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How will Vikings’ O’Connell apply lessons learned from Belichick?

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Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell celebrates a win against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 11, 2022, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell celebrates a win against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 11, 2022, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. (Anthony Souffle/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Bill Belichick's Patriots were getting thrashed so soundly by Tony Sparano's Dolphins back in 2008 that some greenhorn rookie third-string quarterback named Kevin O'Connell came in and mopped up the final six minutes.

"Mopped up?! That's a heck of a term!" said O'Connell, feigning outrage at the term when it was presented to him on Tuesday, two days before the Vikings head coach faces Belichick at U.S. Bank Stadium on Thanksgiving night.

Sorry, Kev, but, yeah, mopped up.

The Patriots had started 2-0 even with Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury early on in the opener. They had won 21 straight regular-season games and were playing at home, while the Dolphins were 0-2 after finishing 1-15 the year before.

Dolphins 38, Patriots 13.

In his third game as a head coach, Sparano outcoached the master. Sparano unveiled the Wildcat offense that flummoxed the Patriots all day long. Ronnie Brown scored a team-record four rushing touchdowns and threw for another as four of the scores came on direct snaps to the running back.

Nothing that happened that day helped O'Connell the player. He attempted the first four passes of his career, completing three for 25 yards, and would attempt only two more in a seven-year career spent with five different teams.

What happened in the locker room after that game, during the next week of preparation, the next game and throughout the rest of that season still helps O'Connell the coach. The Patriots bounced back immediately, beating the 49ers on their way to an 11-5 season with Matt Cassel, not Brady.

"That sticks with me to this very day just as an example of what it's like to coach in those moments when adversity hits and how you need to be at your best for your team," O'Connell said.

He got a heaping helping of historic adversity on Sunday when Cowboys fans overtook U.S. Bank Stadium and serenaded their squad as Vikings fans were booing theirs throughout a 40-3 beatdown that marked the second-worst home defeat in franchise history.

Four days later, O'Connell, the rookie head coach with the 8-2 career record, will be trying to channel his inner Belichick against the man himself. The man whose 327 career wins, including six Super Bowl victories, ranks behind only Don Shula, who had 347.

Sorry, Don. We know you didn't like Bill. We know you called him "BeliCHEAT." But Bill eventually will leave this game as its winningest coach ever. And he'll get there in no small part for the way he and his teams methodically bounced back from adversity and blowout losses.

The kind of losses O'Connell experienced in his one season with Belichick. Like the time the home fans booed their dynasty off the field after that loss to the Dolphins.

"I just remember it was [Belichick] acknowledging the game, what happened, what took place, the things we did or didn't do in the that might have contributed to losing," O'Connell said. "And then how do we fix those things? How do we rectify any problems that we can control by doing our job and focusing on the things that we can control?

"That message was always direct, forward and something that was followed up on by the entire coaching staff coming off a game like that."

In 2003, the Patriots opened the season with a 31-0 loss to Buffalo. No problem. They won 14 of their next 15 games, including a 31-0 win over Buffalo that capped the regular season en route to winning the Super Bowl.

In 2014, the Patriots dynasty was declared dead by many a media outlet when Kansas City walloped New England 41-14 on "Monday Night Football." Belichick was 2-2 and being peppered with hardball questions. He answered every one of them by saying, "On to Cincinnati."

Funny how a guy known for winning birthed what's become an NFL cliche — "On to Cincinnati" — to be used after bad losses. Six days later, the Patriots beat Cincinnati 43-17. The dynasty would win the Super Bowl that year and twice more.

The dynasty has ended, of course. What's left is still a scrappy, dangerous, well-coached team that returned to the playoffs last year and is 6-4 this year.

Calling Belichick one of his coaching influences, O'Connell said, "I still have old notebooks with team meeting notes that are always great to go back and look through."

"You really can't put any kind of term on how much respect I have for him as far as the person, the coach, the leader, what he's meant to this league," O'Connell added.

Belichick, appearing on "The Greg Hill Show" on WEEI 93.7 in Boston, said O'Connell was "a very smart player, so it doesn't surprise me that he has adapted well to coaching and to coaching quarterbacks and being part of productive offenses. He's done a great job."

Kirk Cousins was asked Tuesday to characterize how O'Connell has handled the team after its two losses. The Vikings' other loss — 24-7 at Philadelphia — was followed by seven straight one-score wins.

"I was impressed coming out of the Eagles game," Cousins said. "First of all, the way he handled it in the locker room. He, unfairly, put it all on himself, which I didn't think was fair. But then the way we played post that game would say a lot about how he handled it and how his staff handled it and we as a group handled it. We've got that same challenge now."

Or, as Belichick might say, "On to New England."

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