Usually when a new offensive coordinator arrives, he spends the spring and summer analyzing every play his team has run in the past year, designing formations, studying tendencies and coaching his players on his personal jargon.
Pat Shurmur got the job on a Wednesday not just during a season but during a losing streak. He was given zero starting-caliber running backs and an offensive line thin as a slacker’s résumé.
Watching him coach this group is like watching someone trying to tap-dance on a water bed, but after their 30-24 victory over Arizona on Sunday, the Vikings offense may be turning a corner, even if their running backs can’t.
This might be a strange time to make the case, given that they needed defensive and special teams touchdowns to earn a closer-than-necessary victory, but the best thing to happen to the Vikings might have been Norv Turner’s retirement.
They lost a renowned offensive coordinator during the middle of the season while going through a losing streak. That is not the way you would plan a playoff season.
But while Turner’s coaching helped the Vikings start 5-0 this season, and while his game-planning and play-calling seemed to be a key factor in the victory over Green Bay, Shurmur is the better option to coach this team.
Shurmur has worked with quarterback Sam Bradford at two different stops, and a quarterback-coach relationship can be the heartbeat of a winning team.
He is more willing than Turner to make Cordarrelle Patterson an important part of the offense.
And if Sunday is an indication, Shurmur is willing to try just about anything to fool an opponent. He proved that during the Vikings’ 30-24 victory at U.S. Bank Stadium.
He ran from the Wildcat formation, tried inside handoffs and reverses, dragged Patterson behind the scrimmage to create passing plays every bit as safe as running plays, and in a play installed specifically for this game, he split Bradford wide right, gave it to Bradford on a double reverse and tried a deep pass that led to a pass interference call and a touchdown.
More than once Shurmur split out Bradford, who is almost as fast as traffic on the Crosstown at rush hour, because nothing strikes more fear in the heart of an NFL defense than Sam in space.
“You know, sometimes you just put your best athletes out there and let them create,” Bradford said. He may have been smiling.
Perhaps just as important was what Shurmur didn’t do. He didn’t give up on the simple, straight-ahead, short-yardage run. After watching his backs get stuffed repeatedly in Washington, Shurmur called a straight-ahead handoff on first-and-goal from the 2, and Matt Asiata scored.
Even with a dilapidated running game, every play can’t be a reverse or an Ellison-around. If the Vikings are going to make the playoffs, they’ll occasionally have to block somebody and gain a yard the hard way.
“I think each week is evolving,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “There were some things that we had this week that we’ve added off of different things.”
That’s about as much detail as you’re going to get from a coach or player on offensive game-planning.
The Vikings don’t have a back who has rushed for 300 yards or averaged more than 3.1 yards per carry. Because of Bradford’s accuracy and toughness and a group of receivers who are athletic and adaptable, the Vikings will play for the division lead on Thursday at Detroit.
Bradford and Shurmur will spend the rest of the season making the best of a difficult situation. And they just might.
“Pat has his own ideas and things he feels strongly about, but as far as the communication, it’s pretty similar,” Bradford said. “Except that me and Pat go back, and that makes it probably easier for me to communicate with him about plays we’ve run together in the past.”
Sam in Space. The Rhett (Ellison) Around. Linval Joseph blocking. The Wildcat-reverse-pass.
This may not be a good offense, but it is becoming a more interesting offense.