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Bleacher Report – Vikings

How history shaped Pat Shurmur and the Vikings set him up for success

By Matthew Coller

It only took 29 minutes and 57 seconds of official NFL game time for it to become obvious that the Minnesota Vikings’ offense had improved.

With 1:43 remaining in the first half of Minnesota’s opening game, a coffin corner punt by the New Orleans Saints pinned the Vikings at their own 5-yard line. Dalvin Cook quickly picked up a 10-yard run on 3rd-and-1, then quarterback Sam Bradford launched a ball down the middle of the field to Adam Thielen for 44 yards. With three seconds left in the half, Bradford flipped a screen pass to Stefon Diggs for a touchdown.

Ten plays, 95 yards in the time it takes to heat up soup on a cool Minnesota fall day.

That drive would have been unfathomable last season. In 2016, the Vikings finished 29th in the NFL in yards and 23rd in points. When Week 1 was finished, Bradford had put together the best day of his career, Cook went over 100 yards and the Vikings’ offense outplayed all-time great quarterback Drew Brees.

Two weeks later it happened again, this time behind backup QB Case Keenum. He threw for 369 yards, three touchdowns in a 34-17 demolition of the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Three weeks into the regular season, the Vikings rank No. 2 in the NFL in yards per game. Under head coach Mike Zimmer, they haven’t cracked the top 25 in yards and the franchise hasn’t reached the top 10 since grey-bearded Brett Favre was gunslingin’ in purple.

Heading up the Vikings’ turnaround on offense is offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who was elevated to OC last year after a frightful performance on Halloween night against the Bears pushed Norv Turner to resign.

Shurmur spent last year trying to switch the team’s offensive philosophy on the fly and squeeze blood from very injured stone. By the end of the year, none of the Vikings’ offensive lineman had played all 16 games. Not to mention they lost Adrian Peterson for most of the year and Diggs for several games as well. Circumstances were less than ideal for his return to play calling.

This offseason, the Vikings’ front office, Zimmer and Shurmur set out to build a dynamic offense. Not the AP offense that relied entirely on its running back breaking off home runs or the 2016 version filled with dink-and-dunk throws. They wanted to design a versatile attack that could morph to dismantle any type of defensive strategy.

Mission accomplished, so far.

But the success of the past three weeks and the high level of confidence in the team’s offense overall hasn’t just been a result of the team’s effort this offseason, it’s been a culmination of Shurmur’s lifelong football journey.

A few minutes after Shurmur wrapped up his weekly press conference – the one where he has to tip toe between politely answering questions and not giving away strategy or saying anything to tick off any of his players or anyone on the opposing team – the 52-year-old ball coach sat on an equipment box outside the Vikings’ weight room. His feet dangled around like a kid in a high chair as he reflected on the building blocks of his life in the game.

“My father was a small college All-American, a lot has been spoken about my uncle Fritz [Shurmur] and his influence….that was a phase in my life where it was all about encouragement and all about exposure to the game and developing my passion for the game,” Shurmur said.

By the time he was a senior at Michigan State, Shurmur, a center, was co-captain and already studying for his Master’s Degree. He was hired as a graduate assistant after his playing career was over and then full-time as a position coach in 1990.

The offensive philosophy that led the Vikings over the Saints and Bucs wasn’t even a glimmer in Shurmur’s eye at that point. The lessons learned from Michigan State coaches like George Perles, Buck Nystrom, Nick Saban and Shurmur’s O-line coach Pat Morris were exactly what you might expect from a late-80s/early-90s Big-10 school.

“Most of it was defensively,” Shurmur said. “How you have to be physical and tough. There was a fourth quarter program there. We called it the fourth quarter program that Nick still embraces. That was developed there at Michigan State, designed to make the players tough.”

Shurmur’s first sniff of the West Coast offfense came as an O-line coach at Stanford in 1998. But his emergence through the ranks on the back of the West Coast is part of a butterfly effect that was sparked in the late 60s.

