On Norv’s Exit and Every Contender’s Biggest Flaw
A peek inside the rift that led to the 5-2 Vikings parting ways with their offensive coordinator. Plus a look at the weaknesses that could be the undoing of all the top teams, Week 9 names to watch and much more
The MMQB names Brian Orakpo, Ezekiel Elliot and Amari Cooper as NFL who will rise to the occasion in Week 9 of the NFL 2016 season.
Looking for a flash point in trying to ascertain where things went south between Norv Turner and Mike Zimmer in Minnesota?
Call off the search. The answers are right in front of you: Teddy Bridgewater. Adrian Peterson. Matt Kalil. Andre Smith.
When the Vikings traded for Sam Bradford in the days after the lightning strike of a practice injury to Bridgewater, an implicit but loud message was sent down from the front office. This roster is ready to win now, and we’re not in the business of throwing away a championship-window year. In the days to follow, GM Rick Spielman conceded as much.
“(The players) know what a bad taste last year left, and they know how hard we worked all offseason, and through camp, to take the next step,” Spielman told me in early September. “By doing this, it shows the players, Yes, we lost our young QB, who showed so much improvement, and took strides in his third year, but we’re not gonna throw the season away.”
I applauded Spielman at the time for the aggression. And I’m not backing off that. After all, he couldn’t control what happened next. Bridgewater’s absence was compounded by major injuries to the tailback/face of the franchise and the bookends of an already leaky offensive line. In so many ways, having a quarterback with mobility and this era’s preeminent bell cow mitigated the issues up front. So those naturally resurfaced, then metastasized with Kalil and Smith gone.
All the while, the pressure to win had been ratcheted up and, as far as I can tell, the struggle to find answers created an organic tension that was enough to force change. So Turner’s out. Pat Shurmur is in. And my sense is this isn’t about one man being wrong or the other being right, but both Zimmer and Turner recognizing what had to be done.
“To be honest, there were just different opinions on what we need to do, and where the focus is,” Turner told me during the lunchtime hour Wednesday. “I have a lot of respect for Zim, he’s a heck of a coach. It just wasn’t going to work.”
Turner’s recognition of that, as he describes it, was what gave him peace when he went to meet with the Vikings’ boss.
Around the same time I was on the phone with Turner, Zimmer explained that sitdown like this: “We talked for a long time about a lot of things and I told him my feelings for him and how much that I respect him and the things that he’s done and things he’s continued to do and how hard he’s tried to get it going. He was pretty set in his ideas and his reasons and I hope that we’ll always continue to be friends.”
What’s next? As I understand it, the disagreements weren’t global, but more over details in how to run the offense. The focus now will be to create an environment that suits Bradford.
That, above all else, needs to be about protecting him. Bridgewater isn’t Steve Young, but he was athletic enough to help the Vikings hide problems that prompted the signings of Smith and Alex Boone. Bradford isn’t that guy. He has showed what he can be if his jersey is kept clean, which has become an infinitely more challenging task over the past few weeks.
So I’d expect more resources—in scheme and bodies—will now be committed to helping Bradford stay upright. Absent Peterson, Bradford now serves as the offense’s centerpiece.
As for Turner, it has been a difficult few days contemplating all of this. He’s been a coordinator or head coach in the NFL for the last 26 years running. The Vikings quarterbacks coach, Scott Turner, is also his son.
While we talked, Norv Turner emphasized that he’d made no decision about whether or not this would be his final season. He says the plan all along was to assess that at the end of the year. At 64, Turner says he’s still not closing the book on his coaching career.
“We’ve been through an awful lot with this team, particularly on offense,” Turner told me. “We had a lot of challenges. And for a period of time, we were able to hide some problems we had, but it catches up to you. And then we just had a difference of opinion—or what I felt was a difference of opinion—on what we needed to do to give our guys the best chance to fix it.
“Mike’s as good a coach as I’ve been around. We were just at a point where I felt like me leaving gave him a chance to get done what he wants to get done.”
So now Turner is done, and now it’s Shurmur’s challenge to find a better way to fix a hobbled offense. In my mind, that’s the result of a veteran coach recognizing a problem and doing what he believed was the right thing. And not a whole lot else.
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So in putting together my notes this week, I was working a story that actually was going to involve the Vikings offensive line.
