Designing an offensive system is an exhausting and thankless task. Often, systems are credited for the more obvious tendencies when 90% of the intent of the offensive design is overshadowed by the clearest patterns—sometimes at the behest of the offensive coordinator or quarterback instead of the intrinsic feature of the system.
Consistently, we hear of teams "outexecuting" other teams or teams "making the fewest mistakes," as a reason they've won. Bland generalism (and lazy sportswriting) aside, there's truth behind this. Offensive systems are designed to score points in the most efficient manner possible, but only a small part of that has to do with play design.
Coaches spend hours in gameplanning and will create and discard countless ways to exploit "matchups" or "weaknesses" in opposing defenses in the week before a game, but will readily acknowledge that the first priority is to make sure not that their plans are the most intricate or detailed, but best executed.
Minimizing mistakes doesn't just come from "discipline" (an ephemeral quality that seems to have a universal connotation but an amorphous definition, diagnosed and resolved in different ways every week) but from making sure that all players are operating at the same level. That is to say, systems don't just make players make plays, but they stop players from making mistakes.
This is a core concept for new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, and one he consistently impressed upon during his introductory press conference in Winter Park.
"It doesn't matter what kind of offense-you know I've run the 4-3, I've run the 3-4 and quite honestly as long as everyone is on the same page, everybody knows what they're supposed to do, everybody does it to the best of their ability, you can win football games."
"A lot of times, if you don't make mistakes, you beat half the teams in this league."
-Mike Zimmer, Presser 1/17/14
Teams are often compared to "well-oiled machines" and there's truth to the idea that without specific pieces performing their specific roles, the wheels fall off. In order to increase execution and minimize error, teams have to operate with the same mind.
To that end, coaching is teaching.
"One of the things about being a coach: #1 you're a teacher. You're trying to teach them about techniques, trying to teach them about all the different aspects of the game of football - not just offense and defense, but what the other side of the ball is thinking."
"I want teachers, I want leaders. I want guys that will convey the message that I'm trying to convey. They don't all have to be like me, that's hard to do anyway. I want guys to be themselves, but most importantly I want guys to be great teachers, great motivators, great leaders and obviously great technicians and football coaches."
-Mike Zimmer, Presser 1/17/14
Coaches don't just have to teach specific techniques to their players, but how to think and what to do. This doesn't mean a rote list of commands to be carried out based on a set of triggers, but a common set of patterns that players can latch onto and use-accomplishing the same effect as installing a bunch of "if-then" commands in a playbook.
At the barest level, systems allow the players to understand what the coaches want them to do. Systems are designed with a core set of principles (outside of the content-less statement of "being tough, physical and smart," that is) that outline the set of action-responses players will have to conditions on the field. That means that systems communicate—they are languages, in a literal and figurative sense.
For those of us that have been blessed enough to play or coach at the highest levels of organized athletics, it goes without saying that COACHING is TEACHING. The ability to teach is what sets good coaches apart from truly great ones, regardless of the talent of one's players. The barometer is simple: in the heat of battle, under the pressure to win or lose, are players executing as they are coached? Even in professional football, one can observe that this is not the case, as missed assignments cost their respective team every week. The mistakes are small - unnoticed by the casual fan or even the "expert" analyst calling the game, but they are there. The problem is that too often, the language the coach is speaking is very different than what the player understands. Players will simply regurgitate an answer to appease the coach, with actually no idea what they are saying.
-Dan Gonzales in his book Recoded and Reloaded: An Updated Structure for a Complete Passing Game at Any Level
This is the Chinese Room problem, which succinctly is just the problem of understanding (or originally, "consciousness," but that's a bit too much for this). Wikipedia characterizes philosopher John Searles' argument thusly:
Assume you do not speak Chinese and imagine yourself in a room with two slits, a book, and some scratch paper. Someone slides you some Chinese characters through the first slit, you follow the instructions in the book, translate what it says onto the scratch paper, and slide the resulting sheet out the second slit. To people on the outside world, it appears the room speaks Chinese-they slide Chinese statements in one slit and get valid responses in return-yet you do not understand a word of Chinese. This suggests, according to Searle, that no computer can ever understand Chinese or English, because, as the thought experiment suggests, being able to 'translate' Chinese into English does not entail 'understanding' either Chinese or English: all which the person in the thought experiment, and hence a computer, is able to do is to execute certain syntactic manipulations.
The difference between language and meaning is the difference between a coach teaching the system and a player repeating quizzed concepts.
