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How Norv Turner Stepped Into The Age Of The Spread

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Turner’s Air Coryell ideas are getting an added boost with the potent backfield in Carolina

Carolina’s 2017 offense wasn’t pretty. The Panthers finished the season ranked 17th in offensive DVOA; 19th in yards/play at 5 even. Carolina fans and analysts lamented the quick pivot to conservative offense once a lead was achieved — no matter how small or early that lead came to be. Newton was regularly asked to make more difficult throws than most quarterbacks in the league — he was the clubhouse leader by NFL Next Gen Statistics back in the 2016 season; 5th-most attempts in 2017.

As you can imagine, the offensive coordinator came under fire: Mike Shula was out. And in his place came...Norv Turner.

Norv Turner and Mike Shula come from the same coaching tree. They’re separated by a limb or two, surely — but as Turner himself said, 90% of the offensive terminology would be the same. When Norv was the head coach of the San Diego Chargers, his tight ends coach — and assistant head coach — was Rob Chudzinski, who went on to become the offensive coordinator for the 2011 Carolina Panthers. Chudzinski brought on Mike Shula as his quarterbacks’ coach.

So the Panthers went from Shula to Shula’s...great uncle, once removed. And the general fan base reacted accordingly: they didn’t expect much to change. In that Ron Rivera had once served as Norv’s defensive coordinator (again in San Diego), and that three of Norv Turner’s family members were already on staff as offensive minds, it seemed like the boys’ club had once again protected its own.

And that likely was the case! But, despite the fact that it’s been a minute since Norv put together a league-leading offense, he’s doing some very creative things with the Panthers’ interesting offensive personnel. Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel, DJ Moore, and Ian Thomas — these are spread-style weapons that played a bit of positionless football in the college offenses. Turner could have come in and started forcing square pegs into round holes: running Christian McCaffrey as a traditional zone back; putting Curtis Samuel and DJ Moore in typical route trees; asking Ian Thomas to block.

Instead, Norv has worked some of the greatest hits of 21st century offenses in to the same system he’s been running since 1991. It ain’t the prettiest offense int he league, but it does some very exciting things.

We’ll start by understanding Norv’s basic offensive ideology: the Air Coryell. The brainchild of Don Coryell, the Chargers head coach at his wit’s end with the ground-and-pound offense of the time, the Air Coryell scheme looked to force the defense into vertical stretches, opening up large intermediate windows to pick up chunk gains. From a Bleacher Report article on the offense in 2012:

The offense derived from Sid Gillman’s, who was well known for his vertical stretches, and had several vertical concepts such as the four verticals concept...The offense was similar in many ways to what former San Francisco 49ers head coach Bill Walsh envisioned in his early days with the Cincinnati Bengals, but ultimately developed an offense based off of the horizontal stretch known as the West Coast Offense.

The Air Coryell offense was also predicated heavily on the usage of pre-snap motions, which would force defensive shells to adjust late to overloads to one deep zone. Coryell liked to fit his offense to his players, so he’d take one key mismatch piece and get him lined up in aggressive ways — for the Chargers, it was TE Kellen Winslow; for the Los Angeles Rams under Mike Martz, it would be RB Marshall Faulk, and the Greatest Show On Turf.

An example of potential Z-receiver motions in an Air Coryell system

Pre-snap motion should be a buzzphrase for a 2018 football viewer. All the rage this season has been the pre-snap jet or fly motion (For the Z-receiver, a Coryell coach might call it “Zap” or “Zeke.”) If you’re interested in how much jet motion is affecting NFL offense, this Danny Kelly piece from The Ringer sure is swell; for specific notes on the Carolina offense against the Eagles, turn to Fran Duffy’s piece for PhiladelphiaEagles.com earlier this week.

I’ll be focusing on other ideas outside of jet motion, because it has been so handily covered. We’ll start here, with a little zip motion against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3.

By motioning in the outside receiver before the snap, Carolina forces the defense to declare their coverage shell. As the offense lines up, it appears that the defense is in Quarters coverage (Cover 4), which means they have a 7-man box. If Carolina brings in that extra WR to throw a crack-block or cut of the backside on inside zone, it’s a 7-man box against 7 blockers for the Panthers. Not to mention, with the threat of Cam running, there’s another gap to account for. You need to be plus in the box.

So the Bengals rotate a safety down, clearly declaring their intentions to play a middle-of-the-field closed coverage (MOFC). With a flood concept dialed up here, Carolina has a clear Cover 3 beater against a clear Cover 3 defense. They’ve won the pre-snap battle.

You’ll notice I gave the option to bang inside or bend outside to the deep receiver. That freedom to read the deep safeties belongs to outside receivers on most Air Coryell ideas. If there’s a single-high safety coverage — again, what we call MOFC closed — the deep route can bend outside; if the middle of the field is open — like in a Cover 2 defense — the route can bend to that open area.

