In Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman would be turning over the team’s on-field decision-making to a pair of coaches who played key roles in bringing the Leslie Frazier era to its ugly end.
Zimmer, who was named Frazier’s successor as Vikings coach Wednesday, was the Bengals defensive coordinator when he essentially landed the Frazier Era kill shot with a 42-14, Week 16 mauling that came a week after the improving Vikings had blown out the playoff-bound Eagles.
Thirteen weeks earlier, Turner — who is expected to become Zimmer’s offensive coordinator but wouldn’t comment on that possibility when reached Thursday — arrived at the Metrodome as Browns offensive coordinator Sept. 22.
Yeah, it was Week 3 and the Vikings were 0-2 and coming off a last-minute loss at Chicago. But they were virtually assured of a victory in their home opener against the lowly Browns.
Cleveland was 0-2 and General Manager Mike Lombardi had spent the week before the Vikings game trading starting running back Trent Richardson and forcing the promotion of Brian Hoyer from No. 3 quarterback to starter.
The league was laughing at the Browns until Turner and Hoyer called and executed a clutch drive to beat the Vikings 31-27 in the final minute. With his running game working for the Colts, Turner called 11 consecutive passing plays as Hoyer, in only his second NFL start, completed six of them for 55 yards and a 7-yard touchdown on third-and-goal.
“Look at that game and all that Norv was going through that week,” said former Vikings quarterback and current Sirius XM NFL analyst Rich Gannon, who also played under Turner in Oakland in 2004. “People say Richardson didn’t do anything once he was traded to Indianapolis. But he was still Cleveland’s best offensive player and pretty good the year before. Hoyer comes in and he’s never really played. But look at the season [receiver] Josh Gordon had playing with three quarterbacks.”
Turner and Hoyer would lead Cleveland on a three-game winning streak before a knee injury knocked Hoyer out for the rest of the season. The Browns collapsed and coach Rob Chudzinski was fired after only one season, putting Turner on the open market for the second time in two years.
With a defensive-minded head coach and instability at quarterback, the Vikings’ choice for offensive coordinator is on par with its choice for head coach. The 61-year-old Turner will come with 29 years of NFL coaching experience, including 15 as a head coach and eight as an offensive coordinator.
As a head coach, Turner’s teams in Washington, Oakland and San Diego were considered soft in part because Turner didn’t make his mark as a motivator. Those 15 teams combined for a 114-122-1 record and only four playoff appearances.
But as an offensive mind, Turner is one of the more well-respected coaches in the league. Turner has had 11 top-10 passing offenses, but Gannon says don’t overlook Norv’s ground game.
“I think Norv being hired in Minnesota is a very good thing for Adrian Peterson,” Gannon said. “I think people have this misconception that he’s had all this success with great quarterbacks like Troy Aikman and Philip Rivers. If you really study Norv, he’s had some of the best rushing offenses in the league.”
Turner has coached five rushing champions. Emmitt Smith won three in a row with the Cowboys, including the Super Bowl-winning seasons of 1992 and ’93 seasons, when Turner was offensive coordinator. Ricky Williams won it in 2002, when Turner was offensive coordinator in Miami. And LaDainian Tomlinson won it in 2007, when Turner was head coach in San Diego.
Meanwhile, Turner also has had two receivers lead the league: Michael Irvin in 1991 and Gordon, a second-year player who excelled under Turner this season.
“Norv’s an innovative guy who knows how to get the ball into the right hands,” Gannon said. “He runs the ball, but his system features the vertical passing game. He’s going to attack safeties and throw the ball down the field.”
Gannon said he believes the Vikings job is an attractive one for Turner, with one significant caveat, of course.
“They got a great running back and a pretty solid offensive line that maybe underperformed a little bit this year,” Gannon said. “You have a couple decent receivers. This [Cordarrelle] Patterson kid looks like he’s going to be a player.
“If you’re Norv, you say to yourself, ‘If we get the quarterback situation addressed, this thing could work here. You could get this thing turned around pretty quick.’ ”