Column: Kevin O’Connell had no shot against Cowboys

Kevin O’Connell stood on the NFL mountaintop Sunday, and the view was impressive.

Kevin O’Connell stood on the NFL mountaintop Sunday, and the view was terrifying.

O’Connell is the La Costa Canyon High graduate who leads the Minnesota Vikings as a rookie head coach. With a stunning 8-1 record — unsurpassed in the NFL through the season’s first 10 weeks — O’Connell’s gritty but not especially talented team tried not to look down Sunday. Eight wins against just one defeat? Not even Vikings fans who wear Nordic-themed purple pajamas would’ve predicted it.

Marveling at the team’s success, Tony Romo and Jim Nantz, calling Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys from Minneapolis, spoke glowingly of O’Connell to a national audience.

“Kevin O’Connell is a great coach who’ll be in this game for a long time,” said Romo, CBS’ lead analyst. “Just 37 years young,” intoned Nantz.

No sooner had the words sailed across the airiways that the Cowboys began to demonstrate the NFL can be a brutal place, even for an 8-1 team.

Dallas, stronger in both lines, overwhelmed the Vikings and didn’t let up, knowing O’Connell’s club had won three games it had trailed by 10 points.

There would be no Vikings rallies from seven points (first quarter), 20 points (halftime) or 34 points (three quarters).

The 40-3 victory kept the Cowboys (7-3) two games behind the NFC East-leading Eagles (9-1) and brought home three realities: 1) The Cowboys are better off having played five games without quarterback Dak Prescott, developing their ground game and simplifying the pass offense; 2) On carpet Dallas has too much speed for most teams; 3) The Vikings, like most playoff contenders, are vulnerable to matchup disadvantages posed by some opponents.

O’Connell’s offense had too few answers for edge rushers Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence. Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs’ speed and length bothered Vikings star receiver Justin Jefferson, blunting an advantage that burned the Bills seven days earlier. Dallas’ ground game blasted Minnesota’s interior and set up short wide passes that went for big gains to running back Tony Pollard.

Nine months ago O’Connell raised the Lombardi Trophy as the offensive coordinator to Rams head coach Sean McVay. Directing his own team to the top of the NFL’s afternoon TV lineup Sunday, he reaped rewards for hiring NFL lifer Ed Donatell, 65, as his defensive coordinator and encouraging quarterback Kirk Cousins to risk contested passes to Jefferson.

He wasn’t the first former San Diego State quarterback to draw the NFL spotlight.

Decades ago, Don Coryell-trained QB Don Horn was Vince Lombardi’s selection at pick No. 25 in New York City’s Gotham Hotel, three months after Lombardi’s Packers won the first Super Bowl. Brian Sipe earned the league’s MVP award in 1980 with Cleveland, and Dan McGwire went to Seattle as a first-round choice in 1991.

If Romo’s forecast holds, O’Connell will tack on decades to an NFL career that already has spanned 12 years. He spent three years as Tom Brady’s backup and coached under Mike Pettine, Chip Kelly and Jay Gruden.

It’ll take events more surprising than their 8-1 start for the Vikings (8-2) to lose the NFC North race to the Lions (4-6) or Packers (4-7).

So, despite the 37-point drubbing, pencil the rookie head coach for the playoffs and a possible rematch with Mike McCarthy’s Cowboys.

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