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What Does Tony Sparano Bring to the Minnesota Vikings?

After the Vikings fired offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, they made quick work of their candidates and hired Tony Sparano, a former head coach and an experienced position guy. What can he bring?

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the biggest detriment to the Vikings offense was their offensive line, held back both by injury and talent level. Without solid or consistent performance from two or three offensive lineman (depending on how Matt Kalil was feeling that day), the Vikings offense often floundered and gave up more pressures per dropback than any other offensive line in the Pro Football Focus era.

That's not new news, but it does give us bases for comparison. Sparano coached offensive linemen and got involved in run game coordination in Oakland from 2013 to 2014, while also performing those duties in Dallas from 2005-2007.

From that perspective alone, he'd seem an upgrade. In 2013, Oakland ranked 14th in Pro Football Focus' Pass Block Efficiency ratings, and in 2014 they ranked 10th.  While I don't have the Dallas 2007 PBE, I do know that the Romo ranked 19th of 41 quarterbacks in plays under pressure, which is also seemingly an upgrade.

Between those years (2005, 2006, 2007, 2013 and 2014), the lines he's coached has performed alright in Football Outsiders' metrics.

Team Year OL Run Rank OL Adj. Sack Rank
DAL 2005 20 28
DAL 2006 7 23
DAL 2007 15 7
OAK 2013 26 28
OAK 2014 28 3

That's not insanely encouraging or anything, but there aren't a lot of alternatives to PFF's grading, which doesn't go back to 2005 or 2006. With the information we do have, we know that Sparano's OL have ranked 25th, 29th and 16th in 2007, 2013 and 2014 in aggregate PFF grade.

For context, the 2004 Dallas line ranked 26th in run rank and 18th in adjusted sack rate, and the 2008 line ranked 18th and 13th. The 2012 Oakland line ranked 29th and 4th, while the 2015 line ranks 19th and 4th.

I'm not sure I put a lot of stock in derived offensive line statistics like FO's, but they provide loose data. The PFF data we have is pretty incomplete, but we do know that the 2008 Dallas line stayed about where it was (23rd) while the Oakland PFF grades provide some slightly stronger clues, ranking 24th the year before he arrived and is ranked 3rd right now.

That "evidence" suggests that he didn't have much impact in terms of improving his offensive lines, though the evidence is so sparse that it may not mean much.


Player performance

Sparano has been around quite a bit of NFL talent in his career and in his tenures as an offensive line coach. His offensive lines over the years looked as follows:

2005 2006 2007 2013 2014
LT Torrin Tucker Flozell Adams Flozell Adams Khalif Barnes Donald Penn
LG Larry Allen Kyle Kosier Kyle Kosier Lucas Nix Gabe Jackson
C Al Johnson Andre Gurode Andre Gurode Stefen Wisniewski Stefen Wisniewski
RG Marco Rivera Marco Rivera Leonard Davis Mike Brisiel Austin Howard
RT Rob Petitti Marc Colombo Marc Colombo Tony Pashos Menelik Watson

Most interesting to me is Andre Gurode, who was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 2002 and started as a rookie. In 2003, Bill Parcells decided that Gurode was miscast as a center and made him a guard, where he struggled enough to be benched in 2004.

In 2005, Parcells (and likely under the encouragement of Sparano) figured he had made a mistake and re-assigned Gurode to be a center, and that year he was an interior flex backup. In 2006, as you can see above, he earned the starting job—which quickly turned into an All-Pro career.

Flozell Adams had been with the team since 1998, but didn't earn a Pro Bowl nod until under Parcells in 2003. Though he started in 2005 at left tackle, he missed 10 games because of an ACL tear and came back in 2006 as the starter, earning his Pro Bowl honors back (this time under Sparano) and a second-team All-Pro honor in 2007.

On the other side of the coin are players like Khalif Barnes, who have had long careers of poor play, but with his worst run of play under Sparano in 2013 and 2014—performing better in 2012 and 2015 without Sparano.