Different coaches will find different ways to teach the concepts to the players instead of teaching the language, but it's a difficult process and one that's unique to each player. Flowcharts may work for some (and are generally underrated in their effectiveness), while repetition works for others. In the end, making players play without thinking is the goal, but they have to do it in the precise way the coach wants without consciously processing that decision.
A good post by Joe Bussell, former operations manager for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, underscores the importance of coaching-something that seems oddly devalued when discussing appropriate fits (even by those fans of teams who critically lack coaching). It's all too easy to look at a great coach's record and dismiss it because "he would be nothing without his quarterback" (see: Tony Dungy, Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan) without noting the importance of development and design in a quarterback's development.
It is interesting that we point to an offensive coach for the opposite effect—Brian Billick was not very involved in Baltimore's historic defense or Jon Gruden with Tampa Bay's, but both managed anemic offenses to Super Bowl victories. Yet, there's some evidence that they were not particularly good coaches in those situations (their defensive coordinators on the other hand—excellent).
The driving force behind Bussell's argument is an analogy of a craftsman and his tools—that masterful work takes a great craftsman (a coach) and great tools (players), but that more often than not, a great craftsman will produce better work with average tools than the other way around.
San Francisco's largely stable roster before Jim Harbaugh is a good example. The early 1990's Dallas Cowboys is a better one, where a younger Norv Turner took the league's worst offense (by DVOA, yards, points, what have you) and turned it into a top five offense in a year (and the second-best a year later).
This does not happen simply because they added one player. Troy Aikman quarterbacked for two years and was frankly bad. He ranked last in the league in adjusted net yards per attempt in his rookie year (a bad mark, even for a rookie). Then he ranked second-to-last the next year, an abysmal mark for a quarterback out of his rookie year. Then, in his first year with Turner, he ranked 11th.
The roster in 1990 had Michael Irvin and Jay Novacek. It had Emmitt Smith and Nate Newton (who did not achieve any Pro Bowl accolades until Norv moved him from right tackle to left guard).
The 1991 offensive line, outside of center Mark Stepnoski, was average as Hall of Famers like Larry Allen did not appear until later.
With a nearly identical roster, Turner turned the worst offense in the league to one of the best. More on that later, but for now it seems clear that coaching matters.
The most obvious coaching challenge is the terminology of every system. This was made clearest in what should now be understood to be one of the stupidest segments of the draft process, when Jon Gruden eviscerated Cam Newton for not understanding a completely new terminology with no explanation of the verbiage or for operating in a system as stultifyingly complex:
"Flip right, double-X, Jet, 36 counter, naked waggle, X-7, X-quarter," is a two-route combination play with play-action and a bootleg. Flip-right, Double-X is the formation, Jet is a motion by the wide receiver (across the formation), 36 counter is the run the play-action is designed to mimic, naked waggle designates a bootleg with no protection and the Xs indicate the routes.
Gruden seemingly dazzled Cam with a "real NFL call," despite the fact that very few NFL teams will do this (in fact, Gruden disciple Nathaniel Hackett at Buffalo scrapped the whole thing and reduced the plays to five or fewer words despite having the same playbook).
Cam's response, of course, was half the controversy when he revealed that the plays Auburn called were as simple as "36."
This is a feature, not a bug, of the Malzahn system—
When not throwing screens or play-action bombs, Malzahn does have a sophisticated passing offense, something he rarely gets credit for (which is ironic given that he had a pre-Auburn and especially pre-Tulsa reputation as pass-happy). One of the best concepts they have is known in NFL circles as the "drive" or "shallow" concept, but in Malzahn's terminology is known as "36." (During the Jon Gruden pre-draft show, when asked to name a play from Auburn's offense, Newton said "36," noting that they don't have long never-ending play calls. You'd think that would be a strength, but the NFL-centric media jumped all over Newton - he was dumb, he couldn't remember the plays, etc.. What they failed to realize is that "36" really was the extent of the play call. And if it takes you fifteen words to communicate what I can communicate by saying simply "36," which way do you think is better?)
Gruden went on to say that it wouldn't be enough in the NFL, "You know, some of this verbiage in the NFL, I don't know how it was at Auburn, but it's - it's long. You've got the shifts, the plays, the protections, the snap count, the alert, the check-with-mes," completely ignoring that none of that was covered by his tortuous play call anyway (excepting the shift).
I've written several times on the advantages of short playcalls and how the longer calls by Gruden (and company) literally consume huge quantities of valuable physical energy that could be better spent on playing the game.