Let me explain. For the first time since I can remember, it seems like every major contender has what could wind up being a fatal roster flaw. So I decided to enlist a couple evaluators to give me their take on each of holes on the seven one-loss or two-loss teams. Here they are:
VIKINGS OFFENSIVE LINE
AFC executive: “They’re running out of bodies. At some point, you have to run the ball and protect the quarterback, so you can make those plays they need. When they start playing teams that are a reflection of them defensively, can they hold on?”
COWBOYS PASS RUSH
NFC scouting director: “As you can see, the last few years, they’ve been trying to figure that out, drafting defensive ends. And now with Randy Gregory being suspended, the one dumbass they had (Greg Hardy) gone, there’s no one that can get pressure. And Marinelli’s not a big blitz guy, and he has had to be more, so it’ll be interesting to see how that evolves.”
AFC executive: “At the end of the game, will the QB make plays in the critical moment, when you’re in a tight matchup or the playoffs? As the season goes on, everything gets tighter, more equal. Is he gonna be able to get the ball downfield? They can ride the defense, there’s no change there. But can the QB make the critical plays, and be productive enough if the run game is shut down? That’ll be a defining thing.”
SEAHAWKS OFFENSIVE LINE
NFC scouting director: “The last two years, that’s what killed them. Before, their calling card was being physical on both sides. They chose to go young, and missed on some picks and they’re trying to convert guys from defense, and they lose JR Sweezy, go through all that with (Russell) Okung, which to me that was the biggest loss… Now, you essentially have five guys learning each other. Offensive line is about continuity. If you have it, issues are workable. They don’t.”
PATRIOTS THIRD-DOWN DEFENSE
NFC scouting director: “What they have is a bunch of guys in the clubhouse who play sound, disciplined football. But they don’t have that guy, like they did with Chandler Jones or Jamie Collins, who offensive coaches worry about. (Chris) Long doesn’t have the same juice anymore, (Rob) Ninkovich is an effort guy. (Jabaal) Sheard is solid, probably the most explosive guy, which doesn’t say much for them. So they have to do more to get guys home.”
AFC executive: “Goes back to the old adage that defense wins in the playoffs. The two best teams last year, the two teams in the Super Bowl, had the two best defenses. Their offense can outscore you, but you play those defenses in the playoffs. You have to stop someone, and that’ll be a problem. They have some players, but there are holes (at linebacker and corner) and inconsistency.”
And what I figured out then was interesting. The most complete team might also be the most overlooked one—the 5-2 Kansas City Chiefs.
Our AFC executive assessed K.C. like this: “It’s not a team that you look forward to playing. You have to play well. They’re well-coached, evenly balanced. They’re not great at anything but they’re good at a lot of things. They have enough weapons on offense to create mismatches … and getting (Justin) Houston back will help the D.”
And one more, from the NFC scouting director: “You know, I think the only team they wouldn’t beat in a three-game series might be New England. To me, it’s when you catch them, because they’re up and down. But from 1-53, they’re probably the most complete team.”
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FIVE NAMES TO WATCH ON SUNDAY
• I’m intrigued to watch Jets DL Sheldon Richardson’s first game following a couple days of rumblings that he was on the trade block. The rap on him has been he’s not the most mature guy, and Dallas made a strong play for him, so …
• Carson Wentz has hit a rough patch—he’s a rookie, it’s to be expected—so now is a good time to watch his response to defenses playing him differently. Expect the Giants to sit on the short stuff like Minnesota and Dallas did.
• John Harbaugh wants new offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg to reestablish the run game, and the Steelers defense has been shaky in that area. Terrance West should get his chances to star in a spot for the reeling Ravens.
• Pete Carroll’s defense is predicated on getting pressure from the front four and so, with Michael Bennett out, Cliff Avril becomes that much more vital. And he’s been great, having registered a sack and forced fumble last week.
• Marcus Mariota has been really good over the past month, and now has a chance to help vault the Titans over .500 for the first time since Week 1 of his rookie year. All that stands in his way is a frisky Charger defense.
