Sage Rosenfels is a former 12-year NFL quarterback who writes, does radio, and podcasts about the NFL and college football.
A bombshell was dropped in Eden Prairie, Minn., on Wednesday, as offensive coordinator Norv Turner resigned.
Though the Vikings have struggled offensively this season, this team is 5-2 and considered contenders in the NFC. The early reports are that Norv resigned on his own, rather than because of the head coach, general manager, or owner forcing him out.
I was lucky enough to play for him in Miami during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, and learned invaluable football lessons during those years.
Norv believes football is all about the athlete. Going back to his earliest coaching days with the LA Rams all the way up to this season with the Vikings, Turner has always believed that his job is to find ways for the athletes to maximize their God-given skill set. When he’s had very good players, his teams have flourished. He believes in the athlete’s desire to compete, which is why his players always loved him.
In late August of 2002, I was one of four quarterbacks competing for the starting job and a roster spot in Washington under new head coach Steve Spurrier. I was competing with a first-round draft pick (Patrick Ramsey) and two former Florida Gators (Shane Matthews and Danny Wuerffel), but I felt I had a legitimate shot.
Spurrier didn’t talk about individual players all that much, but more about coverages, and plays that attacked those coverages. We audibled a lot. He was always looking to take a shot down the field by attacking a defensive concept. Having come from Florida, where he had some of the best talent in college football, scheming plays to get certain players the ball wasn’t a part of his mindset.
All of his skill-position players had been naturally gifted, so he believed it was more about beating coverages. He was right – in the preseason, at least. After playing well in this scheme for four preseason games (we had five that year, with our first played in Osaka, Japan) I was traded to the Miami Dolphins. That’s where I first met Norv Turner.
When I got to Miami, I realized the offensive philosophies of Spurrier and Norv were extremely different. While Norv also had designed plays to attack precise coverages, he gave you answers for a variety of defenses within each pass pattern. You weren’t allowed to audible unless it was called as a second play in the huddle, and only versus certain looks. But the bigger difference was that Norv talked about personnel regularly.
We had Ricky Williams in the backfield, who ended up rushing for more than 1,800 yards that season. Our offensive line was well past its prime, but smart and crafty. We had Chris Chambers and Oronde Gadsden at wide receiver, along with an athletic rookie tight end in Randy McMichael. Each one of our skill-position players had very unique abilities.
Chambers was absurdly athletic, and played like he was 6-4 despite being 5-11. Gadsden was slower than half of our offensive line, but had hands of glue and a knack for coming down with any ball thrown his way. McMichael was raw, but also athletic, tough, and a competitor. Our backup receivers and tight ends were also unique. Some were slow and some were world-class sprinters, but all brought something to the table.
Norv thrives when he has a variety of talent at the skill positions. His goal on every pass play called isn’t simply to beat the coverage, but to find the one-on-one matchups and expose the defense’s weakest players.
He was one of the first coaches, along with Mike Shanahan, to use a multitude of formations to find these advantages. If the Patriots always had Ty Law playing left corner, he would design a game plan to have Chambers regularly lined up on the opposite side to take advantage of the weaker corner. If teams had a run-stopping linebacker who struggled in coverage, he would release Ricky Williams out of the backfield on option routes. He loved putting McMichael in a two-point stance (think Antonio Gates in S.D.) to attack linebackers or safeties in space.
Norv was all about the individual matchup, and his players appreciated a coach who recognized their talents.
Also, he loved running the football. Sixteen times during his tenure as head coach or OC, Norv has had a running back rush for 1,000 yards or more. Six times he coached a running back who won the rushing title. That’s simply amazing.
Most analysts talk about Norv’s love of the vertical passing game, which is true, but he’s always been focused on the running game. From Emmitt Smith to Ricky Williams to LaDainian Tomlinson to Adrian Peterson, he’s coached a long list of runners during record-breaking seasons. This isn’t by accident.
First, he believes you must run the ball to be successful. Second, he looks at both the quarterback and running back situation before taking a job. Third, he understands it’s a heck of a lot easier to call 40 running plays in a game than 40 pass plays. He’s right on all three.
As a quarterback, I learned some simple but valuable lessons from Norv that I carried with me for the next nine years in the league.
First, play fast. His experience in the league taught him that the quarterback needs to sprint back in the pocket and get the ball out of his hands. I spent those two years working on the pace of my drop every single day. Play fast, but not in a hurry.
Secondly, he taught me how to act like a quarterback. You were the ambassador of the team and everyone was looking to you for guidance and confidence. During one practice, he gave me the play and I immediately asked him a question about the read. After practice, he took me aside and gave me some of the best quarterback advice I had ever received.
“You may not know what the hell is going on out there,” he said, “but those guys in the huddle don’t know that. So at least act like you know what the F— you are doing.”
This season has been a struggle for him. Despite being 5-2 and leading the NFC North, he’s had to deal with unimaginable challenges. He lost his starting quarterback a week before the season opener. His HOF running back has played in two games. His starting tackles have missed much of the season as well.
It’s almost impossible for an offense to have any success after losing these key players, and Minnesota is no exception.
New OC Pat Shurmur has his work cut out for him. Since joining this Vikings team last offseason, he’s had about nine months to work with Norv. Shurmur runs a traditional west coast system, which means more three-step passing game and less vertical offense. This may help cover up some of the offensive line weaknesses. Either way, I’m hoping Shurmur learned a few insights during their time together.