Is Norv Turner an Offensive Genius?

As I mentioned in my post about this week’s podcast, I’ve been getting in a lot of disagreements – notably with friend of the blog Michael Rand – about new Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

Turner is mostly famous for his years as the head coach in Washington, Oakland, and San Diego, but before he got into the head-coaching game, he was an offensive coordinator in Dallas, where he won two Super Bowl rings. He has since been been a coordinator in four places – San Diego, Miami, San Francisco, and last season in Cleveland.

Mike went through his various coaching stops the other day on his blog, and came to the conclusion that Turner had improved (or “maintained”) offenses at each of his stops, based mostly on the NFL ranks of Turner teams in offensive scoring.

Rather than argue about the relative merits of using offensive scoring or offensive yards as a measurement, I went over to footballoutsiders.com and looked at the Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) numbers for Turner’s teams. (DVOA is explained here, but if you don’t want to read the explanation, just note that it ranks teams based on how successful they are on a play-by-play basis.)

Without belaboring the details, the DVOA numbers more or less matched Rand’s findings; in general, Turner’s teams were either better, or not a lot worse, in his first year at any of his stops. (The one exception was his head-coaching gig in San Diego, where the Chargers went from second in the league to 14th in his first year.)

That said, one could equally look at things the other way, and examine how Turner’s teams did after he left. If he’s an exceptional offensive genius, then teams should have gotten markedly worse when he no longer darkened the doorstep. Here’s what I found:

  • Dallas: after Turner left, the Cowboys were third in offense, then first. No drop-off whatsoever.
  • Washington: the Redskins dropped to 25th and 26th when he left, after being 14th in his final year.
  • San Diego: the Chargers were 17th in his one year as offensive coordinator, then 15th and 12th after he departed.
  • Miami: the Dolphins went from 11th and 17th in his two years as OC to 31st and 18th in the two years following.
  • San Francisco: The 49ers were in the league’s bottom six offenses in the two years before and the two years after Turner, 23rd in his one year there.
  • San Diego again: As head coach, Turner’s team finished 24th in the league in offense in 2012, then third last year without him.
  • Cleveland: We don’t know yet, but Turner took a Browns team that was 25th and 27th in offense the year before him, and made them 26th last year.

So teams have gotten better, stayed the same, or gotten worse when he arrived… and have gotten better, stayed the same, or gotten worse when he left.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that Turner, as an offensive coordinator or a head coach, has really had very little to do with how good an offensive team he’s put on the field. In Dallas, he failed to screw up the Aikman-Smith-Irvin juggernaut, which continued on the same without him after he left. In San Diego, he did better with Doug Flutie than his predecessor did with Ryan Leaf, which is not much of a special accomplishment. He couldn’t do much in San Francisco with Alex Smith at the helm, just like the guys who came before and after couldn’t make it work with Smith, Tim Rattay, or Trent Dilfer; he didn’t mold Jason Campbell into a superstar in Cleveland, any more than others couldn’t make Colt McCoy or Brandon Weeden workable.

Ultimately, what will decide whether the Vikings have a good offense in 2014 rests far more on the arm of whoever takes the snaps, and far less on any purported two-decades-old genius. We can argue all we want about Turner, who’s been run out of multiple towns. But if Christian Ponder is at quarterback for the Purple, head coach Mike Zimmer can stitch Don Coryell, Bill Walsh, and Dutch Meyer together, Frankenstein-style, and it won’t matter, any more than Turner will.

Maybe this is the place we can all agree: Norv Turner isn’t bad or good. He’s just irrelevant.

UPDATE: Friend of the blog Brandon Broxey did some research, and put together this helpful chart, showing Turner’s year-on-year offensive improvement.

Norval

That is underwhelming, to say the least.