Whether it was a running quarterback in the 1960s, a ball-control passing attack that predated Bill Walsh in the 1970s or a SuperFreak receiver who shoved forward the evolution of defensive schematics at the turn of the millennium, the Vikings have spent the better part of their history on the cutting edge of offensive football.
What they have in store next will begin to unfold Monday night in San Francisco when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, running back Adrian Peterson, deep threat Mike Wallace and offensive coordinator Norv Turner put their skills together for the first time in a regular-season game.
Stay tuned. Turner’s philosophy entering Year 31 in the NFL is well-rounded and willing to adapt to fresh ideas. The 63-year-old is a direct disciple of John Robinson’s power running game at Southern Cal and a secondhand protégé of Don Coryell’s “Air Coryell” passing attack, which he learned under Ernie Zampese with the Rams in the mid-1980s.
“I do have a sense of history and what this league is all about,” Turner said. “From a coaching perspective, this league is all about adjustments. It’s being fundamentally sound, constantly having a core of things you’re really good at, and then staying ahead of the game with new things that people haven’t just zeroed in on.”
To some degree, Turner laughs at some of the things people consider “new.”
“Usually, what people call the ‘biggest changes in football’ are things that probably were being done 25 years ago,” Turner said. “It’s kind of a cycle. Everybody talks about the spread offense now. Somebody should go look at Buffalo and the K-Gun in the late ’80s, early ’90s. People talking about tight ends and multiple formations today should go look at San Diego with [Dan] Fouts and Coryell in the ’80s.”
He’s got a point. Not many years ago, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo made “SportsCenter” with a wild, zigzagging scramble that ultimately resulted in him completing a ball down the field for a big gain. The announcer said, “Have you ever seen anything like that before in your life!?”
Well, yeah. Fran Tarkenton was doing it in the ’60s and ’70s. Google him. He wasn’t bad.
QBs weren’t doing what Tarkenton did when he arrived in 1961. It drove defenses and Vikings coach Norm Van Brocklin nuts. And not necessarily in that order, which is what ultimately led to Tarkenton’s trade to the Giants after the 1966 season.
Bud Grant came south from Canada after Van Brocklin resigned that same offseason. A year later, Jerry Burns came from Green Bay as Grant’s offensive coordinator.
Burns was ahead of his time when it came to his belief that running backs could be used as underneath targets in a passing attack that meshed ball control with deeper strikes to receivers. With Tarkenton back in town, running back Chuck Foreman led the team in receptions in 1974, ’75 and ’76. He had 73 catches in 1975. In 1978, another running back, Rickey Young, caught 88 passes.
Unfortunately for Burnsie, the Vikings didn’t win a Super Bowl. So no one gave this approach a catchy, long-lasting nickname until the ’80s when Walsh’s “West Coast” offense turned the 49ers into the team of the decade.
When the early 1990s rolled around, the Vikings paid a $100 waiver-wire fee for Cris Carter, a Hall of Fame receiver whose strong hands, body control and twinkle toes stretched the field horizontally in prototypical fashion. In 1998, he was joined by first-round draft pick Randy Moss, a probable future Hall of Famer whose speed, length and ball skills stretched the field vertically to the point that then-Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy crafted the once-popular Tampa 2 defensive scheme as a way of trying to contain Moss.
So what’s next for not only the Vikings but NFL offenses in general?
“I think the first thing we’re going to see more of is the emergence of the no-huddle offense,” said former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden. “I think you’re going to see more and more no-huddle offense as teams try to get more and more plays run, more touches for their skill people.”
Gruden went on to essentially say that we should learn to expect the unexpected. He used the modern goal-line offense as an example.
“It’s nothing like it used to be,” he said. “You’re seeing wide open, shotgun, no-back formations at the 1-yard line, not the conventional, power-I formations that you would see running the football.
“It’s anything goes right now, brother. Anything goes.”