings drafted as their franchise quarterback after playing in Jim Harbaugh’s run-heavy offense at Michigan.

McCarthy has much to learn, so the Vikings are starting him in the shallow end.

“We’re keeping it pretty tight for right now as a group, but [we’re] stacking some things together for [McCarthy],” O’Connell said at the beginning of organized team activities (OTAs) in May.

“He’s doing a great job of handling everything and just enjoying seeing the process, rep-to-rep improvement. … We just kind of want to continue to stress him above the neck, and then when we get out here on the grass, it’s techniques, fundamentals, rhythm, timing, and all the things that go into playing quarterback in our offense.”

OTAs and minicamp ended on June 12, and training camp doesn’t begin until July 27. But McCarthy is still at the Vikings facility, getting up to speed on O’Connell’s offense. “I’m just going to be in the facility as much as I possibly can,” he said on the last day of minicamp, “focused on building habits I can rely on in training camp.”

O’Connell and the Vikings are being careful with McCarthy. They have an individualized development plan for McCarthy and will not start him until he’s ready. Sam Darnold will likely begin the year as Minnesota’s starting quarterback and may play the entire season. There are a few optimal spots for McCarthy to take over for Darnold. The Vikings could put him under center after the Week 6 bye or in Week 9 vs. the Indianapolis Colts, which kicks off the easier part of Minnesota’s schedule.

Nick Mullens will likely dress as Minnesota’s primary backup early in the season, and he would play over McCarthy if Darnold goes down during the more challenging part of the schedule. The Vikings play the San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans, and Green Bay Packers at Lambeau in Weeks 2, 3, and 4. In Week 5, they fly to London to play the New York Jets. Minnesota isn’t going to start McCarthy’s career in Green Bay or at Tottenham Stadium before he’s learned O’Connell’s offense. He could be under center in Jacksonville by Week 10, though.

“We’re not going to rush his development,” general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said. “We’re just going to do what’s best for the Vikings in the short and long term.”

Ultimately, McCarthy must learn O’Connell’s offense before he takes the field. He is O’Connell’s hand-picked successor to Kirk Cousins, a winner at every level who the Vikings feel can bring them a championship. McCarthy must put in the time to master Minnesota’s offense, but a rookie quarterback must be able to learn his system.

O’Connell runs a complicated offense for a reason. O’Connell has designed it to adjust to any defense. He wants to marry the run and the pass and create open receivers on every play. McCarthy must master his footwork and learn how to read the field. The Vikings coach their quarterbacks to keep their dropbacks free of clues defenders could use to tell the difference between short, intermediate, and deep throws. They preach “base, balance, and body position” to help quarterbacks arrive at a strong throwing platform as receivers come open.

“It’s small adjustments: the difference sequences of a drop from the acceptance of a snap, the takeaway crossover steps, position steps to set your feet toward the target,” O’Connell said at the end of minicamp. “And then on top of that, sometimes it’s just decision making. As long as they’re reading the progressions the right way and playing with good timing, [they can] try and fit the football into a window or test their ability to stretch it outside the numbers and get it there before a [defensive back] can undercut it.”

McCarthy is willing to stay patient and learn.

“Growth is not a straight line,” he said. “It goes up, it goes down, it goes up, it goes down. But I’m just trying to maintain the trajectory of it going up and up, and I feel like I’m on that [path]. … Failure is inevitable in sports. You’ve just got to learn from them and learn from those little dips and not be attached to them emotionally. That’s what I’ve been working on.”

Still, if he ultimately can’t master the offense, that’s as much on O’Connell as it is on McCarthy. The Vikings must have a system that the quarterback they drafted can learn and execute. It doesn’t have to happen this year, but they want to get him on the field as soon as possible to maximize his rookie contract.

McCarthy can throw the ball to Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, and T.J. Hockenson. He will operate behind an offensive line with continuity and can hand the ball off to Aaron Jones. However, if Minnesota’s offensive system is too complex to operate, having one of the league’s best offensive arsenals does him little good.

Tom Schreier

What Will J.J. McCarthy’s Development Tell Us About Kevin O’Connell’s System? - Zone Coverage (1)

Tom Schreier is the founder and proprietor of Zone Coverage. He created Zone Coverage with the goal of mixing new age media with old-school journalism. His goal was to create an economically sustainable platform for sports content for Minnesota fans. Before Zone Coverage, Tom wrote for Bleacher Report and Yahoo! Sports before joining 105 The Ticket in 2014.

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What Will J.J. McCarthy’s Development Tell Us About Kevin O’Connell’s System? - Zone Coverage (2024)
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