EAGAN, Minn. (AP)The bond Matt Daniels has developed with his players in his first season as special teams coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings stretches out of the practice facility and into the parking lot.
Each week, Daniels turns over his designated space to a player whose effort and performance on the unsung units of the kicking game warrants the honor.
From the VIP vehicle treatment to his self-appointed player nicknames to the custom-made hats – with ”ST” on the front and an African proverb about the strength of community on the side – he gave the group, Daniels has done his best to make Minnesota’s special teams, well, special. That starts with strategy meetings that are always interactive, never paternalistic.
The fellowship was strengthened during training camp when Daniels’ father, Bruce, died of a heart attack. Daniels told his players he needed their support, and the connection has only grown since.
”I’m always big on a two-way flow of communication,” Daniels said. ”I don’t want to be up there where you’re constantly hearing me talk for 30 or 40 minutes and I’m not hearing any type of conversation coming back at me.”
The 33-year-old’s first season in a leadership position at any level has coincided with an overall improvement by the Vikings in this vital area and facilitated a unique camaraderie on a team that counts strong chemistry as a major asset entering the playoffs. They host the New York Giants in the wild-card round on Sunday.
”It’s just great to have a coach who’s trusting in you, believing in you, kind of feeling like a player on team in the way he’s integrated himself into the building,” said backup safety Josh Metellus, who blocked punts in consecutive games last month and was recently voted as a replacement captain for injured right tackle Brian O’Neill.
All-Pro long snapper Andrew DePaola is ”Sir Po.” Kicker Greg Joseph is ”G-Money.” Practice squad wide receiver Dan Chisena is ”Hot Sauce.” Daniels goes by ”Hat,” a moniker that stuck with him in college after a big hit in practice.
Daniels got a degree in public policy at Duke, where he was a first team All-ACC safety in 2011. He latched on as an undrafted rookie with the Rams and lasted four years in the league.
Painfully bad luck for his playing career served as a seed-planting spark for his move into coaching, even if he didn’t fully appreciate it while rehabilitating a torn ACL and MCL in his knee in 2012 and then a broken tibia and fibula and dislocated ankle in 2013. Both of those injuries occurred while blocking on kick returns when another player rolled into his leg.
John Fassel, then the Rams special teams coordinator, started an apprenticeship of sorts to help Daniels stay involved during his time on injured reserve. He taught him the nuances of reviewing film and even assigned him presentations to the special-teamers for that week’s game plan.
So it was only fitting that Daniels found his first coaching job in the NFL as Fassel’s assistant in 2018. He went with him to the Cowboys in 2020, and a year ago new Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell hired Daniels to run the whole special teams show.
”Matt brings a lot of juice to the coaching staff. He brings a lot more swag than I do, certainly, and he’s done a phenomenal job with that group,” offensive coordinator Wes Phillips said. ”As far as my time in the league, I think this unit is more invested than maybe any. Sometimes there’s guys who are just waiting to get their shot other places, and obviously guys want to play on offense and defense, but we’ve got a lot of guys, core special teams guys, that are really excited about going out there and really making plays to change the game.”
Rookie Ryan Wright is ninth in the NFL in percentage of punts inside the 20-yard line and seventh in the league in net punting average. The Vikings are also eighth in the NFL in average starting field position differential.
They gave up a touchdown on a kickoff return by Packers All-Pro Keisean Nixon two weeks ago, but Kene Nwangwu scored on a kickoff return in a seven-point win over the Patriots on Nov. 24. And while Joseph has missed seven field goals and six extra points, he has five game-winning kicks.
His ability to read the room and know his players have helped Daniels coach Joseph through multiple slumps, favoring the less-is-more approach to keep from psyching his kicker out. That’s one example of the profile Daniels has been building as a potential future head coach.
”I love playing for the man, but at the same time if it does happen while I’m still here, I’m going to be his biggest supporter,” DePaola said. ”I’m going to be like, `Hey, you’ve got it.’ Because not only does he have a special knack for coaching teams, he has a special knack with relating with everybody on the team.”
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