All of this is to say that no matter what qualities you look for in a player, the ability to concentrate is something that can be managed as well as found. Coaches should seek to do both when approaching the problem of execution. Also related to decision fatigue are the problems of physical energy and general health.
Numerous studies support the relationship between focus, mental acuity and physical energy. Will is a finite resource and it draws on the limited (and homogenous) resources the body already has. The best and most famous example was the Israeli parole study that found that decisions from a three-judge panel were more likely to be favorable after a break:
They write that making successive decisions depletes a limited mental facility, just like curling a dumbbell wears out your arms. As people get tired, they look for shortcuts, and one of the easiest shortcuts is to uphold the status quo -- in this case, denying parole.
The entire success of the Air Raid system (a variant of the spread) made popular by Hal Mumme and furthered by Kevin Sumlin, Mike Leach and Dana Holgorsen is predicated on the simplicity of transmitting information and avoiding this problem.
Holgorsen installs the entire offense in three days. Kliff Kingsbury (another Air Raid disciple who played for Leach, coaches at Texas Tech, and was Johnny Manziel's quarterbacks coach—under Sumlin—his rookie year) doesn't print out a playbook.
Holgorsen's motto: if you're thinking, you're not playing, and it's why you can't really run the West Coast Offense (as we understand it) at a lower level. The drive to simplicity and increase efficiency gains is why the inventor of the WCO thinks that all plays will eventually be reduced to one-word calls, something the Patriots already do in hurry-up.
Outside of the hurry-up, the Patriots have unique issues that severely limit their potential receiver talent pool and that, like Norv Turner, will be discussed further below.
Most of that was just to describe the impact that playcalling terminology has on a "system" and it didn't even involve the barest of play design or offensive philosophy. It's a huge challenge to efficiently tell players to run a specific play in a short amount of time and do it 60+ times a game, and it just happens to be one small part of the larger challenges of implementing a "system".
Enter Don Coryell, the most criminally underappreciated coach in the history of the modern game. Known as one of the inventors of the current iteration of the NFL passing game, Coryell started out his career as a run guru, specializing in Power I, sometimes even running an old school Maryland I (Gopher fans will call it the Golden I because... well I guess the name is cute).
The Power I didn't dominate football until the 1970s (split backs were so popular), so in that sense Coryell was ahead of run game adopters by 15 years and is often considered an early pioneer of the Power I as well (his team went from winless to undefeated in one season with its installation), though Tom Nugent installed it in 1950 five years early on the other side of the country at Virginia Military Institute (it seems almost exclusively because the coach at William & Mary, the first team on the schedule, insulted him).
After reading Dutch Meyer's Spread Formation Football, he experimented with more passes, though didn't install any system we would recognize today as particularly innovative. He spent a (terrible) year at USC before tasked with the responsibility of turning around the San Diego State Aztecs.
Legendary Washington coach Joe Gibbs worked under Coryell at the time and lauded him for his sophistication and excellence in coaching the run game. But San Diego State wasn't going to move to Division II to Division I-A in nine years with the I formation.
Almost always, innovation in football comes from overcoming talent deficits. There is no reason to continue innovating and scheming when there are huge advantages to be had running what's already known and leveraging the difference in talent. But schemers look to overcome talent disparities (or competitive parity, like in the NFL) because they won't win any other way.
San Diego State was in a bad spot, getting their best players from junior college transfers (without the benefit of a national recruiting service) or players cut from big programs in California, like UCLA and USC (or even further north, Washington).
This created the problem of an immense talent gap (though it should be noted they initially played in Division II, they had gone 1-6-1 the previous season) that needed to be schemed around. Sid Gillman may have been one of the first to conceive of a field that was a plane that needed to be attacked with creative geometry, but Coryell thrived on it.
A big part of that was the introduction of numbered terminology to designate passing routes. He wasn't the first to use numbered routes, but he was one of the first to implement a varied and consistent passing attack using a numbered system.
It did a few things: first, it made the system absurdly easy to teach to new players. This was critical, as Coryell didn't have them for very long (often a year or two at best) and would have them come dribbling in at odd times—initially independent, they didn't have to worry about transfer rules (which were enforced at the conference level) and could grab players that were cut partway through training or even early in the season and bring them into the system, getting them ready to play in literally days.
A second, massively underrated, contribution that this provided was quick cognitive processing. Cognitive load is the concept that "the amount of information and interactions that must be processed simultaneously can either under-load, or overload the finite amount of working memory one possesses. All elements must be processed before meaningful learning can continue."
