The Vikings offense is sure to be a very different animal in 2011 than the one we saw, and mostly disliked, in 2010. Gone are Brad Childress and Darrell Bevell, the masterminds behind Chillyball, a super-predictable run-heavy variation on the vaunted West Coast Offense. In their place is a new would-be offensive guru, Bill Musgrave, late of the Atlanta Falcons.
Since the moment of Musgrave’s hiring fans have been speculating on what approach the new coordinator will bring to the Vikings. Going by Musgrave’s own statements, the new offense will be heavily influenced by the one he helped run in Atlanta when he was quarterbacks coach under Mike Mularkey.
“It will definitely be the Minnesota Vikings system,” Musgrave said when asked a few months back about his plans. “It will have its roots in language, I’m sure, from my history with coach [Mike] Shanahan and most recently from my experience with Mike Mularkey. There will be some language that our guys will recognize right off the bat because it will have some West Coast roots, and it will have some formations and protections that are more along the Pittsburgh Steelers offense, which we ran down here in Atlanta with coach Mularkey.”
The best quick rundown I’ve been able to find of the Mularkey/presumed-Musgrave offense is offered by Gary Horton of Scouts, Inc.:
"Mike Mularkey brings a smashmouth style to Atlanta and, not surprisingly, favors a power-running attack. But he also is a creative playcaller who is drawn to multi-dimensional players. Mularkey always has been good for a few gadget plays, and he constantly is moving his personnel to keep defenses off balance. Expect a lot of two-back and two-tight end power sets designed to help the run game and to set up a vertical, play-action passing game."
Of course Bill Musgrave is not Mike Mularkey. He will bring his own tweaks to the system, depending on personal preference and the realities of personnel. Briefly breaking down the Vikings’ personnel and how the various players may or may not fit into what we think we know of Musgrave’s system:
The Vikings would seem to have, in Adrian Peterson, the perfect back to run a smash-mouth running attack. Whether they have the right offensive line to pull this off is another question.
The important thing, to me, is bringing enough diversity to the run game to keep it from becoming painfully predictable, as happened far too often under Childress. Lining up Adrian Peterson and jamming him repeatedly into the line is not an offensive approach, it’s a form of slow death.
A tweet from NFL expert Greg Cosell encourages me that Musgrave will indeed attempt to be more creative in using Peterson. “MINN offense will look like ATL off w/diverse run game out of 2 TE base sets,” Cosell declared. The key word there being “diverse.”
As for those two-tight end sets favored by Mularkey/Musgrave: everyone is agreed that the drafting of Kyle Rudolph in the second round demonstrates Musgrave’s devotion to that particular approach. Rudolph and Visanthe Shiancoe may not represent the best blocking tight end tandem in history, but they certainly have the makings of a brilliant pass-catching duo.
And what about the wide receivers? Percy Harvin would seem to fit that “multi-dimensional” bill mentioned in the Mularkey scouting report. He certainly has the toughness to be a Hines Ward-type receiver, if we want to reach back to Mularkey’s Steelers days, but with the added dimension of blazing speed. My guess is we’ll see Harvin used all over the field, not just as a straight possession receiver.
The vertical passing game could be the big issue. That depends on pass protection – and I don’t need to remind you what a sticking point that aspect of the game was for the Vikings in 2010. It also requires a downfield receiving threat, which the Vikings might have in Sidney Rice, depending on the CBA and Rice’s own health.
In summary: Right now, the Vikings seem to have most of the skill position players necessary to make a go of it with this offense. The line is where things get iffy. Oh, and the quarterback.
I don’t need to mention that the Vikings have neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Matt Ryan on their roster.
The biggest challenge for Musgrave will be developing his QB, whether that QB turns out to be Christian Ponder or Joe Webb. Ponder would seem to have the smarts to become the new Matt Ryan, but does he have the arm? Webb has the physical skills to be Roethlisberger, but does he have the uncanny playmaking knack?
As many a mastermind has discovered, an offensive plan is only as good as the man running it. Bill Musgrave may have the greatest approach ever devised by an NFL coordinator, but if he can’t develop himself a QB, it won’t mean squat.
Let’s also not overlook the importance of playcalling itself. The knock on Childress was always that, though he could design a scheme with the best of them, he was terrible at actually running it during the game. And guess what the knock was on Musgrave when he was offensive coordinator for a short time in Carolina? Bingo: his playcalling.
It’s been a long time since Musgrave’s two short stints as an OC, first in Carolina, then in Jacksonville, so maybe he’s learned a few things. However, if the playcalling thing is about instinct and feel as many people believe, that experience might not count for much. Musgrave could wind up being another Chilly: a good schemer who can’t run his own offense on game-day. Let’s hope that’s not the case.