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If only journalists were permitted a quick glimpse in the offensive meeting room of the Minnesota Vikings. It’s a room filled with well over 100 years of combined experience and four current or former head coaches; a room of men who may be new to the Minnesota Vikings but are not new to the game of football, nor have failed to leave their mark on its hallowed history; a room with many generals and one commander in chief, head coach Mike Zimmer.
Minnesota boasted a dynamic duo of coaches for two seasons with Zimmer at the reins – many times an assistant, never before a head coach – and Norv Turner as his right hand man, the offensive guru that Zimmer’s defensive mind needed as a complement. But in the offseason, the Vikings collected two venerable assistants from defunct coaching staffs: Pat Shurmur, a victim of Chip Kelly’s fallout in Philadelphia, and Tony Sparano, a casualty in San Francisco, where Kelly ironically wound up landing.
After recording the fourth fewest yards in football and allowing 45 sacks of young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Zimmer knew the Vikings’ offense needed a shot in the arm, so he brought in arguably the two most qualified offensive consultants. Shurmur, 51, and Sparano, 54, have both been working in the NFL since 1999 and began coaching in the college ranks in the 1980s. Their job is simple: To bring unique perspectives to the table. While Shurmur has been charged with coaching the tight ends – a job he hasn’t held since 2001 – and Sparano replaces Jeff Davidson as the offensive line coach, it appears like their broader responsibility is to help the Vikings avoid complacency on offense. Zimmer is terrified of stagnation, and if his quick farewell to Davidson after the 2015 season’s final game is any indication, he wanted wholesale changes throughout the offense. That begins philosophically, and it started with the draft process.
It’s a room filled with well over 100 years of combined experience and four current or former head coaches; a room of men who may be new to the Minnesota Vikings but are not new to the game of football.
“I always ask any time we’re bringing in new coaches, bringing in new scouts, ‘What did you do in other places?’” said general manager Rick Spielman two days before the draft. “Look at our process. Is there things that we can always add to make us better in the process we go through as we get ready for the draft?
“There was no gray area with those guys, which I really appreciate. Us as a scouting department or me personally may not totally agree with them, but I know where they stand, and that’s the most important thing.”
Shurmur and Sparano have a history of working and shaping young talent, which makes them a nice fit in Minnesota. Shurmur tutored Donovan McNabb in the early 2000s in Philadelphia and helped shape him into one of the league’s finest passers (until he reached Minnesota, that is). He also guided Sam Bradford to a Rookie of the Year Award in St. Louis back in 2010, which earned him a head coaching job in Cleveland.
Both coaching vets have already tickled their itch to be head coaches, much like Turner, who has called the shots at three different locations. Shurmur coached for the Browns in 2011 and 2012, then cleaned up Kelly’s mess in Philadelphia last year as an interim. Sparano, like Shurmur, has held interim job (Oakland) and one job where he was hired (Miami). The Dolphins had a new vice president of football operations in 2008 who signed Sparano to a massive contract. It was Bill Parcells – Coach Zimmer’s current-day mentor and friend.
“There was no gray area with those guys, which I really appreciate.”
That’s just one of the many common connections in this offensive coaching collective. Zimmer and Sparano both worked together under Parcells in Dallas from 2003 to 2006. Shurmur worked with fellow Vikings assistants Hank Fraley and Jonathan Gannon during his tenure with St. Louis. Sparano and Turner have worked at seven of the same NFL franchises but never at the same time. Shurmur coached in Cleveland one year prior to Turner’s arrival.
In some ways, all roads point back to Dallas, where Turner and Zimmer both won Super Bowls in the 1990s to spearhead their coaching careers. That’s where Zimmer connected with Sparano and learned from Parcells in the 2000s. It’s safe to say Zimmer references his time in Dallas – at least with the media – more often than he does his most recent job in Cincinnati.
If NFL coaches are capable of nostalgia, there might be a good dose of it that goes on over coffee in this group.
With so much common ground and mutual respect between this set of coaches, the Vikings are not worried about a clash of egos. After all, nobody forced Shurmur or Sparano to take assistant coaching jobs. Clearly, there was something appealing about the setup in Minnesota.
In some ways, all roads point back to Dallas.