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1. Fixing Bortles. One big reason that Blake Bortles broke out in 2015 was a relentless effort from the end of his rookie year to the start of his second year to fix his quirky throwing mechanics. One big reason for his regression this year is that those fixes have begun to vanish on him. Early in training camp, Bortles quickly recognized his bad habits had resurfaced, something he conceded to those close to him may have come because he wasn’t as intensely focused on them as he had been the year before. (“I can’t believe I’m throwing that way again,” he’d say.) An effort to fix it on the fly led to fatigue, and Bortles hasn’t been able to get in front of the problem. So a couple weeks ago, I’m told, Bortles started a routine of working on mechanics in front of a mirror for an hour each Monday. Additionally, as he explained to the media this week, he flew his mechanics coach Adam Dedeaux (who works for Tom House, and helped Bortles rework his motion in 2015) to Florida for a couple days of work. Maybe he can Band-Aid the issue. But as his quarterbacks coaches emphasize to all their clients, that is very difficult to do when you’re playing in game conditions every week. So it seems the good news here is that Bortles’ problems are probably fixable. The bad news is that it may take an offseason to do it, and that’s even worse news for a coaching staff that likely will need a dramatic turnaround to make it to 2017. And it’s not like Bortles is the only issue. Keeping the team together might be a bigger one. The staff has had a harder time getting the latest wave of rookies and free-agent additions to buy into Gus Bradley’s program, which has contributed to the discipline problems everyone saw in losses to Oakland and Tennessee. When the Jags take the field in Kansas City on Sunday, they’ll have had 10 days to clean that up. We’ll see if they rally behind Bradley and new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
2. Luxury Carr. It’s hard to miss what’s happening in Oakland, and talking to those who know, it’s pretty clear that Derek Carr’s continued ascent is no mirage. Said one Raiders staffer: “Some guys wait their whole coaching career to be with a quarterback like him.” Carr is now on pace to complete 66.3 percent of his throws for 4,642 yards and 34 touchdowns against just six picks for the 6-2 Raiders, who host the world champion Broncos on Sunday night. But that’s not really what is being referenced by those who are in the building. It’s how much better Carr figures to become. Over the past 10 months, the coaches—and in particular position coach Todd Downing—have challenged Carr to improve his footwork and balance in the pocket. Carr’s arm talent has never been a question, but his over-reliance on that over the years has led to some inconsistency. Midway through his third season, the staff sees his strides in that area as a major reason for improved accuracy (his completion percentage hovered around 60 his first two years). And his drive in fixing his mechanics in that area is apparent everywhere else too. Last year, Carr was learning offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s scheme, and now he’s moved to better deciphering defenses and how to use that system against them. These are little, boring things about quarterbacking. But Carr’s aptitude to learn and apply all this counts for a lot, as we’ve seen in the past with quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. All of which makes it harder and harder to believe that three quarterbacks and 35 players went ahead of Carr in 2014.
3. Romo’s last stand? On Sunday, it will have been 10 weeks and three days since Tony Romo last took a snap. When the sun sets, Dak Prescott will have eight NFL starts under his belt. So much has changed over the past couple months, and so I went back to the podcast I did with Stephen Jones after Week 2, to refresh on how he answered when I asked him if he’d thought about the potential of this turning into a Brady/Bledsoe situation. “We’re starting to think about it now,” Jones answered. “Obviously, we had a young guy named Tony Romo who came in as an undrafted free agent and we saw a lot of great things early and often. And we’re certainly seeing a lot of the same things. Obviously Dak’s got a long ways to go. But he seems to check every box every time he gets an opportunity.” At that point, Jones’ point of reference was a ramped up set of spring and summer reps (as the team managed Romo and Kellen Moore got hurt), some preseason action, then more reps after Romo’s injury and two regular-season starts. Since, Prescott has helped Dallas rip off five straight wins. In four of those five games, he completed more than two-thirds of his passes, and in the one he didn’t (last Sunday), he led a furious comeback for an overtime win over a division rival on a national stage. Safe to say, he’s still checking off boxes. And while Jones went on to say later in our talk that “it’s still Tony’s football team,” just talking to people in the organization, the questions being asked seem to have flipped from “what does Dak bring that Tony doesn’t?” then to “does Tony do anything that we’re not getting from Dak?” now. So expect the Cowboys to remain slow-moving on clearing Romo for game action. But the time is coming, and it’s getting harder and harder to see Prescott getting pulled.