Player acquisition

Still, being part of the staff that identified the talent of Gabe Jackson, one of the best young guards in the league, as well as playing a key role in determining Andre Gurode's true position is worth noting. Wisniewski played better under Sparano than he did under anyone else, and though Menelik Watson played abysmally under him, getting Donald Penn to play his best since 2008 is praiseworthy.

I don't typically attempt to grade coaches for non-positional group play (i.e. looking at times where Sparano was a head coach or offensive coordinator and determining their OL play), but it may make sense to look at the players they acquired, as he was still a part of the coaching staffs that helped define scout priorities.

Between 2008 and 2011, the Dolphins brought in Jake Long (#1 overall pick in 2008), Mike Pouncey (2011 pick #15), John Jerry (2010 pick #73), Shaun Murphy (2008 pick #110), Andrew Gardner (2009 pick #181), and Donald Thomas (2008 pick #195). They signed from other teams Joe Berger (from Dallas, but he had a previous Miami tenure), Jake Grove (from Oakland), Richie Incognito (from Buffalo), Patrick Brown (from Minnesota) and Marc Colombo (from Dallas).

They also cut Evan Mathis under his tenure, while trading away Samson Satele. They also waived current starting tackle for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jermey Parnell.

Despite the issue with Evan Mathis, that's an extremely high success rate.

The Raiders brought in Menelik Watson (2013 pick #42) and Gabe Jackson (2014 pick #81) through the draft and signed Tony Pashos (from Washington), Donald Penn (from Tampa Bay), Austin Howard (from New York Jets) and Kevin Boothe (from New York Giants).

While Menelik Watson stands out as a bust (probably), Jackson is a huge success, and the signings all seemed to have worked out.

For the most part Sparano seems to be able to identify offensive line talent (or be on staffs who do).


Norv Turner in the past has notably turned run game coordination duties to the offensive line coach or run game coordinator, doing so with Clarence Shelmon (running backs coach, then offensive coordinator) in San Diego and Jeff Davidson in Minnesota.  I'm not sure who coordinated the running game in Cleveland, but one interesting note: the guy who coached the OL in Dallas before Tony Sparano arrived was Cleveland's OL coach under Norv Turner. Small world.

Generally the first thing people ask when a new coach is hired, especially one that could change the running scheme, is "is it man or zone blocking?"

At a basic level, Sparano has been known for some time to install man, or "power" blocking schemes. He did it New York, he did it in Miami and most famously in Oakland. The 2006 Cowboys playbook has power blocking concepts, too.

Fake Jab 36 Power Z Behind LT

oh god look at all the lines

At any rate, the difference between the two schemes can largely boil down to the consistency of rule sets and footwork. For zone-running teams, there are generally only a few rules for offensive linemen in four base plays, and the steps are usually lateral or backwards.

Let's also remember, those aren't the only two schemes. Sometimes, basic resources (like Wikipedia calling it "angle blocking") will confuse a type of block or step with the scheme itself (or at times, we'll see "trap blocking" and "trap-style schemes" and both can be valid interpretations). Sometimes, we'll confuse gap-blocking and man-blocking in part because coaches at different levels of football will call different things the same things.

In theory, man blocking means assigning blockers to specific defenders. In reality, it means following a ruleset (just like in zone blocking and in gap blocking) to determine what the assignments are.

For the offensive linemen, it can be a lot of different technique, but it's probably a bigger deal to the running back who has to do less in terms of reading lanes and would run downhill instead of along the line, seeking a hole or a cutback lane.

But, whatever. The Vikings had trap blocking and gap blocking and man blocking and zone blocking under Jeff Davidson. Sparano might ask them to take different steps in man blocking sets or use their hands differently but I think the key is that fundamentally no one will be asked to do stuff they haven't done.

There are 8000 examples of zone blocking easily accessible around the internet. My favorite might be Chris Brown's over at Smart Football.

