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What Does Pat Shurmur Have in Store for the Vikings Offense?

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Pat Shurmur has been handed the reigns for the Vikings’ offense, and given an off-season to prepare, we should see some more significant scheme changes in the Vikings offense this year.

Just what those changes might be, is somewhat speculative at this point. But Shurmur does have a history as a west coast offense guy, and as much as good coaches adapt schemes to fit their players, they usually don’t completely abandon schemes they’ve used in the past.

So let’s look at what Pat Shurmur brings to the table.

Andy Reid’s West Coast Offense

Pat Shurmur served under Andy Reid in Philadelphia for 10 years, and adopted Reid’s style of controlled, rhythmic passing that is a staple of the west coast offensive philosophy. Passing to set-up the run. Spreading the defense horizontally. Dink and dunk. Finesse. Timing. The Vikings have run this type of offense for most of the franchise history, most recently with Bill Musgrave, but going back decades.

Shurmur took this scheme with him to St Louis, where he worked with Sam Bradford as a rookie, and later to Cleveland as head coach. Both were short stints.

Chip Kelly’s Spread Offense

Shurmur then returned for a second tour-of-duty in Philadelphia, this time under Chip Kelly and his spread offense. Kelly’s offensive scheme featured an up-tempo, no-huddle dynamic along with the spread features of 3- and 4-WR sets, shotgun formation, and an inside-zone run scheme. There was also an read-option feature to Kelly’s offense under Nick Foles, but not so much with Sam Bradford.

The up-tempo, no-huddle aspect doesn’t require much explanation, nor does the spread formations. The inside-zone run is basically a zone blocking scheme where the line steps and move in the same direction, picking up whomever is in their zone and attempting to move them laterally, sometimes in a combo-block, which ultimately creates cut-back lanes for the RB when executed effectively.

Kelly’s scheme worked well there for two years- producing a top 5 offense in 2013 & 2014, but then defenses began to figure it out: play press-man on WRs and blitz inside was often an effective way to stop Kelly’s scheme, but even in 2015 when Kelly was under-fire for player mismanagement and sagging results, the offense was still in the top 12 in the league- something the Vikings offense has not been since 2009.

“Kind of Refreshing”

Mike Zimmer has been looking for new ideas on offense for at least the last year. He mentioned when he brought in Shurmur and Tony Sparano as offensive coaches last year, that they both brought experience and ideas as former OCs and HCs that could help improve the Vikings offense under Norv Turner. As it turned out, Turner may not have been so willing to embrace the changes or innovation Zimmer was looking for, and ultimately that may have led to his resignation shortly after the bye-week last year. Zimmer has been an innovator on defense throughout his career, and I suspect he’s been looking for a more innovative approach on offense as well.

Since the end of the season, Zimmer and Shurmur have brought in 3 new offensive assistant coaches in Clancy Barone (TEs), Kennedy Polamalu (RBs) and Darrell Hazell (WRs), and once again Zimmer praised them for their experience and bringing new ideas. Since January, Shurmur has been at work under Zimmer re-tooling the offense to the point where Zimmer said, “it’s kind of refreshing to be with almost a new system now.”

So What is the New System?

Looking at Shurmur’s background, I would expect to see elements from both the traditional west coast offense and spread offenses. But I would not expect a move to zone blocking/runs- here’s why:

First, as I mentioned, Tony Sparano is a power/gap/man blocking coach. Second, both Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers come from power blocking schemes (Reiff went from power to zone to mostly power in his stint in Detroit).

So, incorporating west coast and spread offensive features with a power running game, you get a power spread, or smash mouth spread offense. This is not new.

Power Spread Offense

The spread offense has been around for a long time, mostly at the college level, but in the last ten years or so has been seen in the NFL to varying degrees. Besides Chip Kelly going from Oregon to Philadelphia, perhaps the most well known transfer of spread offense concepts from the collegiate ranks to the NFL came when Bill Belichick went to visit Urban Meyer in Florida when he was coaching there, and picked his brain on spread offense concepts, which he later incorporated into the Patriots offense. He still does. Urban Meyer has used variations of the spread offense since he began his collegiate head coaching career in Bowling Green, and with great success everywhere he’s been since. A few years ago at Ohio State Meyer ran a power spread offense (although more recently he’s used more zone blocking/runs).

