When Teddy Bridgewater shoves a football into the belly of Adrian Peterson early in Monday night’s season opener in San Francisco, it will signify a seminal moment in Vikings history, with a perennial Pro Bowl running back near the end of his prime taking a handoff from the ascending young quarterback who will replace him as the face of the franchise.
That was the eventual plan for last season. But with Peterson banned by the NFL before Bridgewater was elevated to starter, the only handoffs they ever have exchanged came on the practice field. So when Peterson lines up in the backfield with Bridgewater against a 49ers defense shredded by offseason departures, the Vikings hope it will be worth the wait.
“You hear the name Adrian Peterson, what do you think? The best running back in the league,” wide receiver Charles Johnson said. “He’s going to draw a lot of attention. And then you’ve got Teddy, who is up and coming in this league. … I think it’s going to be great.”
But what exactly is this offense going to look like from a schematic standpoint?
The Vikings planned to be a power running team last season, taking advantage of the threat of Peterson’s violent downhill running style to set up intermediate and deep play-action passes. But when Peterson was lost because of his legal issues and Bridgewater replaced the injured Matt Cassel in Week 4, the offense morphed into a shotgun spread attack, one that took advantage of the rookie quarterback’s smarts, accuracy and, at times, mobility.
This season, the Vikings will merge that horizontal passing attack with the vertical running of Peterson. That will be a challenge, sure, but with respected offensive coordinator Norv Turner overseeing that merger, there is confidence the transition will be mostly seamless and the offense will be balanced and more potent.
“A lot of teams try to do that,” said Greg Cosell, a senior producer at NFL Films. “That’s not unique to Minnesota. It’s pretty common in the league. I think you can easily do both.”
A quick history lesson
Turner’s track record as a play-caller speaks for itself. In his 24 years as an NFL coordinator or offensive-oriented head coach, Turner’s offenses have ranked in the top five in the league in points scored or total yardage eight times.
Everyone knows about his work in Dallas with Hall of Famer Troy Aikman and in San Diego with a top-five draft pick in Philip Rivers. But he also coaxed productive seasons out of less-heralded quarterbacks such as Kerry Collins and Brad Johnson.
When it comes to the passing game, Turner was heavily influenced by Don Coryell, whose “Air Coryell” downfield passing attack revolutionized offensive play-calling with its route numbering system. Turner meshed that with staples from John Robinson’s old Southern California running game to build his offense.
“The Cliffs Notes version would be that he starts with the run game and that he works the pass game off that, and he’s more of an intermediate-to-downfield guy in the pass game,” Cosell said. “He’s always throwing a lot of deep in-breakers. He attacks with the pass game, but it starts with the run game. That’s what he has always been.”
And why not? Turner has had 11 seasons with both a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher.
Turner did, however, tweak his offense last season to better suit Bridgewater’s skills.
Historically, Turner’s quarterbacks have taken more than an average share of shots deep down the field. In San Diego, for example, Rivers twice ranked in the top five in percentage of passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus.
Last season, though, Bridgewater attempted such “deep passes” on only 10.2 percent of his throws, which ranked 33rd among qualifying quarterbacks.
Instead, Bridgewater often got the ball out quickly, targeting receivers short and giving them a chance to create yardage after the catch. According to Pro Football Focus, 69.6 percent of his passes traveled less than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
There were growing pains for Bridgewater and the offense early. But in the final five weeks of the season, he was one of the NFL’s most efficient passers, completing 72.1 percent of his throws with eight touchdowns and three games with 250-plus passing yards.
“I thought [Turner] used different parts of his playbook because Bridgewater’s not a big-armed guy,” Cosell said. “So I think some of those more downfield-type throws, those are not Teddy’s throws. In fact, I think Norv did one of the best jobs in the league last year sort of tailoring his concepts to his quarterback.”
