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Updated: May 30th, 2014 9:08am
In early stages of Norv Turner's system, it's about QB's photo memory

In early stages of Norv Turner's system, it's about QB's photo memory

by Andrew Krammer
1500ESPN.com
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - During his 30 consecutive seasons in the NFL, Norv Turner has had players join his team on a Monday and learn his offense in time to play on Sunday.

Turner's "Air Coryell" offensive system uses a numbers scheme -- instead of verbiage -- to identify passing route combinations, as established by Don Coryell in the 1960s, and initially uses code names for plays that have deeper concepts behind them.

"It was based on knowing you're going to have constant change," Turner told 1500ESPN.com. "They wanted a system that was easy to learn in terms of initially learning it and easy to teach."

The Vikings' three quarterbacks took the next step in their education of the offense this week as they began 11-on-11 drills. Aside from learning the numbers system, one Matt Cassel said he hadn't seen in nine NFL seasons, they're also tasked with altering the style of play.

"The first thing I did when I got the playbook, I was trying to figure out, 'what exactly does this number mean?'" Cassel said. "Like every offseason - I think I've had seven coordinators in six years - so it's a lot of work in terms of flash cards, writing stuff down and memorization."

The major philosophical change from the Vikings' previous west-coast offenses replaces the relatively short, high-percentage completions with Turner's aim to stretch the field in deep vertical routes that are all about "being in the right place at the right time," which can prove more difficult to execute for quarterbacks than the team's previous systems. 

In these early stages of the NFL's "no-contact" offseason, the Vikings have made passing their main focus as fullback Jerome Felton said they've mainly practiced in the "11" personnel: three receivers, one tight end and one running back.

With an intense focus on the passing game this early, that means Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater and Christian Ponder need to flex their photographic memory - more so than in other NFL offenses. To understand how the routes develop downfield, and how a defense's coverage adapts and opens up other routes, the Vikings' trio of quarterbacks pore over film in an effort to visualize those changes before they happen.

"I'm dating myself because they don't use these anymore, but when we first started, we'd give you a picture, a Polaroid picture," Turner said. "Now, we use iPads and press stop at a certain point against a certain coverage. When that play is called, that [image] has got to flash in your minds, that way you have to understand where everyone is and you understand why everyone's put in that place."

One of the quarterback's main responsibilities in any NFL scheme, especially Turner's, is the passer's ability to anticipate the throw and make snap decisions - tributes that made the Dallas Cowboys' Troy Aikman a Super Bowl-winning quarterback under Turner in the early 90s.

Though Bridgewater missed both Thursday's and Friday's OTA workouts to attend a NFLPA event in California, Turner said the rookie's attributes have proven to be an early fit for the skill set he needs to run the system.

"What I like now about Teddy, he learns very quickly," Turner said. "He makes very quick and very good decisions. He's very athletic in the pocket, gets back quick, and that helps him see things better. He's very instinctive. He's really done a nice job with his decision making and sometimes you're getting the play call and you're saying, "I don't even know if he knows what the play is," and he's going back, he makes a good read and makes a real quick decision."

Three basic premises make up Turner's offense: (1) a vertical passing game, (2) adequate pass protection for 5- to 7-step dropbacks and (3) a power running game - even with the often-used three-receiver sets. One of the most intriguing factors will be how Adrian Peterson is used by Turner, who has coached some of the NFL's greatest backs in Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson and Frank Gore.

Though Turner picked up the offense during his first NFL gig with the Los Angeles Rams in the late 1980s, the creator, Coryell, was also a pioneer of the I-formation more than twenty years prior.

But like with any system, Turner altered that power running game to play off his vertical passing and fit the style of offense he wanted. As he did with Smith, Tomlinson and even Mike Tolbert in San Diego, Turner executed the half-back draw, as well as screens, after softening up defensive fronts. 

Turner wants to get Peterson more involved in the passing game, but that's also a way to spread the defense out - aside from the bevy of motion sets and receiver splits - to pave the way for Peterson.

"The thing I love about this system - it's developed over the years," Turner said. "Everywhere I've been, we've added something new to it based on the coaches I've worked with. So I think what you do is find out what players do best and take the parts of that system that fit them and emphasize those the longer you're together."

Though many NFL teams have adopted the safer dink-and-dunk style approach, Turner hasn't wavered in his downfield attack -- especially as today's NFL rules have changed to help facilitate the passing game.

However, the high-risk, high-reward system needs the right talent. The pieces are in place at receiver with Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings, both formidable deep threats that have thrived on seam and 'go' routes before. But Turner didn't succeed in Dallas without Aikman, nor in San Diego without Philip Rivers. Mike Martz, who learned from Turner in the late 90s, wouldn't have created the "Greatest Show On Turf" using the Coryell system in St. Louis without Kurt Warner in his prime.

Bridgewater's development should play a crucial role in how early the Vikings reap the benefits of Turner's schematics while Kyle Rudolph is in the final year of his contract and before Adrian Peterson turns 30 next March.

"We've had a lot of young players come in learn it and play at a high level," Turner said. "I think that early it helps them, but they can't depend on the digits. They have to work hard, learn the concepts and understand what each play is trying to develop."

Andrew Krammer covers the Minnesota Vikings for 1500ESPN.com. He previously covered the Gophers men's basketball team for the Minnesota Daily.
Email Andrew | @andrew_krammer
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