The metaphor to best understand the idea behind cognitive load and its impact on learning is easy: studying. Even a simple subject (say identifying the themes in a work of children's fiction) multiplies in difficulty when studied in a non-native language (which is why American language classes that begin in high school have students read children's literature). With increasing complexity comes an exponentially difficult processing (and learning) curve.
While this relates to terminology in calling plays in an obvious way, it also relates to how simple it was to recall plays: a series of numbers created an instant image in one's head of the play design. It is no more difficult to imagine what a 935 looks like from a 747 if you know all 9 routes and their numbers—a devilishly simple task compared to the burdensome West Coast calls we can get treated to.
The visual imagery was important, because that instant recall allowed players to play instead of think, and do it as quickly as possible and with the smallest possibility of mental errors. And they could learn the system in days, to boot. Before that, each play had words assigned to it that described concepts, and these words could number in the hundreds. Instead of memorizing dozens of words and their many permutations, players would have to memorize 9 numbers.
There were of course, additional words for formations and the running back routes, but the system was simple nevertheless, especially compared to its peers. More importantly, it also allows players to think several steps ahead in the crucial seconds before the snap.
When we hear of a receiver running a "9" route, we are using Don Coryell's language. When Michael Irvin raves about the Bang 8, he is using Coryell's language. When Cris Collinsworth calls the corner route the "7," he is using Coryell's language. And it's such a simple language to learn, too.
The most famous (and most-often called) play in the Coryell playbook is the 525 Post Swing. In the 525 F Post Swing, both outside receivers run "5" routes (15-yard comebacks) while the tight end runs the "20" route—a shallow cross. Reading the routes" 5-20-5, or 525. The "F" runs a post to the middle and reads the deep safety. The final eligible receiver (usually a fullback) would run a swing route.
Here, the "F" is the slot receiver, but the idea remains the same. Whole chapters of books have been written about this play, and Ernie Zampese (Coryell's offensive coordinator in San Diego) called it so often, it was called the "Ernie Route."
Says Ernie, "It got to be an unbelievable play, the best play in the whole system. And they still run it."
The post route from the inside receiver (be it a running back, tight end or slot receiver) made this play go. The receiver running that route would read the defense and change his positioning to account for where defenders would be. The stretching effect of the shallow cross and paired comeback routes created space in the middle where the receiver could sit, attack the seam or flatten out.
Although the calls may seem as long (Gun Right Jet Right 925 F Swing) as a West Coast system, there's less to process because of the visual advantage of numbered routes instead of concepts. Incidentally, some West Coast calls have actually reduced their verbiage by adopting some Coryell slang to speed things up.
The Erhardt-Perkins offense may seem simpler in comparison (Gun Right Phantom Snag), the hundreds of words needed to memorize route packages (and checks) could consume a far larger mental load in an activity that isn't so forgiving. This is one reason, for example, New England has been very particular about its receivers and seems to have a high failure rate with them: they demand more of them. Talented but more intuitive receivers like Chad Ochocinco couldn't adapt, while sharper ones like Randy Moss and Wes Welker thrived.
It's easy to get caught up in the fact that Coryell functionally invented the numbering system we reflexively use today, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Coryell normalized motions and shifts into an NFL offense and was the first to motion into a new formation on a regular basis. The impact of this cannot be overstated, especially with the rise of zone defense (thank you Mel Blount and Bud Carson).
Coryell in that moment provided tools immediately to deal with the new ambiguity of defenses (revealing zone or man coverage pre-snap) and a way to beat the press, which spiked with the new rules all in one fell swoop. It also forced defenses (which were not so multitudinous and complex as they are today) to check into their base defense—which they knew how to beat.
It was a system that produced the first true slot receiver (Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner) and picked up Mike Ditka's torch for (and finally established as a weapon) the receiving tight end, Kellen Winslow, Sr. Particularly notable was that Winslow was better known for his quickness and route running over players like Ditka, who achieved YAC exactly how you'd expect an extra lineman to: by running over people.
It should also be noted that this system (and in Gillman's, developed independently), there was a heavy focus on timing and throwing before the receiver hit their break—common now, but unusual before Bill Walsh's West Coast Offense took off (and to be fair, Walsh cribbed quite a bit from Gillman, though decided that replacing the run with the pass was more desirable than simply passing to set up the run). It turned precision into a deadlier weapon than speed, which is why Joiner flamed out with two different teams before making the Pro Bowl in his ninth year (his first with the Chargers).
