Sam Bradford has known Pat Shurmur through eight years, three NFL cities and countless tweaks to a chameleon offense that’s shocking the NFL by helping the Vikings steamroll into the playoffs as their $18 million starting quarterback misses his 14th game of the season on Sunday.
“One of the things I like about Pat is just his willingness to adapt,” Bradford said by phone Friday, two days before the Vikings’ regular-season finale at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“There are guys in the league, they learn a system, it’s the system they were brought up in and that system never really deviates. And then there are guys like Pat, who look at his players, look at trends in the league and have the ability to use new things to create offenses that are a little bit more dynamic and more complex for defenses to stop.”
Bradford, who hasn’t played since Oct. 9, is expected to begin practicing again next week. A win over the 5-10 Bears would give the Vikings (12-3) a first-round bye and an extra week to prepare Bradford if they so choose.
Asked if he and his left knee are ready to resume practicing, Bradford said: “Yeah, hopefully. I’m getting better. That’s all I’m excited about.”
He then quickly checked out of that conversation back to one of his favorite football subjects: Shurmur, whom he has played for as a Ram, Eagle and Viking.
With many NFL teams expected to change coaches after Sunday’s action, Bradford’s admiration for the Vikings’ offensive coordinator probably will be shared by multiple general managers.
“I stay in the moment,” said Shurmur, who went 9-23 as Cleveland’s head coach from 2011-12. “I wouldn’t be a good hire if I displayed to a new employer — if there even is a new employer — that I couldn’t stay focused on my job right now.”
NFL rules allow for Shurmur to interview with teams next week if the Vikings get the bye. Asked if anything has been set up for next week, Shurmur said: “Gosh, no. … We’re playing ball. We have to find a way to score points against the Bears.”
The day Norv left
Sitting in his office last December, coach Mike Zimmer spoke openly about Nov. 2, 2016, the day offensive coordinator Norv Turner walked into his office, sat down in the corner chair and resigned. The Vikings were 5-2 at the time.
“It was shocking,” Zimmer said a year ago. “We talked for a while. I don’t know that I really tried to talk him out of it. It bothered me because I thought he was a friend of mine. So that’s what bothered me the most.”
A year later, with a top-10 offense sharing the spotlight with the league’s top-ranked defense, Turner is a distant memory at Winter Park. For the most part, so is his offense, which meshed together the “Air Coryell” passing system and a running attack that John Robinson made famous at USC and with the Rams.
“Really, it’s hard to pinpoint differences in the two offenses,” quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski said. “I can just tell you in terms of what we’re doing now is a melding of different systems. And we’re trying our best to fit it to what our guys do well.
“As coaches, you walk in there and say: ‘Here’s who we are as players. Here’s what we are as a scheme. Now where is the beauty of those two meeting?’ Not to say we didn’t do that in the past. I just feel like this system this year is something where we’ve tried to think about the players first.”
Players echo those thoughts when asked to describe the differences in Shurmur’s offense. The obvious implication is Turner was too rigid, too unwilling to allow for changes and audibles.
Before Turner resigned, it was no secret that his system wasn’t meshing with an offensive line decimated by injuries. Shurmur was tight ends coach, but even Zimmer admitted that Shurmur was hired to bring fresh ideas to an offense that ranked 29th in 2015.
The day Turner resigned, he told the Star Tribune: “It just got to the point where I didn’t think it was going to work with me. So I removed myself.”
Stefanski said he still believes in Turner’s system. He also said he doesn’t want to paint Turner as being too rigid. He said the flexibility this year “speaks more to the fact that Pat has been in multiple systems.
“And because of that, he is a flexible play-caller. A flexible molder of a game plan, if that makes sense.”
Turner coached in 40 games for the Vikings. He opened with 34 points in a blowout win at St. Louis in 2014. Three weeks later, in Teddy Bridgewater’s starting debut, the Vikings had 558 yards of offense in a 41-28 win over the Falcons.
No one in purple left TCF Bank Stadium unfulfilled offensively that day.
Although there are multiple variables to consider, Turner’s stint included only three 400-yard games. Shurmur doubled that total in exactly half the number of games. His 18th, 19th and 20th games as coordinator produced 406, 451 and 408 yards with career journeyman quarterback Case Keenum making his eighth, ninth and 10th starts with the Vikings. And all three of those games came long after dynamic rookie running back Dalvin Cook suffered a season-ending knee injury.
In 2015, the year the Vikings went 11-5 and won the NFC North, Turner’s offense ranked 29th in yards (321.2), 16th in scoring (22.8), 29th in first downs (18.6), 20th in third-down conversions (38.19 percent) and 25th in red-zone touchdown percentage (50.0). This year, the Vikings offense ranks 10th in yards (358.9), 10th in scoring (23.9), seventh in first downs (20.9), third in third-down conversions (43.84) and 13th in red-zone touchdown percentage (55.56).
“One of the things I’ve learned here in my experience with Coach Zimmer is being more flexible,” Shurmur said. “It’s been very broadening for me as a coach. It’s ‘Let’s do what the players can do.’ Focus on that. Use everyone’s experiences. Don’t be so caught up on, ‘This is the system’ as opposed to let’s really morph it toward what these guys can do.”
Shurmur was a graduate student finishing his master’s in financial administration when he helped Michigan State win the 1988 Rose Bowl as an All-America honorable-mention center.
“I was going into the business world,” he said.
Things change. Coaching was in his blood. His uncle, Fritz, was a longtime NFL assistant who won a Super Bowl as Packers defensive coordinator in the ‘90s.
Asked to name the greatest influences in his coaching career, Shurmur begins with all the defensive coaches who have taught him how important running the ball is to a team’s overall strength. He names George Perles, whom he played for at Michigan State; Nick Saban, whom he coached under at Michigan State; former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson; uncle Fritz; and Zimmer.
In the ’90s, Shurmur was a college assistant visiting his uncle in Green Bay. He got to know then-Packers coach Mike Holmgren and Andy Reid, one of Holmgren’s offensive assistants.
Shurmur would become a West Coast disciple when Reid got the Eagles job in 1999 and hired Shurmur as an offensive assistant. In 2011, Holmgren was running the Browns when he hired Shurmur as coach.
Shurmur also mentions former Eagles coach Chip Kelly as someone who influenced him greatly. The no-huddle look Shurmur often shifts into comes from Kelly.
“I think one of the biggest differences [this year] is just Pat’s use of tempo,” Bradford said. “Obviously, when we were together in Philly, he saw some of the benefits of the no-huddle and what tempo can do for an offense. I think he’s created quite a few explosive plays this year by using that tempo.”
Players are appreciative.
“He does a really nice job of mixing things up,” offensive lineman Jeremiah Sirles said. “Defenses can’t really get a bead on us.”
“Pat’s not trying to reinvent the wheel,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “He’s just finding out what we do well and if we can do it five or six times a game instead of one or two, we get more cracks at it.”
So what do we call this new top-10 offense?
“Well,” Stefanski said, “I don’t think Pat, nor anyone else, would pigeonhole us into a specific system.
“The way I describe it is we run the Vikings offense. It truly has pieces of everything that Pat has been a part of previously. And he’s great at allowing this thing to be very collaborative. We bring all our ideas and we see what fits us. And then that’s what becomes the product on the field.”