In 1969, the Bengals drafted Greg Cook, a 6-foot-4 QB with a rocket arm, with the fifth overall pick and threw him into action right away. The results were magnificent. As a rookie, he led the NFL in QB rating and averaged 17.5 yards per completion – a figure that would lead the league in today’s NFL by more than three yards. Cook might have been Terry Bradshaw if not for a rotator cuff tear in his rookie season that ended his career.

Shurmur nods his head at the mention of Greg Cook. He knows about the Big Bang moment for modern NFL offenses.

Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bill Walsh was tasked with finding a solution. He played to the strengths of accurate QB Virgil Carter and devised an offense built on short passes.

Yes, the Walsh West Coast offense was invented in the Midwest.

While Shurmur was playing at Michigan State, Walsh was winning Super Bowls with Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig flourishing in his offensive design.

Shurmur is part of the trickle down from Walsh’s success.

Mike Holmgren was Walsh’s quarterback’s coach in San Francisco. He went on to win the Super Bowl as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, where his quarterback’s coach was Andy Reid. Shurmur’s first job in the NFL was under Reid in Philadelphia.

“Working with Andy Reid, now that was a graduate school class in West Coast offense,” Shurmur said.

Bill Walsh’s coaching tree:

Graphic via ESPN

The West Coast offense falls under the same definition that justice Potter Stewart used in his 1964 decision in Jacobellis v. Ohio. Stewart – referring to hard-core pornography – wrote: “I know it when I see it.”

Some have defined it (the West Coast offense, not hard-core pornography) as the use of horizontal passing routes to open up vertical throws. You might also look at it as ways to control the ball through the passing game.

“It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but to me it’s a culture,” Shurmur said. “It’s also based on what you tell the quarterback, whether it’s a short throw, an intermediate throw or a deep throw.

“It’s about taking what the defense gives you. It’s about getting completions. Because if you throw the ball short in a run/pass situation, it can be used as a run. Yet if you have explosive players that get behind the defense, it gives you that big-play capability. That in my mind is what it is.”

One reason the West Coast offense is hard to pin down is that coaches have always had to play the role of the mouse, escaping from cats on the defensive side who find a new trap every few years.

Dick LeBeau is famous for popularizing the zone blitz to confuse quarterbacks when making their quick reads on the West Coast. Mike Zimmer comes from Bill Parcells’ coaching tree. Once upon a time, Parcells stymied Walsh’s magical West Coast offense to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.

“Back in the old days with Bill Walsh, [West Coast offense] was so much more crossing routes,” Zimmer said. “Crossing routes all the time. Three-step, get the ball out, slants and things like that. A lot of motion empty, line up in regular two-back formations…now it’s a little more varied. They’re keeping a lot of guys in to protect. Throwing the ball vertically down the field a little bit more, more shots, lot more shotgun than when I first got in the league.”

A trained eye can spot the various influences on Shurmur from years under some of the masterminds of the West Coast offense.

On a 3rd-and-5 play, Shurmur called for duel crossing routes by Laquon Treadwell and Stefon Diggs for an 11-yard completion. That’s old school Walsh.

Running slant patters out of the shotgun used to be considered a major no-no, Shurmur says, but Andy Reid did it in Philadelphia. Reid also loved his deep shots to speedy receivers like DeSean Jackson. Diggs and Adam Thielen have become two of the best deep receivers in the NFL.

Shurmur’s appreciation for the footwork and precision of Sam Bradford is influenced by Holmgren, who loved nothing more than being a QB coach. The Vikings’ coach, still sitting on the equipment box, put his feet on the ground briefly to demonstrate.

“That’s the foundation of throwing is your feet,” Shurmur said, holding his hands like he was going to throw a pass and motioning toward his feet. “That’s where you create the ground force, from your back foot all the way, the motion goes up through your fingers. That motion starts with your feet. In the West Coast, it’s all about the feet.”

Sam Bradford has worked with Shurmur in three different NFL cities starting when came into the NFL and won AP Rookie of the Year in 2009, then again in Philadelphia in 2015. Bradford has had a front row seat to see Shurmur’s offense adapt.