His system changed San Diego State, and they moved from a mediocre Division II team to the 19th-ranked team in the country in Division I in just 12 years. After that, he was asked to be the head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals, and he immediately improved their offense by 100 points (from 193 to 286), and within a year won their division. It was under Coryell that Terry Metcalf started carving out a role that would basically be the league's first "space player" in the mold of Darren Sproles or Percy Harvin (with all apologies to Gale Sayers).
Under Coryell, Metcalf consistently racked up 1000 yards or more from scrimmage, nearly evenly split between receiving (many times from the slot) or rushing the ball. And while not completely up to Coryell, Metcalf rounded out the comparison by being a league leader in return yardage (and therefore all-purpose yards as well).
The Cardinals offense was great, but their defense was as sorry as every, and Coryell was let go after a 7-7 season (ending on a four-game losing streak, in a Lions-esque fashion). He was immediately offered the head coaching position with the San Diego Chargers, who had fired their coach mid-season. He didn't install much of his offense until the new season, but kept on adding favorite wrinkles (like the 525 F Post Swing) throughout the season.
He went 8-4 with that squad (it had gone 7-7 the previous year, and then 1-1 before Tommy Prothro was fired), the in the offseason installed his legendary offense, which one year scored the third-most points in NFL history (and the most once you exclude the odd post-war days and the AFL). Uniquely taking advantage of the 1978 rule changes, Coryell functionally led the NFL into the passing revolution.
Coryell never won the Super Bowl, but he changed the NFL forever, and his coaching tree (a schematically pristine coaching tree, relatively speaking—which is to say his system has changed the least through multiple generations) includes legendary talents like John Madden, Joe Gibbs, Mike Martz and now most relevantly, Norv Turner.
Joe Gibbs led one of the best dynasties in history with the Coryell offense (dubbed "Air Coryell" in San Diego), and it culminated in one of the best NFL teams of all time, the 1991 Washington Redskins. Madden nearly ran a dynastic offense of his own, and Ken Stabler joins Ken Anderson as one of the most underrated quarterbacks of all time.
Norv Turner started his football career at Alhambra High School, where he played quarterback and safety before committing to the University of Oregon as a quarterback, where he backed up Dan Fouts. His offensive coordinator there was John Robinson, who would later work under John McKay—the head coach Coryell worked under when developing the I formation.
When John Robinson moved to USC as an assistant, he brought Turner along initially as a receivers coach. Turner coached different positions for some time (quarterbacks, defensive backs, etc) before becoming USC's offensive coordinator in 1984. Prior to his promotion to OC, Southern Cal ranked 58th in Division I in opponent-adjusted points scored, and their quarterback play (Sean Salisbury) was about average.
In his first year as OC, their offense dropped to 66th in the metric and Tim Green was not a particularly successful quarterback for Southern Cal. After that, John Robinson took Turner on as a receivers coach in LA for the Rams in 1985. In 1987, Coryell's former offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese joined the Rams as an offensive coordinator and many of the elements Norv was learning under Robinson concretized themelves with Zampese.
In 1991, Jimmy Johnson with the Dallas Cowboys asked Norv Turner to bring the Coryell offense with him to Dallas, where the year previous they ranked dead last in yardage and DVOA, and third to last in opponent-adjusted points and yards per play.
The next year, they ranked 4th in DVOA, 6th in opponent-adjusted points scored, 7th in yards per play and 9th in offensive yardage. They improved the next two years and an abysmal quarterback began to turn into a Hall of Famer alongside Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith and Larry Allen. After Norv left to be the head coach of the Washington Redskins (in order to keep the Coryell tradition alive there as Gibbs left), Ernie Zampese took over and the offense dipped, but remained vibrant enough to win another Super Bowl.
Turner's time in Washington was none too successful, despite starting off with a 7-1 start (finishing a mind-boggling 9-7). He made the playoffs once, in 1999, only to lose in the first round to Tony Dungy's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After the 2000 season, he was made to be the offensive coordinator for San Diego in 2001, a team that a year previous ranked 28th in DVOA, 26th in opponent-adjusted points, and 28th in yards per play. In his sole year as the offensive coordinator, the Chargers jumped up to 17th, 13th and 15th in those respective metrics.
Mike Riley at San Diego was fired regardless, and Chan Gailey's departure from Miami to Georgia Tech created an opening at offensive coordinator, which Norv filled. Miami's offense hadn't been in great straits, but neither was it chugging. They ranked 20th in DVOA, 16th in opp-adjusted points and 12th in yards per play.
