EAGAN, Minn. — Kevin O’Connell’s football world was settling nicely in the summer of 2009. The quarterback immediately ahead of him on the New England Patriots‘ depth chart had been traded away. The Patriots had added two free agent quarterbacks as depth, but O’Connell — a third-round draft pick the previous year — was the favorite to emerge from training camp as Tom Brady‘s top backup.
As it turned out, O’Connell didn’t emerge from camp with the Patriots at all. He was waived in August, one day after a disastrous preseason outing, and within weeks he was moving toward the slow sunset of his on-field career.
O’Connell’s time in New England is a biting example of the story so many NFL players experience. He was a less-than-elite prospect whose window to prove himself was opened before he was ready, and then it was closed forever.
Upon his departure from the Patriots, O’Connell got caught in waiver wire gamesmanship and ultimately landed with the New York Jets, who had just drafted quarterback Mark Sanchez with the No. 5 overall pick. Their interest was piqued in part by O’Connell’s familiarity with AFC East rival Patriots, and not necessarily a projection that he could one day help them on the field.
More than a decade later, that series of events has taken on new relevance. O’Connell will coach the Minnesota Vikings against the Patriots on Thanksgiving night (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), a reminder that when one door closes another opens. The Jets were so impressed with his knowledge of the Patriots’ scheme that he became an informal member of their coaching staff over the next three seasons, without ever stepping on the field in a regular-season game.
A year in New England didn’t make O’Connell a coach — but getting cut by them set him on that path.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever accepted how it all went,” O’Connell told ESPN of his playing career. “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 year as the Patriots’ vice president of player personnel when he started preparing for the 2008 draft. Much like the Green Bay Packers of the 1990s, those Patriots aggressively pursued QB prospects even with a future Hall of Fame starter still in his prime.
It didn’t take long for Pioli to zero in on O’Connell as an ideal Patriots target, one who could potentially back up Brady, develop in their culture and then either succeed him or be a trade asset in a few years.
“From a physical tools standpoint, he was fantastic,” said 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 record the fastest 40 time among quarterbacks who ran at the 2008 combine: 4.61. More importantly though, Pioli and Patriots coach Bill Belichick value prospects who had been team captains. O’Connell had been a captain for four years at San Diego State. The Patriots followed through by making him the No. 94 overall pick of the draft, the fifth quarterback selected after Matt Ryan (Atlanta), Joe Flacco (Baltimore), Brian Brohm (Green Bay) and Chad Henne (Miami).
O’Connell recalls being “honored” to be valued by a team that had won three of the previous seven Super Bowls, but admitted wondering: “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 during the first game of the regular season. The injury elevated backup Matt Cassel to starter for the remainder of the season. O’Connell spent the year as Cassel’s No. 2, appearing in two games and completing 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 said he was “very excited going into Year 2” and felt like he “was going to take the next step.”
But by their standards, the Patriots were about to experience significant organizational upheaval. Pioli departed after the season to be the Kansas City Chiefs‘ general manager. Pioli soon acquired Cassel via trade. And offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was hired away as the Denver Broncos‘ new coach. So while Cassel’s departure cleared a spot on the depth chart, two of the team’s top three decision-makers on the quarterback position were also gone in a matter of weeks.
TO HEDGE THEIR bets in 2009 as Brady rehabilitated his knee, the Patriots signed undrafted rookie Brian Hoyer as well as veteran backup Andrew Walter. Hoyer caught the eye of coaches and other training camp observers right away, while O’Connell’s performance was uneven.
And then O’Connell had his worst day. In the team’s third preseason game against Washington, O’Connell was 3-of-10 for 18 yards with two interceptions. The next day, Belichick summoned him to a meeting with director of player personnel Nick Caserio and first-year offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. The Patriots had made the decision to waive O’Connell and keep Hoyer as the sole backup with Brady ready to resume his starting role.
Belichick told New England reporters this week it simply “didn’t work out here” for O’Connell. While it was “tough” to enter the season with only two quarterbacks, Belichick said, “It’s what most teams did in those years.”
In retrospect, O’Connell said he “maybe tried to do too much” to impress coaches that summer. But it wasn’t as if he had displayed a poor attitude or work ethic, flaws that could lead teams to waive a high draft choice 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 said. “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 just never know when that time is going to come when your evaluation is going to be complete from a team. It certainly helps me today talking to players about taking advantage of opportunities.”
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 “somebody from behind the Iron Curtain” of Patriots insider knowledge.
“You always do that when someone comes from a team you’re playing,” said Pettine, who is now the Vikings’ assistant head coach. “A lot of times it does you more harm than good, but you could tell right away with Kevin that the information he gave us would be very helpful.”
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 said to me, ‘Mike, this guy is the best defensive coordinator in the building, 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 learned in New England to do whatever you can to help the team, and to do your job, whatever that may be,” O’Connell said. “So my goal moving forward was to provide value in any way shape or form that I could. If that meant helping the defense prepare for a certain offense, if that meant helping Mark Sanchez prepare for the upcoming opponent any way that I could, I just started taking a little bit more of a view that however I could help, I was going to do that.
“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 more succinct.
“Kevin wasn’t a great quarterback,” Pettine said. “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 other retired players, O’Connell can only wonder where his career might have gone were it not for some of those fateful twists. Pioli said he submitted a waiver claim on O’Connell in 2009. So did McDaniels in Denver, according to multiple reports at the time. Their waiver priority was simply lower than the Lions’, who had the worst record in football in 2008.
What if O’Connell had wound up with the Chiefs or Broncos? What if the Lions had traded him to a team that had more of an immediate need on the field?
“Player development is extremely circumstantial,” Pioli said. “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 player, Tannenbaum said.
“He probably at the time was somewhere between the 40 to 60 best quarterbacks on the planet,” Tannenbaum said. “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 against Belichick and the Patriots on the strength of what he learned as a player there 15 seasons ago. And he acknowledged he has tried to incorporate Belichick’s “attention to detail” and willingness to reinvent his schemes based on personnel and trends.
“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 said. “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 truth is the most important lesson didn’t take until 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.”
How Kevin O’Connell’s short playing career led to coaching Vikings