4. Dolphins have become Adam Gase’s team. Over the course of the offseason, coaches on Adam Gase’s staff raved about his direct and to-the-point approach with everyone in the building. But winning over players is a different deal, and there’s evidence that’s now happened. In September, we detailed the reasons for Jay Ajayi being left behind in Miami for the team’s season opener in Seattle. Basically, Ajayi was carrying himself like he was already the guy at tailback, and hadn’t earned it yet, and that extended into the fourth preseason game, which he thought he was above playing. “Don’t want to play? Fine,” is basically what Gase said. Based on Ajayi’s work since, it’s pretty clear that very direct message was received. And when Gase decided it was time to hand Ajayi the mail, after the second-year player demonstrated he’d do all the dirty work correctly in losses to the Bengals and Titans, the coach got 418 rushing yards on 53 carries over two weeks in return. And two wins. I don’t know if the Dolphins—built behind an offensive line that finally was together the last few weeks—are going to be any kind of real threat. But I do know that little victories like the one Gase got in his handling of Ajayi can go a long way for a young, first-time head coach.
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• The 2-5 Panthers have a long way to go. But I think the win over Arizona last Sunday had more meaning than just snapping a losing streak. The reason the Panthers have slipped is because their overwhelming strengths of 2015 had vanished. Against Arizona, the front seven once again wreaked havoc and Jonathan Stewart keyed a run game that rolled up 141 yards. If Carolina can keep it up in those two areas, I think a 2014-like rebound (from 1-8-1 to division champs) is possible.
• The Trent Williams situation may seem untimely on the surface. Losing perhaps the game’s best left tackle for the third quarter of the NFL season wouldn’t be ideal for any team. But the truth is it could’ve been a lot worse. Williams was suspended for four games in 2011, and actually got discharged from the drug program in 2013. That allowed him to dodge a 10-game ban that he’d still be serving if it was enforced at the beginning of the season (I clarified that from an earlier posting of this story). Even serving this four-gamer at the outset of the year (which he would’ve without the appeal process) would’ve been less than ideal, though it’s certainly not for the best that Williams is back at the step he was at a couple seasons ago. As it is, the Redskins were able to work out run game issues and get Kirk Cousins going in the interim. And now the hope is swing tackle Ty Nsekhe can make it work for the next month.
• Seahawks QB Russell Wilson has a sprained MCL in one leg, a high ankle sprain in the other, and now a pectoral injury. He’ll play Monday night. And probably finish the season with 16 starts. So I figured it’d be good to check with one of his guys on why Wilson won’t take a week or two off to get himself right. Here’s what Wilson’s mental conditioning coach Trevor Moawad (of the Moawad Consulting Group) texted over: “On a scale of 1-10, his competitive character is probably a 95. I've been with him down in San Diego trying to convince him to take a day off in March after something like 13 two-a-days in a row and he looks at you in a way where you quickly recognize there will be no day off. … It’s really remarkable.”
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TWO COLLEGE PLAYERS TO WATCH ON SATURDAY
1. LSU S Jamal Adams (vs. Alabama, CBS, 8 p.m. ET): The annual showdown between the Tigers and Tide is must-see TV for NFL types, and despite the tumult in Baton Rouge the past few months, this year’s edition will be no exception. And Adams will be right there with any other player on the field, in how he’s regarded by those scouts. He and Ohio State’s Malik Hooker are widely considered the best two prospects at their position and both have a legit shot at going inside the top half of the first round. When asked what Adams can prove Saturday, one AFC area scout said, “Just don’t f--- it up. He has nothing to prove, other than to stay healthy and not blow any assignments. He’s that good. Tremendous athlete with tremendous instincts. Top 20 pick, no doubt.” Another area scout assigned to the Tigers described Adams like this: “A talented, explosive, quick-twitch player that has outstanding eyes in coverage. Enough range to play free safety, enough toughness and strength to play in the box. Just a really, really good player.” One thing both scouts pointed at as an element to watch this week: How will the LSU coaches use Adams? He’s versatile enough to come down and play corner in spots (which would seriously add to his value), and played well in spot duty doing that against Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram, who he helped hold to three catches and 15 yards. Will we get to see Adams man up freakish Tide tight end O.J. Howard? That particularly matchup would be a telling one.