Immediately, they improved to 12th in DVOA, 12th in opp-adjusted points and 14th in yards per play, and this was with a combination of Jay Fiedler and Ray Lucas at quarterback (Sage Rosenfels only threw three passes that year). The next year, Miami upgraded their backup quarterback (to Brian Griese), but he had to play more games.
Miami dropped to 17th in DVOA, 15th in opp-adjusted points and 21st in yards per play, which was spearheaded by an anemic Ricky Williams effort.
Despite this drop, Al Davis called on Turner to be the new head coach with the Oakland Raiders, continuing the tradition of deep passing specialists to work for Davis. Turner took a 4-12 team in 2003 to staggering heights (5-11) before plummeting to the bottom of the barrel (4-12).
Predictably, Davis fired Turner and replaced him with Art Shell, who promptly went 2-14.
After Oakland, Turner was the offensive coordinator for San Francisco for one year (the second of Alex Smith's five consecutive offensive coordinators before Greg Roman) and brought up their terrible offense (32nd in DVOA, 30th in opp-adjusted points, and 32nd in yards per play) to an almost respectable level (23rd, 24th and 11th in those measures) before San Diego hired him away after firing Marty Schottenheimer (who went 14-2 that year, but was one and done in the playoffs).
Technically there was an offensive coordinator in San Diego under Norv Turner. But if you search newspaper archives for "Clarence Shelmon" and "Norv Turner," you will return approximately 26 articles, the majority of which are about how he was potentially going to be named the Miami Dolphins quarterbacks coach before accepting Turner's offer to be the OC.
Shelmon, who has only ever been a running backs coach save for two years at Army (1979-1980) when he was both the running backs and tight ends coach, was the run game coordinator while Norv handled the calls and passing offense. Some say Shelmon was responsible for LaDainian Tomlinson's excellent seasons in San Diego (Shelmon was on staff with Schottenheimer before Norv arrived, and kept him there). Certainly, Tomlinson lobbied for Shelmon's promotion to OC.
Nevertheless, the offense radically changed under Turner. Philip Rivers had been anointed the franchise quarterback in 2006, the year before Turner arrived, but had excellent years with Turner. Between 2008 and 2011, Rivers ranked third in adjusted net yards per attempt of all quarterbacks with 500 attempts, behind Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and ahead of Drew Brees.
In that time, he also ranked first in yards per attempt. After 2011, Clarence Shelmon retired with the following statement: "I'm just done. 'You know when it's time. It's time for me to go and do some other things with my life," and could not have been reached for further comment.
Probably coincidentally, Rivers started declining in a significant way and a passing game that in DVOA ranked 13th, 1st, 1st, and 2nd, dropped to 16th in 2012. The adjusted net yards per attempt ranked 16th, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 9th and 23rd. 2012 was not only unique in needing to replace an offensive coordinator, but defensive coordinator, secondary coach, linebackers coach and a number of tertiary assistants.
After Norv Turner was fired in San Diego, he was hired to be the offensive coordinator under Rob Chudzinski to lead Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson and Josh Gordon. The three never played in the same game. In fact, any combination of the two of them only every played in eight games (or more accurately six and three quarters). Predictably, under those conditions, the offense failed.
Or more precisely, they nearly matched their 2012 totals. Placing one rank higher in DVOA (a change from 27th to 26th), dropping in opponent-adjusted points (from 24th to 28th) and moving up one rank in yards per play (again 27th to 26th). Norv's clearest accomplishments were two-fold:
- Turning Brian Hoyer, who had previously been only in Erhardt-Perkins' concept passing offenses, into not just a viable quarterback after trips to three other teams, but a viable Air Coryell quarterback
- Making Josh Gordon the biggest receiving threat in the league (and cashing in at a league-leading 117.6 yards a game, 6th best in NFL history).
Here in Minnesota, Norv will work on another reclamation project for an offense and will attempt to install his version of the Coryell, which includes its own favorites and wrinkles, one of which I've mentioned several times and is still a go-to for Turner—the Bang 8.
It's a modification of the 8 route (another post), which runs from the outside instead of the inside and shallows out the angle of the post to better leverage against cornerbacks and safeties. The quarterback threw the ball based on the positioning of the defensive backs and the receiver would follow suit—sometimes by flattening out, sometimes by moving up and sometimes by moving out. This require a good degree of chemistry, multiple repetitions and shared vision.
One of the biggest keys to the play was smart and efficient route-running. Teams knew that Irvin would run the skinny post and would work specifically to stop it, which enabled other parts of the offense (and not just other receivers).
