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In (Baffling) Defense of Norv Turner: A Response to Football Outsiders' Near-Slight

The general consensus across media has been that Norv Turner, though a terrible head coach, is a fantastic offensive coordinator—a reputation the Vikings now benefit from. But leading statistical analysts at Football Outsiders aren’t as optimistic about his coordinating. Are they right?
Image courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
The Vikings’ bizarre 2013 season had been, most analysts agree, exacerbated by terrible coaching. Bizarre decisionmaking from head coach Leslie Frazier led to the Josh Freeman fiasco on Monday Night, while predictable playcalling on the defense from coordinator Alan Williams led to five fourth-quarter comebacks from such luminaries as Brian Hoyer and Matt Flynn.

But though the defense and head coach drew their fair share of ire—especially as the defense far underperformed anything the offense put together—offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave caused the most confusion and rancor.

Admittedly, his situational playcalling was suspect at best, while his general offensive philosophy seemed counterproductive to point creation. The Vikings finished 14th in points per drive and 21st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, both indications that either the Vikings’ offensive talent overcame the quarterback controversy and the Vikings offensive coordinator, or that Musgrave was underrated.

Most people are willing to point to the offensive talent and let that make the case, and it’s compelling enough. With the league’s best running back, center, right tackle and arguably right guard, the Vikings are set up to succeed on offense. Quarterback aside, the weakest link seems to be Charlie Johnson, a below average, but not terrible, guard. An emerging tight end and a strong receiver corps give way to the fact that the Vikings boast extraordinary talent with the ball in their hands.

With all that, the Vikings also ranked 26th in coaching productivity from QuantCoach, a website devoted to separating the statistical impact of coaches and players. They also did worse than other teams in situations where coaching shines—down and distances primed for play design, like second and short. Second and one is probably the best example, as it is the most productive down-and-distance in football, almost entirely due to playcalling and design.

The Vikings, according to Football Outsiders, were the single-worst team in the history of their data (1989-2013) at second and short.

There’s good statistical reason to argue that Bill Musgrave was poor and that the talent overcame that to a good degree. The eye test is pretty good, too. Calling all-curls for six-yard gains on third and eight is as infuriating as it is ineffective. Play-action passes that routinely gain five yards or fewer despite YAC threats across the receiving corps is also plainly telling.

So, the massive upgrade at offensive coordinator, along with a new quarterback to start this year or next, has inspired near universal praise.

But Football Outsiders remains a little more tepid. It’s not because of the talent, which they recognize as top-tier, but because they’ve been driving a bus that has consistently labeled Norv Turner as an average offensive coordinator. In their Football Outsiders Almanac Preview for 2014, an excellent read, Mike Tanier opens a paragraph that finishes with praise for Turner thusly: “Turner has been taking lumps since the dawn of the Football Outsiders era because his reputation bears almost no similarity to the average-at-best performances of nearly all of his offenses.”

Indeed, in 2007 Mike Tanier—understandably frustrated that the Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-win season—fired this salvo:

"But Turner is a great offensive mind, you say? Turner the coordinator is only slightly more effective than Turner the coach. Since 1994, only one Turner-coached offense (head coach or coordinator) has finished in the top-10 in the NFL in DVOA: the 1999 Redskins. If you don't like DVOA, fine. Only one Turner-coached team has finished in the top 10 in points scored or yards gained: the 1999 Redskins. His teams – the 1994-2000 Redskins, the 2001 Chargers, the 2002-03 Dolphins, the 2004-05 Raiders, the 2006 Niners -- usually finish between 12th and 24th in the league in the major offensive categories. A 12th place finish isn't bad, but if offense is your strong point, you have to do better.

Turner's supporters point out that he often takes over terrible offenses, so his ability to take them from 32nd to 16th in the league is an accomplishment. I'd like to introduce those supporters to my friend Mr. Central Tendency. Mr. Tendency makes bad teams mediocre with the help of friends like Mr. Law of Averages and Mr. High Draft Choice. Once these misters have done their business, Turner doesn't have to do much to make a middling offense. His efforts with the Niners last season were typical. He took over a team that ranked dead last in offensive DVOA. Their rookie quarterback became a second-year quarterback, they spent a high draft choice on a tight end, they signed a veteran All Pro offensive guard, and Frank Gore emerged as a featured back. Thanks to all this and a little bit of Turner brilliance, the Niners climbed all the way to 24th in DVOA. Way to go Norv!"

It’s fairly well-written and argued, though internally inconsistent. While regression to the mean (“Mr. Central Tendency”) is an important consideration in determining a coach’s efficacy, it cuts both ways—leaving a bad offense should mean that the coordinator afterwards has an easier time, too. Entering a good offense would penalize Norv, as it is more likely to go down than up.