2. Cal QB Davis Webb (vs. Washington, ESPN, 10:30 p.m. ET): The competition for draft position among quarterbacks is wide open this year, and that means there are plenty of names worth vetting. Webb is one. The Texas Tech grad transfer—he started games as a true freshman and sophomore before being beaten out by Patrick Mahomes last year—has tools and is considered a leader and a gym rat (following the old cliché, he actually is a coach’s son). The issue is how his game translates because Webb comes from, you guessed it, a spread offense. He ran Kliff Kingsbury’s iteration at Tech, and now pilots Cal offensive coordinator Jake Spavital’s version in Berkeley. “He’s a bigger kid with an above average arm, and he’s a worker,” said one AFC college scouting director. “Really good intangibles, work ethic, preparation.” This evaluator, in fact, said that Webb’s physical makeup compares favorably with his predecessor—Rams QB Jared Goff. The questions, again, revolve around whether the way he plays will translate, since he carries a rep for being a one-read player who stares down receivers. “My impression was he’s a mid-round kind of guy, because he was really choppy with his reads,” the director continued. “Goff, you could at least see him go through his progressions. I’m not sure (Webb) sees the field nearly as well.” This week will provide a heck of a test in that regard, with the Huskies’ prospect-laden secondary anchoring one of the nation’s best defenses.
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Believe it or not, the primary reaction I got from other sources on other teams in the wake of the Patriots dealing off Jamie Collins actually involved Tom Brady.
“(Bill Belichick) can do whatever he wants until 12 isn’t there anymore,” said one veteran rival defensive coach. “It’s not even a question.”
“Anything they do, they get the benefit of the doubt because it all works out,” said another rival personnel executive. “But it’s Brady. I get that they won without Brady, but that would be a week-in/week-out team without him. … That team, with Jimmy (Garoppolo), no one’s afraid of them. It’s a normal game for you. With Brady, it’s a championship team every week.
“And they will continue to win as long as Tom doesn’t eat any strawberries.”
Pokes at Brady’s quirky nutritional habits aside, I thought based on the overwhelming response and overwhelming performance of Brady thus far that this would be a good time to take a look at the Power of 12 for the Patriots, and how far it goes beyond just the obvious. I asked around to try and get everything. Here’s what I came up with …
• Contract negotiations: Based on new-money average, Brady’s the 12th highest-paid QB in the NFL, and that’s on a deal that added 2018 and ’19 to his existing contract. His cap number ranks 28th in the NFL for 2016. So … who are YOU to ask for a top-of-the-market deal?
• Coaching players: Almost every Patriot who spent some length of time in red, white and blue over the past 15 years has a story involving Bill Belichick telling Brady, in front of the team, that he could find someone at Foxboro High that could make a throw he just missed. And if you can coach Brady hard, no one else can complain.
• Assembling weapons: Because of the mental level that Brady operates, he needs smart receivers he can move more than he needs freakish ones. The key is finding players who can see the game like the quarterback. And valuing a different skill set than other teams skews the supply/demand dynamic. Based on average per year, the three-year, $27 million deal Randy Moss did eight years ago remains the most lucrative skill-position contract in Patriots history.
• Cutting bait. In 2015, the first two things any offense would do breaking the huddle against New England’s D: Find Collins and make sure Chandler Jones was taken care of. Both are gone. Like Logan Mankins was gone two weeks before the 2014 opener. Like Moss was gone in October 2010. In other places, these moves might cripple a team on the field, and divide it off the field. But when you went 14-2 in 2010, and won it all in 2014, it’s hard not to believe Brady will make up for whatever was pulled out. So the locker room? Maybe they don’t like it. But that’s not a problem.
• Taking on risks. Moss, Corey Dillon, Aaron Hernandez and Martellus Bennett all arrived in New England with shaky reputations for different reasons. The Patriots were able to, at least for a time, maximize all of them. As it turns out, the opportunity to play with Brady carries value to these guys.
• Creating a meritocracy. Your best player was a sixth-round pick who had to fight tooth-and-nail to keep his job as a collegian, then battled up three rungs of the depth chart as a pro before becoming a superstar? Let’s just say that helps tame entitlement with highly-regarded rookies and vets, and emboldens those on the back end of the roster.
So you think it might be a little demoralizing for teams that have had their brains beaten in by Brady for 15 years to see him playing like this at 39?
Yeah. Sure is.
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