Plays would be folded in that worked Irvin in specific ways to take advantage of the common responses to the route. Corners would more often than not bite inside, so the response was the widen the angle and functionally turn the 8 into a 9. If Irvin was controlling the area between the numbers and the sideline (as opposed to between the numbers and the hashes), he could turn it into a fade (which would look like a 7, more often used to attack Cover 2) to grab exclusive space.
But these didn't work unless every route looked the same, otherwise the corner would force himself too far inside (or worse, bracket on the outside with the safety jumping underneath) when it recognized the 8 and kill the opportunities to build off that play.
The establishment of the Cover 2 would complicate and ultimately nullify the effectiveness of the Bang 8 (especially the Tampa 2), and Martz' preferred F Post, but did encourage flag routes, comebacks and deep ins (which Warner would call Big 4, because his seven-step drop would allow the receiver to break at 18 yards instead of the traditional 12).
The arguable demise of the Cover 2 base scheme (a dubious claim given San Francisco's success with the shell) primes the pump for the return of the Bang 8 as a focus of the offense, especially as Green Bay and Detroit run more single-high safety looks (and the result of the league evidently follows suit).
Even if it isn't a focus, Turner is familiar with and continues to employ Coryell principles, many of which emphasize a deep passing game. In Coryell's offenses, there was always a deep option and he was always the first read. That isn't necessarily true of Turner, but it happens more often than in any other scheme and the read is still top-down instead of a half-field read or outside-in.
With all of these particulars in mind, what kind of players will Norv Turner need and does Minnesota have them?
Obviously a central feature of the passing offense will be the quarterback, but simply fulfilling the need of "quarterback," isn't sufficient. There are specific qualities in a successful Coryell quarterback (and in turn, a successful Turner quarterback).
The quarterback in the Air Coryell system needed to have a quick release and be decisive. Rarely did Coryell coordinators want their quarterbacks to extend plays (until Jason Garrett and Tony Romo came along) and instead read the defense before the snap and throw at the break. They didn't often pump fake because they got rid of the ball at the end of their drop. The offense revolved around the quarterback throwing off the plant of the last step of his drop, and the majority of the passes worked off of that.
That also meant they needed good footwork under center, not just so that their drops (often deeper, at 5-7 steps) would be clean, but so that they provided the same ball to their receiver every time: same velocity, same timing, same depth. This type of consistency doesn't exist without solid footwork, so it will be a significant investment. Luckily, footwork happens to be the easiest mechanical fix for quarterbacks.
Another quality, simultaneously underrated and overrated among fans and analysts, is the strength of the arm. There isn't an extremely high bar for arm strength as quarterbacks, even in deep passing offenses, rarely throw the ball over 35 yards in the air or need to throw deep with more velocity than touch, but it's still more of a need in this system than in others.
Also important is the fact that arm strength and mechanical precision relate to each other. The more significant the mechanical problems, the greater arm strength required to overcome them. These don't directly trade off, as arm strength is no substitute for consistency of delivery, but it does allow the quarterback to do more with less, especially in a muddy pocket.
The most significant impact arm strength will have is on the likelihood of interceptions when throwing deep and out. In order to attack every area of the field, quarterbacks will need to throw to the sidelines and above the safeties, and these longer length throws are easier to intercept unless the quarterback can drive the ball through the tighter windows.
There are some quarterbacks who have shown an excellent ability to play as rhythm passers with intelligent and adaptive preset reads, like Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr, while some display superior mechanical ability, like A.J. McCarron. Strong arms abound as well.
No quarterback is a perfect fit, but aside from the nominal number one pick (although perhaps not) Teddy Bridgewater, the best option could be Derek Carr who has the arm strength and intelligence to really wow in a Coryell offense, although he will both need to spend more time under center (he claims this will be no issue, though that is hardly a surprise) to prove he has the footwork necessary.
Blake Bortles is well behind Carr in terms of development and Johnny Manziel is likely not a great fit both because his vision comes postsnap and because his arm strength is a little questionable. Add to that his footwork questions and he has more boxes left to check than the other potential first-round QBs.
This isn't to say any of the favorite quarterbacks can't fit in a Norv Turner offense, but much of the benefit would be lost with some of the less fit players.