Tanier also wrote this in 2007, without the benefit of knowing how the 49ers offense would do without Norv, which is to say that Tanier didn’t have the ability to observe an enormous flop back to ranking 32nd in DVOA and points scored. In fact, of the four coordinators that Alex Smith had before the Harbaugh/Roman era, only Norv saw him throw with numbers approaching starting-caliber.

On average, as an offensive coordinator, teams did far worse in the years preceding the arrival of Norv Turner and the year after he left. In offensive DVOA, the average rank of teams that hired him as a coordinator was 24th. With him, it was 12th. The average change in DVOA is by 22 percentage points, or the difference between the Philadelphia Eagles offense and a league average one, like Cincinnati, Tennessee or Kansas City. It would take the 21st-ranked Vikings into territory generally reserved for elite offenses, like the fourth-ranked Patriots or fifth-ranked Saints.

As a head coach, the record is a bit less impactful—taking over for a 14-2 Schottenheimer team and leaving it in the capable hands of Mike McCoy meant that the average change of the San Diego offense was negative seven ranks (from 9th to 2nd) and a DVOA change of 14 percentage points. But even with that, the averages are in his favor, improving offenses at his three stops by an average of seven ranks and nine percentage points.

When totaling up all the years instead of weighting all teams equally, his average improvement as an offensive coordinator is eight ranks, and as a coach is six ranks. Combining the two tenures leads to an average change of seven ranks and a total change of eight ranks.

This is all particularly compelling given that the circumstances were less favorable to Norv’s statistical output than they were friendly, as Tanier implies.

Aside from being set up to look worse by comparison in San Diego, his tenure in Cleveland saw three quarterbacks and five different running backs start, and he still improved the offense. In 2006, he didn’t just take over for a “second-year quarterback,” but a quarterback who ranked 42nd of 42 passers in adjusted net yards per attempt, passer rating and 41st in yards per attempt.

While rookie quarterback performances vary widely and show very little correlation to future performance, it’s not often that a rookie overcomes a situation that gloomy (though, it should be noted, Alex Smith did, and did even better with Greg Roman and later Andy Reid). The last big success story after such an abysmal rookie performance? Troy Aikman.

In fact, Aikman didn’t just overcome a season where he ranked last (of 34 passers) in all relevant statistical categories, he had to come an equally disappointing sophomore season, too. It was neither obvious nor pre-ordained that that offense, and particularly that quarterback, would do well. Norv Turner not only unlocked Aikman, but when he handed the keys to the car over, he gave the Cowboys to one of the two men who taught him the Coryell system, Ernie Zampese.

The team he took over in Washington was wrecked by the introduction of free agency. He also lost Mark Rypien and added a rookie quarterback in Heath Shuler. Despite the downgrade at quarterback (though injured, Rypien’s career at that point would still last longer than Shuler’s), the offense improved from 25th to 13th in points scored and marginally in DVOA. In his tenure, the offense finished in the top half every single year after the first, and ranked second once and first another time.

After Washington, he briefly benefitted from a stay in San Diego, where he oversaw a team that replaced Ryan Leaf with Doug Flutie and Jermaine Fazande with Ladainian Tomlinson, but his move to Miami was almost as challenging as his brief time in San Francisco, where Jay Fiedler stayed the quarterback. He was able to take advantage of a trade for Ricky Williams, but to Norv’s credit, Williams’ best years in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns both came under Norv Turner—with the first year producing 4.8 yards a carry and 1853 yards on the ground.

In Oakland, he took over a team that was slowly being dismantled by Al Davis and one that moved on from its starting quarterback, Rich Gannon, because of an injury halfway through the previous year. Despite no longer having a healthy Gannon, the Oakland team—whose leading running back was Amos Zeroue and leading receivers were Jerry Porter and Ronald Curry—went from 24th to 14th in DVOA and 26th to 18th in points scored.

It was after that he took over the 14-2 San Diego team that was destined to make his first year look shaky. Still, he sustained success with them and ranked in the top five in points for five consecutive years, and top five in DVOA for four. That’s not simply a product of the players—the Vikings well know that talent on the field means nothing without talent behind the playcard—but a product of a high-powered Turner offense with elite talent in his hands.

Now that Norv Turner has that once more, expect another big turnaround, and not just because of regression.

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And who was Norv's QB in Washington in 1999?  Brad Johnson, Baby, Brad Johnson.  Dennis Green never should have let him go.

Brock Beauchamp
Aug 20 2014 04:57 PM
Fantastic breakdown. I lived in SoCal during the Norv years and while I think Marty got a raw deal (as only Marty can), Turner was a decent coach. I look forward to him stewarding the Minnesota offense.

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