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Shurmur Leaning on Experiences as Vikings Offense Continues Evolution

Posted Nov 22, 2017

Pick a category, almost any statistical category on offense from where the Vikings finished 2016 and where they are 11 games into 2017, and a double-digit improvement awaits.

Yards per game has gone from 28th to fifth, rushing yards per game have improved from 32nd to eighth, first downs per game have gone from 25th to fifth and points per game has moved from 23rd to 11th.

When asked about Minnesota’s success this season, Vikings Offensive Coordinator Pat Shurmur has said multiple times, “It’s not the plays, it’s the players.”

The offseason overhaul of the offensive line, which has had a cascading effect on the Vikings run game and pass protection, certainly can’t be discounted for boosting Minnesota’s attack.

There’s also an increased familiarity with Shurmur’s system, which continues to evolve as the season progresses because of his personal commitment to learning something new every day. Shurmur and the offensive coaching staff expanding their repertoire requires passing it along efficiently with relatively short turnaround times.

“I’m always watching film, not only of ourselves and our opponents, but of other teams,” Shurmur said during a media session last Thursday. “It’s very easy to do with technology the way it is.

“Then you just take the things from your background, and it’s been documented many times, I have a West Coast background in terms of what you tell the quarterbacks, and there’s many different definitions of that,” Shurmur continued. “Then I went off on my own and incorporated some other things.”

The Vikings are certainly benefiting from variety, particularly in the red zone in recent weeks. In the past three games, Minnesota has scored on all 12 trips inside an opponent’s 20-yard line and reached the end zone on 10 of those possessions by involving seven different players.

Latavius Murray has three rushing touchdowns, and Adam Thielen has scored on touchdown passes of 18 and 7 yards from Case Keenum. Jerick McKinnon has a touchdown run, and Kyle Rudolph, Stefon Diggs, David Morgan and Jarius Wright have each caught touchdown passes in the past three games.

“For defenses, it’s a little complex,” Wright said. “They see a lot of different looks and things, so it’s hard to prepare for one thing. As soon as you prep for one thing, another thing comes. He does a great job.

“He has to stay long hours up there for the things he comes up with, but he’s done a great job this year, and you can’t say enough good things about the job he’s done,” Wright added.

The Vikings have scored touchdowns on 20 of 35 red zone possessions (57.1 percent). The team scored touchdowns on 23 of 50 red zone possessions (46 percent) and struggled particularly against Detroit, going a combined 3-for-8 in two games in 2016.

Minnesota will have another opportunity against Detroit on Thursday. It will be the eighth time for the Vikings to play on Thanksgiving and fifth time in the Motor City. It also will be a homecoming for Shurmur, a Michigander who was 4 years old when Minnesota first visited Detroit for a Thanksgiving game in 1969.

Shurmur starred at Divine Child High School in Dearborn and worked his way into becoming an All-Big Ten center for Michigan State as a senior in 1987 and helping the Spartans win the Rose Bowl.

Shurmur met his wife, Jennifer, at Michigan State and worked for IBM for a short period in 1988 before yearning to return to the gridiron. He did so as a graduate assistant and was added to the Spartans staff in 1990.

After working with Michigan State’s tight ends, the offensive line and special teams, Shurmur was hired by Stanford in 1998 to coach offensive line and then hired by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, beginning a 10-season stretch during which he coached tight ends and offensive line before shifting to quarterbacks (2002-2008).

A two-year run as Rams offensive coordinator led to the Browns hiring Shurmur as their head coach in 2011.

The Plain Dealer revisited Shurmur’s roots when he was hired, connecting with Shurmur’s former high school coach Wes Wishart.

“I knew flat out he wasn’t going to be at IBM long. Pat wasn’t a salesman,” Wishart told The Plain Dealer’s Bill Lubinger. “Pat was a purebred, 100 percent football guy. Selling goods, no. Selling hard work, selling himself, yes. Coaching was his destiny.”

