Vikings offense has been in sure hands with Pat Shurmur

Published 11:11 pm Friday, November 3, 2017

EDEN PRAIRIE — The Minnesota Vikings lost starting quarterback Sam Bradford to an injury right after the opener. Running back Dalvin Cook was hurt in the fourth game and is out for the season.

They’ve even had to use three left guards.

Pat Shurmur hasn’t missed a beat.

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In his first full year as offensive coordinator for the Vikings, Shurmur has helped a unit that lagged behind last year not only pick up the production but maintain it through the first half of the season at a level that’s been more than acceptable next to the team’s dominant defense.

“Adjusting to what’s going on is something that I think he’s really good at,” quarterback Case Keenum said, “and I think he’s a great play caller.”

The first priority for 2017 for the Vikings (6-2), who entered their bye week in sole possession of first place in the NFC North, was to rebuild their offensive line with a pair of free agent tackles and a rookie center. Shurmur and offensive line coach Tony Sparano guided the group toward more zone blocking with a reliance on more mobile players, and the results have been mostly positive.

The Vikings are 13th in the NFL in yards and 14th in points, allowing the second-fewest sacks per pass play and the fourth-fewest interceptions per pass attempt. They’re seventh in the league in third down conversions. Last season, they accumulated the fifth-fewest yards. They were in the bottom 10 in points and sacks.

Now, one year after Shurmur stepped up from tight ends coach following Norv Turner’s resignation , the Vikings have a player in tailback Jerick McKinnon who’s sixth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage and one in Adam Thielen who’s second in the league in receiving yards. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs had 391 yards and four touchdowns over the first four games before hurting his groin.

“You have a lot of guys who want the ball and can do a lot with the ball in their hands. That can be a tough challenge,” Thielen said. “I think he’s done a good job of spreading the ball around and keeping everybody happy.”

Particularly considering Keenum, typecast as a career backup, had to take over for Bradford in the second week of the season.

“Whoever is in there, we have a system we’re developing as we go. It’s got a heartbeat and it just keeps morphing, based on who was in there,” Shurmur said.

The creativity has been obvious with Shurmur, but the variety has been his greatest asset, from moving wide receivers to different spots in the formation to switching up pass protection schemes to calling pass plays for short, medium and long ranges. He has also directed the Vikings to speed up and slow down their tempo of snaps to help keep the defense off balance.

Here’s an example from the game at Chicago on Oct. 9:

— After the Bears scored on a fake punt that cut the lead to 10-9 late in the third quarter, the Vikings faced a second-and-10 from their 18-yard line. Keenum found Michael Floyd for a 19-yard completion, and the next play was a hurry-up, no-huddle 5-yard run off right guard by McKinnon. With the Bears linebackers still moving into place, the Vikings ran a toss sweep to McKinnon around right end for a 58-yard touchdown.

Encouraged by his father, Joe Shurmur, to become a coach , Pat Shurmur was actually first influenced by defensive coaches. His uncle, Fritz Shurmur, was a long-time, innovative NFL defensive coordinator who directed Reggie White, LeRoy Butler and the rest of the Green Bay Packers during their 1996-97 championship season.

Pat Shurmur was an All-Big Ten center at Michigan State from 1984-87, when the head coach of the Spartans was George Perles and the defensive coordinator was Nick Saban. Through his uncle and Perles and Saban, Shurmur developed a keen appreciation for what the defense is trying to do on the other side and how it’s attempting to attack the offense’s perceived weaknesses.

“Whether you coach offense or defense, you need to have a healthy appreciation for what the other side of the ball is trying to do. I think that can help you when you put together what your offense is going to be. The last couple years I’ve had great conversations with Zim. We talk often about things that hurt our offense, as well as what’s a challenge for his defense.”

Shurmur was on Michigan State’s staff for 10 seasons under Perles and then Saban, before one year at Stanford and first cracking the NFL in 1999 with Philadelphia under head coach Andy Reid.

With the Eagles, he became fully immersed in the West Coast system that emphasized quicker, shorter passes and used tailbacks who were as effective as receivers as they were runners. He became an offensive coordinator for the first time in 2009 with the St. Louis Rams.

Reid and Fritz Shurmur were on head coach Mike Holmgren’s staff with the Packers, and Holmgren was president of the Cleveland Browns when they hired Pat Shurmur as head coach in 2011.

Fired after two years, he returned to the Eagles as the offensive coordinator under head coach Chip Kelly. Shurmur’s style began to evolve, with a growing admiration for the fast-paced, no-huddle attack Kelly brought from the college game at Oregon.

With his experience and the team’s success, Shurmur could wind up on candidate lists this winter for teams searching for a new head coach.

For now, though, there’s much more work to be done with a Vikings team that happens to be hosting the Super Bowl.

“The running game has improved. The pass game has improved,” general manager Rick Spielman said, adding: “That’s up to other teams, what they think. But I know how much that coach Zimmer and we value him here.”