LONDON – About a year ago Norv Turner quit as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator, thrusting Pat Shurmur into the job.
Turner’s abdication occurred as the team was collapsing. Turner could have complained about Teddy Bridgewater’s knee injury, or Adrian Peterson’s, or almost the entire offensive line diving headfirst into a virtual wood chipper, and he would have been justified.
Shurmur didn’t complain. He modified the offense to help Sam Bradford survive. Even as the team imploded, Bradford set an NFL record for accuracy.
In 2011 and 2012, Shurmur was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Sunday at Twickenham Stadium in London, the Vikings eased to a 33-16 victory over Cleveland. Shurmur won nine games running the Browns. Current Browns coach Hue Jackson, at his current pace, would win his ninth game in a year that provides the setting for a “Blade Runner” sequel.
As in 2016, the current Vikings lost their initial starting quarterback and running back, and have dealt with injuries to the offensive line. Unlike last year, this season the general manager did not make a stunning trade to replace his injured starting quarterback.
In some ways, Shurmur has faced more challenges through the first two months of this season than Turner did before he quit. With Shurmur running the offense, the Vikings are 6-2 and look more diverse and deceptive.
In Week 1, Bradford produced perhaps the best performance of his career, against the Saints. In Week 3, after his first full week of taking first-team snaps in practice, Case Keenum produced one of the best performances of his career, against the Buccaneers.
Watch the Vikings’ offense from the press box this season, and you see receivers open constantly. You also see running plays producing against stacked fronts.
In the third quarter on Sunday, the Vikings earned a first-and-goal from the Browns 1. Shurmur lined up fullback C.J. Ham in the backfield and running back Jerick McKinnon in the right slot. McKinnon went in motion toward center, took the handoff, and scored as Ham and two tight ends cleared a massive hole. Then McKinnon scored almost as easily on a two-point conversation.
It’s difficult to find or create space near the goal line. On consecutive runs, McKinnon met about as much resistance as a Who fan in Hyde Park.
“Pat’s varied,’’ Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He does a lot of different things, he moves the pocket, he’s got a lot of different formations and movements and runs.”
If someone told you in September 2016 that the 2017 Vikings would be 6-2 while relying on Case Keenum, Jerick McKinnon and Adam Thielen, you would have asked how much time that someone had been spending in Colorado.
“I think one of the things that Pat did when he took over halfway through last year was finding out what we do well, not only in the run game but in the pass game as well,’’ tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Finding ways to make it easy on us, and difficult on defenses. You could see it today in the run game. We got to a lot of runs that we really liked. We may not have run for a ton of yards but we moved the chains.”
Under Shurmur, Thielen has become one of the league’s most productive receivers. This season, three different backs have rushed for 95 yards or more in a game. Thielen’s touchdown catch Sunday was the result of a play-action fake that froze a safety, as well as Keenum’s ability to scramble and find Thielen in the back of the end zone.
“I think he’s a great play caller,” Keenum said.
Shurmur has managed to protect Keenum, to run the ball effectively despite injuries to key figures, to free up receivers downfield, and to find roles for everyone from Ham to David Morgan. (Tight end. No. 89. Tall guy. Lots of hair.)
Turner was a renowned offensive coach, but the Vikings caught a break when he quit almost a year ago today.