EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings’ coaching staff encountered a problem early in its tenure. While building his offensive scheme, coach Kevin O’Connell wanted to incorporate a menu of plays he used in his previous role as the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator. Unfortunately, those plays were grouped in what the Rams called their “Rampage” menu, named after the team’s mascot.
“We didn’t want to use that word,” said Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips, previously a Rams assistant with O’Connell.
They went around the room, using what O’Connell called the coaches’ “word bank.”
“Viktor,” the Vikings’ mascot, didn’t sound right. Neither did “Ragnar,” a nickname for an earlier mascot. Eventually, they settled on “Rage,” a word that occasionally pops up around Viking and Norse mythology.
NFL teams spend millions of dollars on their coaching staffs, who then devote countless hours creating innovative strategies and new-age techniques for player development. Before all that happens, however, coaches go through the time-honored NFL tradition of conceiving unique and proprietary terminology for their plays, cadences and checks at the line of scrimmage. In Minnesota, that has meant the team’s first overhaul of verbiage in nearly a decade, following coach Mike Zimmer’s eight-season run, and it has sent some of the team’s most established veterans into extreme schoolhouse mode.
“It’s wild,” receiver Adam Thielen said recently 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.”
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Quarterback Kirk Cousins has resorted to flash cards, using them on a nightly basis during OTAs to memorize the words and match them to the playcalls.
“It’s an effective method and has been effective for me,” Cousins said, “but not one that I’ve used a lot in the past. I was kind of chuckling to myself, just the fact that that’s how I was studying. You ‘ve got to learn it somehow, and if this works, great.”
NFL playbooks are among the most closely guarded documents in sports, but the irony of it all is that most teams run a version of the same plays — as the Vikings’ transition from “Rampage” to “Rage” indicates. It’s rare when a truly original concept emerges. But the words used to call those plays change regularly, for at least two reasons. First, O’Connell said, enhanced audio coverage during game broadcasts can reveal key clues to opponents and require regular updating.
“The TV copies have become a valuable thing around the league,” O’Connell said, “and not just to hear the analysts predict plays and things like that, but to actually hear what you’re putting on tape, [such as] cadences and different things we do at the line of scrimmage.”
More importantly, however, O’Connell and many other coaches try to use words that have a tangible connection to the team and its players. “Explaining the why,” O’Connell said, can make it easier to learn the verbiage.
Cousins recalled a time shortly after the Washington Commanders drafted him in 2012. His offensive coordinator at the time, Kyle Shanahan, taught a play called “Arches.” Cousins struggled to absorb it and asked Shanahan why he called it “Arches.” As it turned out, the play had been popularized by the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” offense of the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the time, the Rams played in St. Louis, home of the iconic Gateway Arch.
Once Shanahan made that connection, complete with a video of the Rams running the play with Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, Cousins never forgot it.
Many of today’s NFL players were in diapers when the Rams played in St. Louis, of course, and might not get the reference. “Arches” has been modernized several times since.
Defensive terminology is typically simpler and shorter, but for that reason, it has to change frequently. So as they learn new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell’s scheme and playcalls, Vikings defensive players are preparing for a different challenge.
“You need to know the details of the play,” inside linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “Then the internal adjustments within the play. So it’s just as tough as on the offensive side. I know for us, our calls are probably a little simpler than theirs — two-word calls versus 15-word calls on offense like these guys But still, to understand the meaning and what’s behind it, that’s what we have to do, and with all the changes to come.”
It hasn’t been surprising to see and hear a high level of confusion and questions during the Vikings’ spring practices. Thielen noted while “everything makes sense,” he is currently “swimming” amid a huge swath of material to memorize in a relatively short time period.
In part because of that learning curve, O’Connell has conducted most 11-on-11 drills at “jog-through” speed this spring to focus on mental processing over physical perfection. It helps, of course, to have playcalls that are easier to remember.
“The ‘why’ helps me learn it,” Cousins said. “I don’t ask, ‘Why?’ to be difficult. I say, ‘If you give me the why, it’ll help me memorize it.’ To their credit, there was intentionality [and] there was thought put behind why the word is called this and why the word is called that, sometimes more than I even thought when I asked the question.”