Shurmur and Sparano have both previously ventured out as head coaches into rebuilding projects where they’ve been tasked with growing teams from the ground up, and they understand how taxing and thankless it can be. In Minnesota, they’ve positioned themselves in a spot where the rebuilding has already taken place, and all that’s needed is a push over the top. It’s not a bad spot to rehabilitate their personal stock after being associated with lame duck staffs in their previous locales.
Sparano sits in a somewhat enviable spot of being able to take credit if he can turn around an offensive line that was lackluster at best in 2015, though injuries played a huge role and didn’t do Davidson any favors. His hard-nose approach is well-known, and he’ll bring a new level of intensity to the Vikings O-line, which Zimmer felt was lacking last year. Like the head coach, Sparano doesn’t beat around the bush. As new left guard Alex Boone said, he’ll hurt you with the truth instead of comforting you with a lie. “He kind of set the tempo from the first day, which as an offensive line I think is great,” said Boone. “Your coach should always be the general. He’s the guy that sets the tempo for you, and he laid it out. ‘Listen, there’s no nonsense. We’re going to raise the bar this year.’ And I think it was great.”
Sparano has been gifted with myriad options on the line. After backpedaling into the 2015 season following a rash of preseason injuries, the Vikings made sure they wouldn’t have that problem this season. In addition to getting Phil Loadholt and John Sullivan back from injury, they re-signed Mike Harris and acquired Boone and Andre Smith, potentially giving the Vikings more linemen than they’ll be able to retain come cut day.
“Even as an adult you don’t like to get yelled at.”
Between the competitive nature of this summer’s training camp and Sparano’s high-octane personality, the Vikings should have a battle-tested starting five by Week 1.
“Even as an adult you don’t like to get yelled at,” said Sullivan of Sparano, a former college center himself, “so it can definitely ramp things up in terms of the intensity, in terms of attention to detail and all that, so we’ll see how guys react to it.
“He’s no nonsense, he lives up to the billing,” Sullivan continued. “These are pretty light meetings right now, we’re going over stuff, and you’re limited in terms of how much time that you have, but if answers are wrong, Tony’s on guys. I can’t wait to get on the field with him because I feel like it’s going to be a big change in terms of how much we get done then.”
Shurmur resembles Turner in personality more than Zimmer or Sparano. He is calmer, more laid back. Quietly confident. He also inherits a great deal of wealth at the tight end position, where he replaces assistant Kevin Stefanski — now the running backs coach.
The term brain trust never seemed more applicable than it now does to the Vikings’ situation.
Kyle Rudolph is coming off a rare healthy season where he played 16 games. MyCole Pruitt flashed as he got more repetitions late in the season. Rhett Ellison, if he can recover from a nasty knee injury, is one of the best blocking tight ends in the game, and if he’s not able to play immediately, sixth-round pick David Morgan should be able to fill that blue-collar role.
“I think [Pat] was excited with the guys offensively to work with in Rudolph and also the team,” Zimmer told Tim Yotter of Scout.com. “I think he thinks they have a chance to do some good things.”
While Sparano will be charged with strengthening the trenches and improving the pass protection and running game, Shurmur may be called upon to have input on the passing game. He has worked with West Coast concepts in his past that could benefit Bridgewater’s quick-hitting skillset. He also dealt with the Eagles’ revolutionary hurry-up offense, which would be antithetical to the Vikings’ run-first scheme but could help them in two-minute situations. “He’s been with a lot of different offenses, been a head coach, been an offensive coordinator. He’s coached the tight ends before,” Zimmer told Scout.com. “He’s had some experience with the Philadelphia offense, the West Coast offense. I think it’s just good to get more guys in that have input.”
The term brain trust never seemed more applicable than it now does to the Vikings’ situation. The team’s four-coach co-op could turn into a Too Many Coaches in the Kitchen conundrum if it’s not well-managed. But the reward outweighs the risk. The Vikings recognized their shortcomings in 2015 and have addressed them – not with player moves, but with tweaks to the coaching staff.
With their current coaching structure, the Vikings have no excuse to flounder. The pressure’s on to transform the offense as the team enters what they hope is a golden era inside their new stadium. “Tony, Coach Shurmur, they bring a lot to the table,” said Sullivan. “I’m sure Norv, who’s a great offensive coordinator, is listening to their opinions and trying to incorporate things that they’ve had success with. Overall, the scheme will be pretty similar, but there will be some changes and hopefully some improvements.”