Yet there is much discussion of what "zone runs" even are. First, there is only so much "zoning" in a zone—much of it is still just blocking the guy in front of you. On all zone runs, the linemen must ask, "Am I ‘covered' (is there a guy directly in front of me, aside from a linebacker set back a few years)? Or am I ‘uncovered' (there is no one directly in front of me)?"

If "covered," there is very little "zoning" at all: The lineman's job is to block the guy in front of them. Fans, commentators, and even coaches often overcomplicate things. The "zone" aspect comes in with "uncovered" linemen. If "uncovered," the lineman must step "playside"—i.e. the side the run is going to—and help double-team the defensive linemen along with his "covered" cohort. Once the two of them control that down defensive lineman, one of the offensive linemen slides off to hit a linebacker.

Peterson 39-Yard Giants Run

Here's a zone run where the linemen are using outside zone technique. The first step the linemen take are lateral and can look backwards depending on the angle you look from. This is all designed to get the defense flowing a particular way and allows Peterson to choose from multiple lanes, though in this case he seems to be attacking his aiming point.

Peterson 25-Yard Run Lions

The above could be either man or gap blocking and the key is that in man blocking, players would have specific assignments based on the front for individual blockers, while in gap blocking they block through a gap (like the A gap, B gap, etc. that people typically use to talk about the defensive line).

If it's gap blocking, Clemmings and Berger (the frontside players for this play) block into the playside gaps where there are defenders. Harris and Fusco, who do not have defenders in their playside gaps drive up into the players in front of them in order to get to the second-level to attack the linebackers (in the same direction, usually playside).

When McKinnon and Asiata were the primary running backs for the Vikings back in 2014, I broke down a man-blocking play that relied on a nested set of rules: first the rules that number off individual defensive players, then the rules that determine who does what to which players based on those numbers.

McKinnon v. Tampa Bay

That run came off with the following numbering (the number 0 starts with the first defensive player on the playside):

McKinnon v. Tampa Bay Numbering

Sullivan had the "0", and either Loadholt or Berger have the "1" while the other has the "2". It's difficult to tell (as you can see, the nose tackle crashes the intended hole and holds things up) who it is, but in a zone play it would always be Berger. In some cases, depending on the angle the blockers take, it could be Loadholt—though in this case because Loadholt catches the blocker before sealing the edge, it's probably Berger.  Ellison and Ford double the "3" while Ford works up to the "4".

The backside runners block as if they are area blocking and do not really have specific assignments, mostly tasked with preventing backside pursuit.

While the blocking didn't quite work out as intended, the designated gap for McKinnon did open up because of Ellison and Loadholt.

The Vikings also executed trap plays, where a defensive lineman (and depending on the terminology and coordinator, an attacking linebacker) is let go by the OL who would normally be assigned to them and taken at a nearly perpendicular angle by another player—and if that other player is an H-back or fullback, it's a "wham" block to some coordinators.

Trap Block

In red is the trap block as the playside tackle ignores the end, who crashes upfield. The backside tackle pulls and crashes into the end, whose momentum is (theoretically) not equipped to deal with the force coming at him from that angle (as opposed to "power" plays with a pulling lineman who will usually take on a linebacker head-on with a full head of steam).

The Vikings did this quite a lot to Ndamukong Suh when he was in the division, and it did a good job creating some pretty enormous lanes. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. The Vikings, faced with the prospect of dealing with Seattle's defensive line for a second time in the Wild Card game, did try to trap talented ends like Avril and Bennett. It didn't always work.

Vikings Trap Play v. Seahawks


Anyway, expect a lot more of the second-type of play mentioned here, though I don't expect the Vikings to completely get rid of trap or gap plays, and they may not even eliminate zone-running altogether.

Oakland Trap

Hey look, that looks a lot like a trap with some zone footwork on the frontside. Thanks, Coach Sparano!

