It was 3 p.m. Wednesday and Norv Turner wasn’t on the field for the start of the Vikings’ first practice in preparation for Sunday’s game against the Lions.
“Tough day,” Turner said by phone. “Tough day.”
His voice was deflated. He had resigned as Vikings offensive coordinator at 6:30 that morning, shocking head coach Mike Zimmer with “the hardest decision I’ve made.” Feeling that he and the team had differing views on how to fix a struggling, injury riddled offense, Turner was at his Twin Cities residence preparing for a return to San Diego and, who knows, a possible 43rd consecutive fall of coaching football in 2017, “if the right opportunity presents itself because I still love coaching.”
Turner praised the Vikings organization and the players. He also said he had the “utmost respect” for Zimmer.
“I think he’s as good a coach as I’ve been around,” Turner said. “But it just got to the point where I didn’t think it was going to work with me. So I removed myself.”
Turner wouldn’t elaborate. But it’s no secret Zimmer didn’t hire Pat Shurmur just to coach tight ends. Zimmer even said as much when he hired the former head coach, coordinator and longtime assistant who spent 10 years learning Andy Reid’s version of the West Coast offense in Philadelphia.
The Vikings were coming off an 11-win season and a division championship. Turner’s offense had served a successfully conservative complementary role with the league rushing champion. But it ranked 29th in total yards (321.2 per game) and 31st in passing (183.0).
“This is nothing between me and Mike,” Turner said. “I just think it’s an overall thing. I truly think this move may end up being a positive for the Vikings.”
Asked how a man who has spent literally half of his 64 years coaching NFL football could make that statement, Turner said, “I just think they got a chance to get on the same page.”
Two weeks ago, the Vikings were the league’s last undefeated team at 5-0. They were being praised for overcoming a parade of season-ending injuries on offense. The franchise quarterback, Hall of Fame running back and both starting tackles were on injured reserve before the bye week.
Turner was 1-0 with journeyman Shaun Hill at quarterback and 4-0 with Sam Bradford, who arrived via trade eight days before the start of the season. But things fell apart during a two-game losing streak on the road at Philadelphia and Chicago.
The Vikings scored 20 points in double-digit losses, gave up 11 sacks, 22 additional quarterback hits and sit 31st in total offense (293.3).
Asked how the offense will look differently under Shurmur, the interim coordinator, Turner said a lot by saying little.
“I have no idea,” he said. “That’s why I’m not there right now.”
Obviously, Shurmur and Bradford have a history. Shurmur was Rams offensive coordinator in 2010, when Bradford went from No. 1 overall draft pick to NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Last year, Shurmur was offensive coordinator when Bradford spent his one season with the Eagles. When Chip Kelly was fired with one game left in the season, Shurmur was promoted to interim head coach.
If he and Bradford can do to the Lions what they did to the Giants on the road in that season finale 11 months ago, Vikings fans will be thrilled. Granted, the Giants were awful and the Eagles had eight-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters at left tackle, but Bradford completed 30 of 38 passes for 320 yards and two touchdowns with one interception and one sack in a 35-30 victory.
Shurmur slowed Kelly’s breakneck-paced offense down a little and was able to play a more typical West Coast, ball-control style that posted a season-high 16-play touchdown drive and converted 10 of 13 third-down situations.
Bradford played mostly out of the shotgun, throwing quicker passes, screens, slants and swing passes behind the line of scrimmage. Shurmur used a lot of play-action fakes to set up five passes that traveled about 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. As for balance, he called 26 runs, netting 120 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown run by DeMarco Murray.
Tight ends played a huge role in shots down the field off the play-action game that day. Zach Ertz caught nine passes for a career-high 152 yards, including a 60-yarder.
Kyle Rudolph should enjoy hearing that. With Turner as his offensive coordinator, he caught touchdown passes in both victories over the Lions last year.
But this is a new season. Or at least a new midseason that, strangely, no longer includes Norv Turner.