Too many cooks in the kitchen?
This 10-part series focuses on the biggest questions facing the Vikings as they head into Mankato for their training camp festivities. The second question that comes to mind is how the crowded, experienced coaching staff will coexist and and impact the offense in 2016. If you missed the first question, you can read and respond HERE.
Time is running out for Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Since joining Minnesota’s coaching staff in 2014, he’s failed to turn his lengthy pedigree into on-field results. His offenses have finished 27th and 29th in total yards, respectively, despite having one of the league’s best young quarterbacks and an All-Pro at running back in Adrian Peterson.
When the 2015 season concluded and head coach Mike Zimmer addressed the media, he made it clear that Turner’s future in Minnesota wasn’t a sure thing. “I anticipate, yes,” he said, when asked if Turner would return the following year. For a coach who campaigned to bring Turner in, Zimmer’s answer wasn’t exactly an endorsement of his second-in-command.
And neither were Zimmer’s subsequent moves — the hiring of Tony Sparano as offensive line coach and Pat Shurmur as the team’s tight ends coach. Both have extensive experience coaching in the NFL, and both have coordinated West Coast offenses — a system many believe would benefit Teddy Bridgewater. They’ll start the year hyper-focused on their respective positional groups, but what happens if the offense doesn’t score or fails to move the football? Will Sparano gain more influence on the running game? Will Shurmur take over play calling duties from Turner?
With two new voices at the table and a contract that expires at the end of 2016, the pressure is on Turner to turn Minnesota’s offense around. If he doesn’t, fans may see a new coordinator (or two) up in the booth for the Vikings.
Like Sparano, Shurmur’s made a living as a do-it-all coach in the NFL. Over the course of 17 seasons, he’s been a positional coach, an interim head coach, a full-time head coach, and a coordinator. For the Vikings, it’s crucial to focus on his time as an offensive coordinator, because that’s likely where he’ll have the biggest impact in 2016 if things go south.
Most recently, he filled the role for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2013-2015, where he set and shattered multiple records. According to Lindsey Young at Vikings.com, Shurmur’s 2014 offense set team records with touchdowns (54), completions (390), gross passing yards (4,581), 300-yard passing games (eight), and first downs (356). The numbers are impressive, but Shurmur’s success in Philadelphia came at a time when teams were still adjusting to the breakneck pace of Chip Kelly’s no-huddle offense.
His results weren’t nearly as prolific with the Cleveland Browns, where he served as head coach from 2011 to 2012. Shurmur employed the West Coast offense, albeit one that became laughably predictable midway through the 2011 season. Michael Lombardi had this to say about Shurmur’s offense before Week 9 that year:
“The Browns are so integrated into the West Coast system that their predictability is becoming legendary around the league.”
The anecdote sounds more like a quote about Norv Turner than it does Shurmur, raising red flags about his candidacy to become the team’s eventual offensive coordinator. But Zimmer has seen Shurmur up close and personal, having squared off many times before; Shurmur coached tight ends, offensive line (1999-2001) and quarterbacks (2002-2008) for the Philadelphia Eagles when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator in Dallas (2000-2006).
Their battles continued in the AFC North, where Shurmur developed an appreciation for then-Bengals defensive coordinator Zimmer. “Obviously, his signature is on defense,” Shurmur said, per Craig Peters. “They were real good with that double-A gap pressure and were a big, sturdy defense in Cincinnati.”
Shurmur’s appreciation of Zimmer — and Zimmer’s reciprocal respect of Shurmur — led the long-time coach to choose Minnesota over other prospective teams (and higher-paying positions). His extended role with the team is yet to be determined, but Shurmur has the experience and expertise in the West Coast offense to challenge Turner for play-calling duties if called upon.
Toughness; it’s a quality Minnesota’s offensive line lacked in 2015, and it’s one Sparano is sure to impart on the Vikings’ developing unit this season. Shortly after his hire and arrival at Winter Park, he called out the group and promised a turnaround.
“I knew that we had to get some things going in a different direction with that group. And it wasn’t a complete group,” Sparano said, per ESPN 1500. “In studying them, I felt like it’s a group that if they can make another jump here, we’d have a chance to be pretty good.”
That mentality was born in Dallas, where Sparano spent four years with Zimmer as a tight ends coach, offensive line coach, and running game coordinator (2003-2006). He shares many of the same philosophies as Zimmer, including a fondness of hands-on instruction, per Arif Hasan and Raiders.com.
“My philosophy on coaching is that you teach first. I think that’s important. There’s a difference between teaching and telling. Some people tell and I like to teach. I think that there’s a lot of ways to teach, every kid learns differently.”
Throughout the offseason, he’s earned a reputation among the Vikings’ offensive linemen as a willing listener and thorough teacher. “You go into his office, his door’s always open, there’s no bad time,” T.J. Clemmings said, per ESPN 1500. “And he makes sure you get it before he lets you leave the room.” And when they take the field, Sparano is sure to demand a lot from his players, asking them to practice full steam ahead against one of the league’s best defensive lines.
While Sparano may not have experience as an offensive coordinator, he has plenty to add to Minnesota’s already-successful running game. He could very well make up the third leg of a three-coach stool; Sparano as running game coordinator, Shurmur as passing game coordinator, and Turner as primary play-caller.
Minnesota’s sideline staff is filled to the brim with head coaching experience, primarily on the offensive side of the football. In order to squeeze the most from the collective mind bank, Turner will need to take a back seat and welcome fresh ideas to his Air Coryell system. Shurmur and Sparano have plenty to offer, but will Turner allow them to contribute, and if not, will Zimmer pull the plug on Turner’s failed experiment? Zimmer said it best earlier this offseason:
“If people have good ideas, which Tony and Pat both do, then we want to try and merge that into the offense a little bit,” Zimmer said. “If they weren’t going to have input, then I could have got a tight ends or offensive line coach anywhere.”