Going through the Oakland stuff, I see primarily man-blocking work that is somewhat similar to what the Vikings do, but with some different angles, designed to keep defensive linemen off-balance by having them attack awkwardly. It can lead to some complicated footwork, but for the most part is not outside the realm of the stuff the Vikings have tried in the past two years.

Leverage seems to be even more important than it was for Minnesota, probably in part because of the emphasis on drive blocks on the playside and the heavy use of backside players to kick open playside lanes. It brings more people to the point of attack than Minnesota did, but it also creates some more risks with backside pursuit and can clog the intended gap.

We'll see if Norv wants him to play with risk a little like he seemed to in Oakland, but it does create some more interesting opportunities for 5+ yard runs.

Philosophy and Personnel

In the end, Sparano will probably say the stuff he's been saying for some time about his blocking and running schemes. When he became the offensive coordinator with the New York Jets, he had this to say:

"I like playing a physical style of offense," Sparano said Friday on a conference call when asked about his offensive philosophy. "I think anybody that knows me knows I want to be physical."

He talked a lot about physicality and it's been a big emphasis for some time—and something people have noted about his teams. And he's not pigeonholed into players that previously played in zone schemes (again, not a huge issue for a Vikings team that did it all). Here's what he said about acquiring Mike Brisiel from Houston.

He's an interesting guy, he comes from a zone blocking scheme in Houston, he ended up coming here and they did a lot of zone blocking stuff, but he's a tough, physical guy. I really like those kind of players that are tough, physical, dependable guys, I think that a guy like him will fit in nicely with some of the things that we're doing, as well as some of the other players in that group.

He talks about getting "tough" guys, which probably had a lot to do with his staffs grabbing Richie Incognito and Mike Pouncey. I don't think this rules anybody on the offensive line out, including what many might define as a finesse player like Kalil.

While most of the players he's acquired or found traction with were known more for their physical strength than their technique or finesse, a number of them have been criticized at various points in their careers for their lower-body explosion. Donald Penn, when he was acquired, was much more of a technique player (which is a better way to describe Kalil coming out of USC more than "finesse" or "power") than a power player. He won with angles and intelligence.

It also so happens that four of the five players on the Vikings line this last season were very clearly in the "physical" mold of Sparano linemen, and Loadholt no doubt fits that mold as well.

Either way it may be more attitudinal than physical in terms of figuring out who can make it with Sparano and who wouldn't. After all, one loose proxy for the kind of OL who are called "physical" is weight, and the Vikings' average weight on the line is more than the Raiders' with Sparano.

His coaching philosophy seems extremely similar to Zimmer's (not surprising as they worked together under Parcells). Here's what Zimmer said when asked back when he was hired about his coaching philosophy:

"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."

And here's what Sparano said when hired for the Raiders: What's Tony Sparano's philosophy on coaching?

Coach Sparano: 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. I learned that from being a head coach, when you're in charge of sometimes 90 players, 80 players, when you start training camp, and 20 coaches and a support staff, people hear things differently, people learn differently. Teach it first, make sure you're not stuck on one teaching pattern, I think that's important.

So, that seems to mesh pretty well.

Around the league, it seems like Sparano is extremely well-respected as a position coach, though that was true (perhaps even more-so) of Jeff Davidson, who drew the attention of several teams around the league after head coach Leslie Frazier was let go. It's also true of someone Vikings fans are a little suspicious of: wide receivers coach George Stewart.

Either way, Sparano has clout, he knows Zimmer, and seems to share his philosophy. While his ability to "coach up" offensive lines remains to be seen, it certainly seems like he can find players. The bust rate of offensive linemen his teams have drafted has been uncommonly low (even the names you may not have heard of were players who were sidelined by surprise injury or remain as depth around the league despite being mid-to-late-round draft picks, occasionally starting).

I don't anticipate ground-breaking scheme changes. The running scheme Davidson ran was multifaceted but designed to be simple for the offensive linemen to individually determine assignment. Sparano might have it different, but the OL will all be doing stuff they've been doing before. Hopefully, they'll do it better.