In 2013, Shurmur returned to Philadelphia as the offensive coordinator for Chip Kelly and incorporated an up-tempo approach into his system for the first time. The Eagles set an NFL record with 99 plays of 20-plus yards, and Nick Foles threw 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 10 starts. He went 8-2 and posted the third-highest passer rating (119.2) in NFL history.

“A lot of new things were coming into the NFL from the college game,” Shurmur said. “We did some things that helped us be pretty explosive on offense, so you kind of lean on the experience of your past. 

“I certainly lean on our offensive staff who has good ideas,” Shurmur added on his current approach. “And then as you build a system, there are a lot of good ideas, but it has to be a good idea that fits with what you do and what your players can do. And how do you call it? How do you execute it? What do you tell the quarterback to do? What if they don’t line up that way? So, there’s all those things that you think through so you’re not a play behind.”

Shurmur coached Sam Bradford in St. Louis in 2010 and in Philadelphia in 2015 before they were again reunited in Minnesota last season when Bradford was acquired in a trade on Sept. 3, just eight days before the season opener.

The two worked together to get the quarterback caught up on Minnesota’s system, and Bradford set an NFL record for completion percentage in a season (71.6 percent) last season.

Shurmur was interim offensive coordinator for the final nine games and had the designation lifted in January. The offense benefited with time and a healthy offseason for Bradford, who completed 27 of 32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns (career-best passer rating of 143) against New Orleans in Week 1 but suffered a knee injury.

The Vikings then turned to Keenum in Week 2, a sixth-year pro who was signed this offseason after first joining the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent in 2012.

Keenum is 6-2 as a starter this season and played an important role in relief of Bradford in Week 5 at Chicago that started the Vikings on their six-game win streak.

He has completed 197 of 300 passes for a 65.7 completion percentage that is nearly five points higher than any previous total and is eight yards away from a career-best in a season, and his passer rating of 93.7 is 15 points higher than his career mark entering 2017. 

Shurmur was asked about what’s helped Keenum pick up things on the fly and credited abilities that he’s seen in multiple quarterbacks combined with an impressive work ethic when preparing each week.

“Most quarterbacks have been in different systems and by the nature of the position, they’re smart, instinctive guys,” Shurmur said. “They’re used to learning new offenses and new ways to say things, and they’re kind of conceptual in how they approach it.

“And that’s helped Case and served him well, having been other places,” Shurmur said. “Then it’s just a matter of committing yourself and devoting yourself to what we do and how we call it and how we want to function, and he’s done all that as well.”

Shurmur said coaches try to meet players “in the middle” when teaching new things, and he looks for ways to streamline communication.

The Vikings have integrated different personnel groupings throughout the season and have moved their receivers to multiple spots on the line of scrimmage, which has helped keep Minnesota’s offense a step ahead of defenses for much of the season.

“Fortunately, we have some very smart players that have a feel for conceptual football … and I’m constantly looking for ways to say what we do in fewer words, so you can execute it quicker,” Shurmur said. “It’s easier for me to say, it’s easier for the players, and then they can go out. If you knock out a layer of learning, then the players can get lined up quicker and they actually play faster, and that’s what you’re looking for.”

Then, it’s about continuing to evolve the offense as the season progresses.

“You have your core set of plays that you run, each week you look at your opponent and you have your core set of game-plan plays that kind of go parallel to the ones that you’re going to run most of the time,” Shurmur said. “Then you have your adjustments that you make, and then you try and give the players the best things that they can use to execute well.”

Keenum and the offensive players have taken a continue-to-grow approach, and it has helped the Vikings spread opportunities throughout the lineup.

“[An offense] always evolves throughout the year. Different guys step up in key roles at key times,” Keenum said. “That’s what I love about this team. We all really love and care about each other, and we all don’t care who gets what at what time. We’re all willing to do what it takes to win a football game. That’s why you see guys celebrating with each other, no matter who gets the pass, who gets the run, who gets the touches. It’s pretty cool to be around.”