Norv Turner’s digital playbooks were not ceremonially bashed with a sledgehammer Wednesday morning or buried deep in one of the Winter Park practice fields.
The bad news is that after Turner’s stunning resignation the Vikings, in the short term at least, still will be running the same offense that yielded 11 sacks and produced only 20 points in back-to-back losses in Philadelphia and Chicago.
The good news is that it is also the same offense that topped 350 yards and put up 24 points in each of the team’s blowout wins over New York and Houston.
With only four days to prepare for the Detroit Lions, hitting Control+ALT+ Delete was not an option for interim offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. In the short term, he will have to pick the best parts of what is already there in a Vikings playbook that was theoretically Turner’s but also has Shurmur’s fingerprints all over it.
That’s why Wednesday afternoon, after the players had a couple of hours to process the news that Turner had stepped aside, Shurmur’s message in his first team meeting as the new offensive play-caller was to not expect an instant overhaul.
“He’s not going to come in and change everything,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “But we’re going to try to get back to some of the stuff we had success with.”
Slowly over the coming weeks, and hopefully in time for the playoff push, Shurmur will be able to, if he wants, further integrate into the 31st-ranked Vikings offense the West Coast passing concepts he learned under Andy Reid while possibly sprinkling in some of the breakneck pace he watched Chip Kelly play at for three years.
But it is fair to wonder if Shurmur has enough time and, perhaps more important, enough healthy bodies to get the banged-up Vikings offense back on track.
West Coast disciple
During a decade with Reid in Philadelphia, Shurmur became immersed in the West Coast offense, which had been passed down from Bill Walsh to Mike Holmgren to Reid. The scheme features shorter routes, quicker throws and wide receivers gaining chunks of yards after the catch. Running backs are featured pass-catchers, too.
“The West Coast offense, if there’s 300 people in the room, it may get defined 300 different ways,” Shurmur said back in 2011. “It’s a passing game that’s highly efficient, which really banks on accuracy, so you can get it to the receivers, so they can run with it. There are throws down the field, which are very important.”
Shurmur brought his West Coast offense with him to St. Louis in 2009, when Steve Spagnuolo tabbed him to be offensive coordinator for the Rams. His work with Sam Bradford, whom the Rams picked first overall in 2010, helped him get hired by the Cleveland Browns as head coach in 2011. He won nine games in two years.
He landed on his feet in Philadelphia with Kelly, the so-called mad scientist whose warp-speed Oregon Ducks had put up piles of points on college foes.
Shurmur was tasked with helping Kelly tack on a professional-caliber passing offense to his simple but efficient running attack. The finished product was a shotgun spread system with Kelly’s zone runs and a passing game heavy on West Coast principles.
The Eagles, with Kelly calling the plays, finished second in the NFL in total offense in 2013 and fifth in 2014. They ranked 12th in 2015, with Bradford averaging a career-high 7.0 yards per pass attempt in his lone season in Philadelphia.
By the end of Kelly’s tenure, though, Eagles players and their opponents were saying his scheme, particularly the running part, had become predictable. Still, Shurmur, 51, “learned quite a bit” from Kelly, whom he called an “out-of-the-box thinker.”
“We went into the first meeting and the first thing he said was, ‘We’ve done it this way always is not the right answer.’ … We stumbled upon some really, really good stuff,” Shurmur said. “But there are some things that have been done in this league for a long, long time for the right reasons. I learned that from him.”
Coordinator change can help
The Vikings are already the fourth NFL team to change offensive coordinators this season. There are new play-callers in Baltimore, Buffalo and Jacksonville, too.
Typically, there is not a radical change in performance after a midseason change. But it is possible for such a move to pay off in a big way. Just ask Matt Birk.
In 2012, the year the former Vikings center won a Super Bowl ring in Baltimore, the Ravens boldly fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after two straight December losses. They promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell to replace him, lost two of their next three, then watched their offense catch fire in January.
Caldwell, now head coach of the Lions, said, “There was no magic to it.” Yeah, the Ravens ran the ball a little bit more. But for the most part, they just played better.
Birk, in a phone interview this week, was quick to point out that the situation with the Ravens was different from what these Vikings are going through. The core pieces on that underperforming offense — such as quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and three of five starters on the line — had been there for a few seasons.
“It wasn’t like Jim came in and changed everything. He said at the first meeting, ‘We’re not going to switch out playbooks and start doing stuff we haven’t done,’ ” Birk said. “Obviously we felt like we would be a special team that year, but it was the middle of December and the offense was just not playing up to its capability.”
The Ravens lost Caldwell’s first game as interim play-caller, at one point trailing Peyton Manning and the Broncos 31-3. A month later, they won a 38-35 double-overtime shootout with Denver on their way to the Super Bowl.
“So you can’t go and judge it after one or two or three weeks,” Birk cautioned.
Speeding up may hide flaws
Shurmur and the Vikings have much more time than the 2012 Ravens did, but former NFL head coach Mike Nolan still doesn’t think drastic changes can be made.
“I don’t know if there will be many changes. The difference will be in play-calling,” Nolan said on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “As far as the structure, I think it will be very much the same. It will be difficult to change at this point. But more importantly, when they put that thing together, it was a consensus of all of the [coaches].”
The job title the Vikings gave to Shurmur when they hired him back in January was tight ends coach. But they also wanted him to bring in fresh ideas to the offense, especially when it came to shotgun formations. And after trading for Bradford days before the start of the season, they incorporated his input even more.
That is showing up in the quick-hitting shotgun passing game the Vikings have used since placing running back Adrian Peterson on injured reserve. Bradford’s average depth of target has been 7.5 yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus.
Shurmur’s influence is also apparent in the increased use of run-pass option plays and the up-tempo pace they have used at times, rushing up to the line of scrimmage after big plays to try to catch defenders off guard. Both are Kelly staples.
“Some of the tempo stuff where we get on the ball and try to go fast and pick up the pace, obviously that was some carry-over from what we did last year in Philadelphia,” Bradford said. “And then some of the pass concepts from St. Louis kind of carried over. There was a fair amount of carry-over from what [he’s done] in the past.”
Injuries must be overcome
Former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, now an ESPN analyst who covered the 20-10 loss to the Bears on Monday night, said adopting a high-tempo offense could “mask some of their flaws” and “create some equal footing at the line of scrimmage.”
But Dilfer isn’t sure if the Vikings can overcome their key injuries on offense.
In addition to Peterson and young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Vikings have also lost starting tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith to injured reserve. They had to lure veteran Jake Long off his couch to start at left tackle. And now guard Alex Boone, their big free-agent pickup, is out because of a trio of injuries.
“One of the greatest challenges in the NFL is synergy in your blocking scheme. It usually takes a lot of time to develop a group,” Dilfer said. “Then you lose your runner, lose your quarterback that was directing the signals at the line of scrimmage, you lose both tackles. I’d say it would be a challenge if you lost two out of the four.
“It’s nearly impossible to thrive when you have that many new people trying to learn how to play together on the fly. You’re not trying to thrive as much as survive.”
But Dilfer believes Mike Zimmer’s smothering defense gives the Vikings a chance to remain in playoff position while Shurmur establishes an offensive identity.
In the meantime, starting Sunday with the Lions, Shurmur must stick with Turner’s playbook. So it’s a good thing he didn’t bash or bury them all.
“I don’t think you totally change what we’re doing offensively,” Shurmur said. “Any time you have an offense you have a pretty thick playbook. So you just pick the plays that you think work best with the players that you have and use them.”