Generally the idea with all spread offenses is to spread the defense out both horizontally and vertically, forcing them to defend more space and put them at a disadvantage. From there, there are variations on the spread that go in different directions.

Common to all is some form of defensive ‘read’ - usually by the QB - which influences the play call, usually a shotgun formation, and often a 3 or 4 WR set. Depending on the defensive formation, the play could be a run or pass. If the box is stacked, what might have been a run is changed to a bubble screen without having to change formation. If the defense is spread and both safeties are playing up on receivers, an inside run is called. Against a single, high safety, a pick route or slant (WR) combined with a wheel (RB) route could be called to take advantage of space outside.

The ‘power’ aspect of a power spread, is to pull a guard or other linemen and/or a fullback to over-power a defense spread out horizontally at the point of attack. And, with a defense typically in a nickel or dime package, there are fewer run-stopping linebackers to block, and defensive backs that may not be as well suited to bringing down a running back with a head of steam up the middle.

There are a variety of plays from a power spread scheme that we can get into down the road, but for now let’s look just at how well such a scheme, if implemented, would work with the Vikings personnel on offense.

How a Power Spread Offense Fits the Vikings Personnel

First, while a strong offensive line is always a good thing in any scheme, it isn’t as essential in a power-spread offense as in an Air-Coryell scheme, with it’s longer developing routes. A power-spread does use a shotgun formation more often, which adds importance to having good tackles, but having a RB that can help in pass pro and picking up a blitz is important too.

Second, a power-spread offense, at the NFL-level, needs a savvy QB who can read defenses well and get the ball out quickly and accurately. The Vikings have that in Sam Bradford. He is not the best QB in every respect, and he’s certainly not a mobile QB, but he can read defenses well enough that he’s not often fooled, and stand and deliver the ball accurately to virtually any route or depth. The fact that Bradford has experience running a spread offense is helpful, as is his having a year under his belt now with the Vikings receivers.

A power-spread also needs a feature back that can block (Latavius Murray) and an H-back that is more of a scat-back who can line up as a slot receiver or in the backfield (Jerick McKinnon). Both backs could flourish in a power-spread. Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings draft another RB to at least add depth at RB, particularly more versatile RBs that can also catch and block.

For receivers, there is less need for the Randy Moss type receiver (although it’s always nice to have) - big, fast, deep threat, but more on good route runners who can gain separation in shorter routes. Among Vikings receivers, Stefon Diggs would likely be the go-to X-receiver in a spread offense, and Thielen more the possession Z-receiver, although that is debatable. A tough TE that can block and catch is important, and I think Kyle Rudolph has improved on both last year. It’s worth noting, however, that the Vikings were willing to make Jared Cook a sizable offer in free agency. David Morgan may work out for the Vikings, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Vikings draft a TE next month either, especially as the Cook deal didn’t work out.

Beyond that, Jarius Wright is a good fit in a spread offense, although he hasn’t built the chemistry and trust with Bradford that Diggs and Thielen have. Laquon Treadwell could also see more action in a spread offense, and hopefully prove himself worthy of a first-round pick. It’s notable again that the Vikings were willing to pay Alshon Jeffrey big money, who may be more of a down field threat outside than any receiver currently on the Vikings roster, and that Mike Zimmer just yesterday said the Vikings are still looking to add a WR or two who can, “stretch the field.”

Just about all of the current Vikings receivers are willing and able blockers, and that is important too in a spread offense, as that makes bubble screens, sweeps, wheel routes and outside runs that much more effective.

Overall

A big part of how well a scheme will work is how well it fits and maximizes the talents of the players. It’s been clear from the results that the Air Coryell scheme was not working for the Vikings players, in part because the offensive line was not adequate to the task, but also because the wide receivers were not the big, fast, deep threats needed to make it work. Even the QB and TE elements were lacking to some extent.

Clearly the Vikings’ offensive personnel are better suited to a west coast or spread offense, and the Vikings’ line at this point is more familiar with, and better able to execute, a power scheme. The Vikings’ receivers and RBs are also better suited to these schemes. Bradford could probably do either, but has more experience running the west coast and spread offenses.

We don’t know at this point if Shurmur will indeed adopt or mix a power spread scheme into the Vikings playbook, but it may be a good fit for the Vikings at this point in time, and there are at least a few signs he may be moving in that direction.