Deep thoughts with Teddy
To be fair, one reason Turner might not have called for deep balls last season was that the Vikings lacked a legitimate downfield playmaker. Jerome Simpson was supposed to be that guy, but he was booted off the team before his NFL suspension ended. And Cordarrelle Patterson runs fast, but he didn’t play fast in 2014.
Enter Mike Wallace, the kind of wideout whose speed makes the knees of cornerbacks quake.
In six NFL seasons, Wallace has been on the receiving end of 34 passes that gained at least 40 yards — and 17 of those went for touchdowns. Wallace, who ranks sixth among active receivers with a 15.6-yards-per-catch average, once caught a 95-yard touchdown pass while playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Wallace will line up at flanker and often stretch defenses vertically. Johnson, who became Bridgewater’s go-to guy in the second half of the 2014 season, will be at split end, the same role in which Michael Irvin to Josh Gordon thrived under Turner.
“They’ll take some shots [downfield with Wallace]. … They’re not the exact same receivers, but I look at Charles Johnson as the Michael Irvin and Mike Wallace is the Alvin Harper,” Cosell said, comparing them to Turner’s top two wideouts in Dallas. “I think Charles Johnson will catch a lot of balls because I think he’s the big, physical ‘X’ receiver that has always been a major part of Turner’s offense.”
Peterson riding shotgun
Despite all this talk about pass plays and flashy wide receivers, the Vikings plan to give Peterson another heavy workload. Never mind that he last played in a game a year ago and that he celebrated his 30th birthday in March.
The Vikings averaged a respectable 4.4 yards per rush last season with mostly Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon running the ball. But considering that one can easily provide 2,097 reasons why Peterson will go down as the best back of his generation, it’s fair to assume he will give the running game a major boost.
Peterson will have to make some adjustments, though. The Vikings will continue to rely on the shotgun spread passing game we saw last season, when they put the quarterback in the shotgun on 66 percent of their offensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders.
What will the difference be for Peterson in that alignment? For one, the running back’s angles change. Plus, he must wait for the handoff before he can accelerate forward. But with fewer bodies in the box — in theory, at least — there should be more room to run.
“In the gun you have to be more patient. Being patient for me is always difficult,” Peterson said, though he added, “We can be in a wishbone [and] I’ll be able to run the ball, for sure.”
In 2012 and 2013, Peterson actually was slightly more effective running out of the shotgun, albeit in a much smaller sample size. He averaged 5.55 yards per carry on 42 rushing attempts from shotgun formations, according to Pro Football Focus. He averaged 5.49 on standard handoffs with the quarterback under center.
‘The sky is the limit’ in 2015
With Peterson back in the fold and the threat of the home-run pass with Wallace, opponents will have to pick their poison when deploying defenders.
Stack the box against Peterson? Wallace will get welcoming 1-on-1 matchups.
Two deep safeties instead? OK, Peterson and the Vikings will take that all day.
Throw in Johnson, tight end and red-zone weapon Kyle Rudolph and the occasional read-option run by Bridgewater to keep defenders on their toes, and the offense should rise from its No. 27 ranking from a season ago, assuming the Vikings get improved play from left tackle Matt Kalil and their offensive line.
Several preseason indicators — Bridgewater’s completion percentage of 82.9, being sacked only once in 42 dropbacks, an overall efficiency from the Vikings offense sans Peterson — support that rosy sentiment.
“[We’re] very excited. Very excited,” Bridgewater said. “We know the preseason really doesn’t mean much. But it’s good for us to get out there as an offensive unit and as a team to compete against different teams. … That gives you a little urge to play. We’re excited for September.”
Of course, there is another side of the ball that the Vikings must play. And Mike Zimmer’s defense, with budding stars such as safety Harrison Smith, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, could play a bigger role in the fortunes of the 2015 Vikings than the offense.
But when the season kicks off Monday night, all eyes will be on Bridgewater, Peterson and the rest of the offense as a new era for the Vikings finally begins.
“I feel like the sky is the limit for [Bridgewater] and the sky is the limit for our team,” Peterson said.