In free agency, Michael Vick fits to some degree with his arm, but doesn't consistently display quick enough decision-making or consistency of ball placement to be a great fit. Other than him, the next-best option might be Josh McCown who doesn't blow any particular trait out of the water but does hit all the marks. Behind him, Matt Cassel fits the mold, although the consistency of his decisions is more worrisome (especially because his decisions would have to be sped up) and Josh Freeman would need to show on-field play to escape the stigma of his offense in Tampa Bay or poor showing in Minnesota. Freeman has the arm, but may not have enough experience making presnap throwing decisions.
Aside from a quarterback, Air Coryell offenses typically had a few elements: 1) A tall receiver who can win downfield 2) A fullback who could catch, lead block and act as a pass protector 3) A short-yardage running back 4) A pass-protecting offensive line that can keep a pocket for seven-step drops and 5) A pass-catching tight end that can attack the seam.
It is not surprising that Norv Turner, who had all of these elements in Dallas, would be willing to come to Minnesota when a number of teams with new coaches or vacancies at coordinator (though Washington and Cleveland would have been likely out anyway, given his history) could have been a more attractive prospect.
But Minnesota certainly possesses the last four of those traits and really only needs to answer the question of the first trait: a big play receiver who can get open deep. It is unlikely that Patterson will get the precision that Michael Irvin or Charlie Joiner had when running a post route, but it is possible to overcome.
Demaryius Thomas still isn't precise, but provides a decent analogue for what Patterson can become. Extremely raw coming out of college, Thomas was drafted 22nd overall because of his athleticism, with the presumption that the rest would come. He took nine of his 37 targets behind the line of scrimmage and 50% of his yards were after the catch. Six of his targets were deep (for only two catches). Now, he's a regular deep threat for Denver who not only catches contested balls downfield, but performs at every depth.
Patterson's rookie year has 22 of his 72 targets behind the LOS (which is a bit of a higher rate) and 14 targets deep (for an even worse measly three catches). This is not to say that his evolution from a screen receiver to a full split end is probable, but that it is possible and well within his capabilities.
A lot of Irvin's catches were won at the catch point and not always with separation. There is no receiver on the roster who currently consistently displays the ability to do that, but both Simpson (a free agent) and Patterson both can, and Greg Jennings is always open, occasionally deep.
If an outside receiver can't perform the role, then Norv might build off of the 525 F Post and send Jarius Wright deep, something he can do. Should Kyle Rudolph ever regain his pre-hamstring injury speed from college, he could fulfill the "F" role as well (or be any number of potential post threats) and Joe Webb fits the mold physically but clearly has work to do.
In the same arena as Joe Webb in terms of longshots is Greg Childs, currently still injured for a bilateral patellar tendon tear. Childs is the prototypical split end and would be perfect for the system, but has to overcome an injury that doesn't have a known athletic precedent. A precise route runner with strength and speed, he could be the key to making the Norv offense go.
There's some vagaries about the ability to create a deep threat at the catch point like Michael Irvin or Josh Gordon, but it's also not the black hole like the quarterback position is. As for tight ends, the Vikings certainly have that in Rudolph, although again he's not a perfect fit (and his performance between the 20s attests to that).
All this talk about passing might make people nervous about Turner in regards to Adrian Peterson. It's true, he would be less likely to produce 2,000 yard seasons, but Emmitt Smith did just fine under Norv, often leading the league in rushing attempts with more than respectable yards per carry (once leading the league). In Miami, Ricky Williams led the league in carries both years Norv was there—the only time Ricky Williams ever accomplished such a feat.
Frank Gore only had one year where he averaged 5.0 yards a carry or more, and that was with Norv Turner, where he averaged 5.4 yards a carry. In Emmitt Smith's illustrious 13-year career, he only averaged above 5.0 once, and that was 5.3 yards a carry. Ricky Williams only ever ran for 1300 yards in a season twice in his NFL career.
At every stop he's called the plays, their running backs do exceedingly well and also have a history getting a lot of chances. Adrian Peterson could fit just fine into the stereotypical conception of a Norv Turner offense, even if he doesn't catch out the backfield.
It would be a change, but somewhat familiar for Peterson after 2009. It's a pass-first offense designed to enable the run and pound at the goal line after a big play. Instead of the centerpiece, Peterson would likely become the league's best constraint play. That's not a bad thing, but it will mean that he may no longer be the driving force of the offense.
The offensive line is well-built for a Turner-style Coryell offense, particularly with the improvement the line made in the second half of the season. A replacement at left guard is in order and a plan to restore Matt Kalil's ability needs to be in place, but it's otherwise solid.
All that may be superfluous, though. If Norv Turner can teach the new quarterback to understand Chinese instead of just speak it, the offense is ready to go.