“He’s had his core offense, but if I look back at what we were doing in St. Louis, what we were doing in Philly, what we were doing now I think there’s bits and pieces of all of those offenses,” Bradford said. “I think we’re multiple, I think we throw a lot of different looks at defenses, and Pat’s not afraid to change which is really why I like working with him.”

When Case Keenum ran a quick count against the Bucs, which caught them off guard and resulted in a touchdown, that was a shade of Chip Kelly.

Shurmur said Kelly’s concepts weren’t completely off the board as some made it seem, but his tempo and decision-making at the line of scrimmage were major parts of the early success in Philadelphia. Naturally, many teams have caught up and defenses adapted by playing nickel defenses 80% of the time or by using hybrid linebacker/safety types.

But Kelly’s biggest influence on Shurmur wasn’t really strategic, it was about being open to new ideas.

“That was a scenario where – and we should all go through this as coaches – where the only bad answer about anything NFL was, ‘We’ve always done it that way,’” Shurmur said. “So we were willing to think outside of the box. It was a great exercise for me because we stumbled on some things that I think were good.”

In meetings and on the practice field, Shurmur has created an atmosphere that leans far more toward open forum than do-what-you’re-told.

“He’s a guy where, if you don’t like something, just tell him,” Stefon Diggs said. “Not just, ‘I don’t like this or that,’ but tell him why you don’t like it. If it’s not something that seems fit for everybody, that we aren’t going to do it. You want everybody to be comfortable because it won’t work if we’re on a different page. The open lines of communication keeps everyone on the same page, no surprises out there.”

“It’s not the plays, it’s the players,” Shurmur added. ”We say that behind the scenes frequently. ‘What does Diggs do well? What does Adam do well? How do we get the ball to Kyle?’ We need to do a better job of that.”

Can it all hold up?

The Vikings have gotten some pretty good breaks in their two wins. Clearly New Orleans’ defense is still bad as it has been for essentially Sean Payton’s entire career. And Tampa Bay lost their best cornerback, both linebackers and star DT Gerald McCoy was battling an ankle injury.

Also, everyone on the Vikings’ offense aside from Sam Bradford has been healthy. It doesn’t seem likely that the Vikings will keep playing teams who are really bad or really hurt on a week-to-week basis over 16 games. And if Bradford doesn’t return at some point, it’s hard to expect Case Keenum, who had a 78 quarterback rating prior to this year, to lead the Vikings to the playoffs.

But Shurmur and the front office have built a lot of sustainable parts.

Historically speaking, the great West Coast offenses have had top-notch, all-purpose running backs. Walsh had Roger Craig, Mike Shanahan had Terrell Davis, Andy Reid has had Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles.

Now Shurmur has Dalvin Cook.

After three games, Cook is No. 2 in the NFL in rushing behind Andy Reid’s running back Kareem Hunt. He also grabbed five passes for 72 yards vs. the Bucs, including one seven-yard reception where Cook lined up as a wide receiver.

GM Rick Spielman traded up in the draft to pick Cook and center Pat Elflein, who has become a valuable starter. He also signed two tackles to huge contracts and added Michael Floyd despite the former Cardinal receiver’s severe DUI last season.

Spielman was willing to eat $3.4 million to release Alex Boone when he didn’t fit the team’s running scheme. He also drafted two depth wide receivers in the fifth and seventh round.

So the strength of the roster fits what Shurmur needs to succeed. Now the Vikings have an offensive philosophy that highlights those strengths. Even if that doesn’t result in the Vikings finishing No. 2 in the NFL in yards per game, it will give them a much better chance to be a contender than before.

Shurmur’s place in the history of the West Coast offense is still being formed. He’s part of a wave of coaches that influenced the up-and-coming college coaches and NFL assistants who are running the West Coast offense. Down the road, there could still be more opportunities for Shurmur to build his own coaching tree.

ESPN named him as a potential head coach candidate. A big year at the helm with the Vikings could lead an offense-starved team to give him a shot.

But campaigning isn’t his style.

“This is the Minnesota VIkings offense, I want our coaches and players to all take ownership for it,” Shurmur said.

The post How history shaped Pat Shurmur and the Vikings set him up for success appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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