This flood idea is a long-lasting concept, that has been in Air Coryell playbooks for years. The numbering of the routes is 479 or 079, depending on how shallow that crosser is (4 or 0). The 7 is the corner route, and the 9 is the deep route.

The endurance of these older ideas is impressive — but it’s how they’ve been re-imagined with new formations and motions that makes the Turner offense stand out. Their most creative game in the season, as I saw it, was against the Giants — and again, they used pre-snap motion to help them get into a familiar Air Coryell idea.

Again, notice what we’re seeing with the motion: the Panthers are introducing an extra player into the box, which forces your defense to re-establish their run fit responsibilities and process run first. It also introduces the further possibility of the option and even triple option game, which the Panthers have used quite heavily this season.

Here, they’re looking for the deep shot called Waco, which is a deep over route underneath a Bang-8 post. Again, this is a passing attack that is heavily reliant on MOFO/MOFC reads. The Bang-8 post should open against Cover 2 (MOFO), sliding inside the deep safety; the deep over should come underneath the deep safety of single-high coverages (MOFC), working the space vacated by linebackers.

Put yourself in the shoes of those highlighted defenders. They have two back to their side (the motion man offset to the QB’s right is RB C.J. Anderson, originally lined up as a WR) and Cam Newton to worry about if he pulls the triple option look. At the snap, the up back releases directly into their line of vision — the flat — while they still have to worry about the play action in the back field. Once RB Christian McCaffrey clears, he then release aain, directly into their line of sight.

So much has happened to them in the past four seconds. Cognitively, they are absorbed by the action up front.

Meanwhile, those Air Coryell vertical stretches are attacking the outnumbered secondary on the back-end.

Waco was always a play-action shot for an Air Coryell offense, but typically you ran it off a seven-step drop following hard play-action. The quarterback’s back went to the defense, and if they rolled their safety coverage at the snap, he would have missed it. Here, from the pistol, the quarterback’s eyes stay on the defensive backfield the whole way — and the pre-snap motion into the backfield again dictates a single-high look for the defense.

That ability of Norv to pull a motion man into the backfield is singular — most teams don’t have three players who can line up as wideout and running backs and still present dangers as pass-catchers and runners, but that’s what you’ve got with McCaffrey, Moore, and Samuel. Even when it’s simply adding that extra blocker, the box-adding motion allows Cam to easily decipher the Air Coryell plays that are built to react to MOFO/MOFC coverages.

On a late first half drive against the Bengals: Norv adds WR D.J. Moore to the backfield as a sniffer, or H-back. He has the opportunity to lead block up the field, split zone block across the formation, lead block across the formation, or release into routes in either direction off of play-action. Lots to handle here.

He’ll end up releasing on a BUS route, or seam route from the backfield, which can be a big problem against man coverage looks that assign a linebacker to him. To the wide side of the field, the look is all verticals, which is a Cover 2 (MOFO) beater; to the boundary side of the field, it’s a levels idea, which attacks MOFC closed coverage, like the Panthers again get here.

I’m focusing on the passing attack here, but I can’t emphasize enough how much the Panthers’ rushing attack — and their league-leading 6.2 YPC on first down — dictate the MOFC coverages they see on a regular basis. Teams needs to get 8 in the box to account for the multiple back sets, especially with Cam Newton at the helm; but going Cover 0 is a dangerous proposition given the Panthers’ speed at WR. Rock and a hard place, I suppose.

On this very same drive, Norv went for the Andy Reid special — a backside screen inside the 30 yard line. This play encapsulates a lot of what we’ve seen stresses a defense facing Norv’s Carolina attack.

Pre-snap orbit motion with RB Christian McCaffrey to the sniffer side. Vertical release from sniffer up the seam; outside receiver up the boundary — forces deep safety to widen to that side. Watch the skinny post take the Cover 3 corner from the boundary into the middle of the field, and the Cam Newton rollout action draw the linebacker’s eyes.

That’s the easiest screen you’ll get at the NFL level. Untouched for 6.

The AIr Coryell was built to adapt to whatever coverage came its way — flood the deep zones and force the safeties to choose. then throw it where they aren’t. The ability to dictate coverage shells make that life so much easier on your quarterback, and his wide receivers, who have to adjust their routes to those same reads. By establishing an option-heavy backfield that incorporates both man and zone concepts, you keep linebackers and box safeties guessing — and while their brain is in the backfield, you have the opportunity to beat ‘em deep.

Carolina still needs a few things: improved line play, better situational play-calling; and their young pass-catchers still need development. But this offense is doing some cutting-edge NFL stuff, courtesy of one 300 66-yard old Norv Turner.