Some questioned whether Norv Turner would coach in the NFL again following his unceremonious exit from the Minnesota Vikings in 2016.
The long-time coach resigned after a stagnant two-game stretch because of apparent differences in opinion with head coach Mike Zimmer over how the offense should be run. The Vikings were 27th and 29th in total yards in Turner’s two previous seasons and seemed to be going backwards with Sam Bradford taking charge in place of the injured Teddy Bridgewater.
While the Vikings moved on to Pat Shurmur and then John DeFilippo when Shurmur took a head coaching position in New York, Turner bided his time before landing a gig as the offensive coordinator in Carolina, a surprising move to some after the Panthers fired Mike Shula.
All he’s done is lead the Panthers to a 6-2 start while evoking the best version of Cam Newton and utilizing his versatile playmakers in creative ways. This is surprising for the Minnesota-based critics who felt as if Turner’s scheme in Minnesota was antiquated because of his inability to utilize Cordarrelle Patterson or Mike Wallace as he leaned heavily on the running game.
Let’s look at some of the areas where Turner has evolved, perhaps due to philosophical changes but also because of more multi-faceted personnel. We’ll frequently use the Vikings’ 2015 season for comparisons since that was Turner’s last full season in Minnesota.
Some might say Adrian Peterson hijacked the Vikings offense in 2015 with his demand for taking carries out of under-center formations, even though Teddy Bridgewater was arguably more comfortable as a shotgun passer. Peterson won a rushing title, though, and the Vikings’ ability to run the ball helped them ice many games in the second half, so it wasn’t all bad.
That being said, the Vikings lined up under center 55 percent of the time yet were fairly predictable in that they ran it roughly 75 percent of the time from that formation. They passed it around 80 percent of the time from the shotgun. Passing it four out of five times from the shotgun when you’re only in it 45 percent of the time is a significant tell.
The Vikings were second last in passing yards and passing touchdowns that year as they sometimes struggled to keep up with better offenses.
The Panthers, on the other hand, run 74 percent of their plays from the shotgun. They have about a 65-35 pass-run split in those situations and register 5.7 yards per carry from the shotgun.
They’re also using three wide receivers more often. Shula utilized three wideouts just 43 percent last year, while Turner has pumped that number up to 61 percent — 8 percent higher than he used in his final half season in Minnesota.
The Panthers have assembled a modern trio of position-less players, which is perhaps the greatest difference between Turner’s Vikings teams and his current Panthers.
Running back Christian McCaffrey (502 rushing yards, 378 receiving yards) is far better in the passing game than Peterson was and can be a threat lining up wide. Newton (342 rushing yards) is mobile and durable as a runner in RPOs. Rookie D.J. Moore (117 rushing yards) is also a threat to carry the ball; same with Curtis Samuel, whose electrifying double-reverse touchdown a week ago might have been one of the highlights of the year.
The Vikings had talent in Turner’s two-and-a-half years, but they didn’t have many flexible pieces. Peterson was strictly a runner, Wallace could run deep routes and little else, and Patterson lacked the technique to be an effective receiving threat. Over the last two years, the Panthers have brought in versatile athletes to put around Newton that have made their offense tougher to scout.
(And don’t forget about the one common thread between Turner’s Vikings and Turner’s Panthers: third-down aficionado Jarius Wright.)
Newton kept in check
The former first-overall pick is on pace for just his second 30-touchdown season and his first-ever single-digit-interception season. At the halfway point, he has 15 touchdowns and four picks, one year removed from being one off his career high of 16 interceptions.
Under Shula, Newton struggled with deep passing. He attempted the 19th-most deep pass attempts of 20 or more yards, but his passer rating of 60.6 on those throws ranked 40th in the league. Check out his 2017 distance chart.
Turner has reined in Newton’s downfield passing. Just 8.7 percent of the team’s pass attempts have been 20-plus yards downfield. Instead, Newton has thrived passing between the hashmarks as the Panthers take advantage of the league’s stricter rules against contact by the defense.
Here’s how Newton’s passes this season break down.
Bridgewater went 15 of 50 on passes 20 or more yards downfield in 2015, which might have taught Turner a valuable lesson: intermediate throws are OK, too. With skill players trending smaller and faster, amassing yards after catch can be just as effective as a lower-percentage pass to the sideline, especially since Newton struggled making those throws.
The Panthers will have a hard time winning the NFC South because of the red-hot New Orleans Saints (7-1). If they make the playoffs as a Wild Card team, there’s a decent chance a first-round meeting with the Vikings could await if Minnesota emerges as the NFC North champion.
Then Zimmer will have the task of trying to slow down Turner’s group, which has scored 99 points over the previous nine quarters.
Even a football lifer like Turner can learn new tricks.
Data from Pro Football Reference, Sharp Football, NFL Next Gen Stats and Pro Football Focus.