Well before Norv Turner became the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator, he knew all about his new team’s offensive star, Adrian Peterson. One picture on the wall in Winter Park, the team’s headquarters, reminds Turner of everything he needs to know about Peterson.
Turner was in the photo.
"It was one of the first pictures I saw of me standing on the sideline watching Adrian run down the sideline in the game that he broke the NFL rushing record, so I’ve seen it firsthand," Turner said last week. "I’ve seen him at his best firsthand."
Turner was the San Diego Chargers’ head coach in 2007 when Peterson, as a rookie, set the league’s single-game rushing record with 296 rushing yards in just his eighth NFL game. Turner gets a chance to be on the same sideline as Peterson now.
While Turner comes to Minnesota as an accomplished offensive mind known for his work with quarterbacks and his deep passing attack, he stressed his desire for balance with the Vikings and the importance of Peterson.
"I think the best offenses I’ve been with, and I’ve been fortunate to be some with really good ones, and to me it’s all about having balance," Turner said. "You have to be good in enough things so that when a team overplays the run, you can throw it. If you are going to back off and play more conservative, you can run it. You obviously have to be able to do what you want. Sometimes you have to say we are going to run it no matter what and we are going to throw it no matter what, but balance to me is the most critical thing."
The speculation with Peterson and Turner started almost immediately as soon as the partnership was established. How does Peterson fit in Turner’s pass-first offenses?
Peterson is coming off surgery for a third straight offseason and will be 29 years old when next season begins, perilously close to the magical age of 30, when many top-flight running backs supposedly begin their downfall.
Turner is, in many ways, a disciple of the "Air Coryell" offensive philosophy. Don Coryell was the San Diego Chargers’ coach who revolutionized the passing game in the NFL. Ernie Zampese brought the system to the Los Angeles Rams, where Turner learned from Zampese as the Rams’ wide receivers coach.
A forgotten piece of Turner’s offenses — and the Coryell system, to an extent — is the involvement of the running back, and taking advantage of defenses that drop to cover the deep passing game. But Turner certainly has had his share of success with running backs in his career, foreshadowing big involvement for Peterson.
Turner first got his chance at coaching with John Robinson at the University of Southern California, where Robinson’s offenses were run-first and led to Heisman campaigns from Charles White and Marcus Allen. Turner later joined Robinson in Los Angeles, where Eric Dickerson led the league in rushing in three of four seasons with Robinson.
"I’ve always looked at it and the guys that have affected it," Turner said, when asked about his offensive philosophy. "I’ve talked about John Robinson and when I think about John Robinson, I think about Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, the power running and the physical run style we had running the ball and winning with the run. I had a chance to be with Ernie Zampese and the pass offense.
"People that look at it and say we’re going to run the ball with power and be a physical team, and because of that we’re about to be a big-play pass offense. I’ve been with a number of guys that have been in the top four or five in average yards per catch. Obviously, Josh Gordon led the league in yards per catch last year for guys over a certain number of catches. We want to make big plays, we want to be an explosive offense and, in my opinion, you have to be able to run the ball."
In 23 years as an offensive coordinator and head coach, Turner has had a top-10 scoring offense 10 times. His teams have finished in the top-11 in offensive yards 11 times.
With Turner as Cleveland’s offensive coordinator last season, Gordon led the league in receiving yards with 1,646 yards and was second in yards per catch, averaging 18.9 yards per reception. In his NFL coaching career, Turner has had a receiver rank in the top-5 in yards per catch 21 times.
Turner’s running backs have included Emmitt Smith, Terry Allen, Stephen Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams and Frank Gore. Turner’s backs have led the league in rushing five times. Smith, Allen, Davis, Tomlinson, Williams, LaMont Jordan and Ryan Mathews have all rushed for over 1,000 yards. Twelve times those backs have gone for more than 1,200 rushing yards.
Deep passing and running the ball are surely Turner’s calling cards. And now he’s working with Peterson.
"I don’t know how you can compare guys at that level because they all have their own way of doing things, their own special set of skills," Turner said of comparing Peterson to some of his best running backs. "I’ve been fortunate to be around some great ones and I think they all are different, but the one thing they have is that ultimate competitiveness and desire, and certainly Adrian has all those things."
Peterson mentioned he watched the coaching hires closely. His early interaction with Turner has been positive.
"He was excited," Turner said of his talk with Peterson, later adding: "I think he understands that the biggest thing to me is we’re trying to win. He’s at a point in his career where he’d like to go, No. 1, be in the playoffs, and No. 2 have success in the playoffs and ultimately win a championship. I think he’s at a point in his career where he’s done a lot of things in individual goals and accomplishments. And he expressed that whatever it takes for us he wants to do."
Turner also rekindled the long-held discussions of getting Peterson more involved in the passing game.
"Adrian, he is a warrior and he’s run the ball in closed-in quarters with a lot of defenders there and he makes a lot of long runs, making people miss or running over people," Turner said. "It’s hard to do, but we would like to get him in space and getting the field spread a little bit better for him."
And just maybe, Turner can be added into more of Peterson’s highlight photos, this time feeling better about the outcome.