Norv Turner is often thought of as a quarterbacks whisperer. With experience developing Troy Aikman, Philip Rivers and even a successful year with Alex Smith, Turner receives a lot of attention for what he can do with quarterbacks. But Turner’s offensive schemes are much more run-heavy than people popularly imagine, even if he doesn’t really get that involved in the design of running plays.
Chase Stuart at Football Perspective created a team statistic called Game Script, which functionally the point differential over every single second of the game. It’s a useful measure of dominance—teams with a Game Script of six, for example, are often leading for much of the game by a significant margin—and it nearly eliminates the effect of garbage time, but one useful project he has applied it to is measuring “true” run-pass balance.
It’s well-known that teams more often pass from behind and run while ahead, making traditional run-pass balance a little less useful. The top teams, most year, happen to be running teams largely because they have a lead they’re trying to preserve. But by measuring the distribution of different run-pass balance scores by different teams against their Game Script, we have a better way of knowing if those teams are truly more reliant on the run than the pass compared to their peers.
Interestingly, Norv Turner only passes slightly more than the average offensive coordinator, ranking as the 76th-most “pass happy” coach of the 252 coaches and offensive coordinators that Stuart cataloged.
This makes sense given who he’s worked with—Emmitt Smith, Ladainian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams and others. There were some years (1992 with Dallas, 1996 and 1999 with Washington, 2002 and 2003 with Miami and 2007 and 2008 with San Diego) where halfbacks carried the ball over 400 times. Ricky Williams carried the ball 383 and 392 times alone with Turner, career highs.
In addition, halfbacks have touched the ball and average of 439 times throughout his career (all data gathered courtesy of pro-football-reference).
What’s more, halfbacks have done better with Turner than they have without. Despite the fact that Norv often let others handle run scheming duties, his ability as an offensive coordinator to put players in the right spots at the right times has really enabled their play. Measured against years they had at least 250 touches, running backs often had their greatest seasons in yards per touch with Turner than without:
|RB||High Y/T w/ Norv|||High Y/T w/o Norv|
Terry Allen and LaDainian Tomlinson were the only running backs to have better seasons without Turner than with Turner, and both worked with explicit change-of-pace backs (Brian Mitchell and Darren Sproles) who grabbed their reception opportunities and decreased yards per touch by decreasing receptions. The other four running backs didn’t have to worry about that (not included are any running backs who did not have 250 touch seasons outside of working with Turner, like LaMont Jordan and Amos Zereoue).
In total, running backs averaged 4.8 yards per touch with Turner and 4.5 yards per touch without him. Much of this is due to increased reliance on the passing game—they had almost identical yards per carry totals (4.2 with Turner, 4.1 without him).
Even if you reduce it to his most famous running backs in the prime of their careers (years where Emmitt Smith, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ricky Williams and Frank Gore had 250 touches without Turner on the staff), those running backs averaged 4.6 yards per touch and 101 yards from scrimmage per game. With him, they average 4.9 yards a touch and 120 yards a game.
One can look at how often a running back is used in the passing game by simply measuring how many carries they attempt against how many receptions they get. The fewer carries per reception, the more important the passing game is. Halfbacks were used often in the passing game with Norv Turner, and they averaged 4.6 carries for every reception. When they played without him as a coach or offensive coordinator, they averaged 7.4 carries for every reception. This hasn’t necessarily been constant throughout his career—he’s gradually increased running back reliance on the passing game.
Those carries per reception totals don’t just decrease because of one or two unusually high-reception years. When you get rid of 2010, 2004 and 1994, the downward trend remains the same.
In particular, what may interest Vikings fans is the number of targets that Adrian Peterson should expect to see. For every year that Turner has had a “bellcow” running back—one with usually 250 carries in the season—he’s had at least three receptions a game for his primary backs in all but three years: two with Terry Allen and one with Amos Zereoue. On average, the primary backs have averaged 3.3 receptions a game (or 52.8 a season).
Once you eliminate years that those running backs split significant time with pass-catching specialists (Mitchell and Sproles), they average 3.7 receptions a game (59.2 a season).
Adrian has a better yards per attempt than all of these running backs on the ground (career 5.0 yards per carry) and in the air (career 8.2 yards per reception). Despite being a prime candidate for Simpson’s paradox, he also has more per touch (5.2 yards per touch). Should he improve marginally in these metrics, but reduce his load from 20 rushing attempts a game to 18 (to match both the indications coming from the coaching staff and Turner’s gradual movement away from high-carry backs), while increasing his involvement in the passing game to 50 receptions a season, expect him to put together just under 1500 yards on the ground and just over 415 in the air—giving him over 1900 yards from scrimmage
Knowing that Jerick McKinnon is a developmental project and that the running back depth behind Peterson doesn’t scream talent, these projections will likely have more upside than downside (this year at least—don’t be surprised to see McKinnon take on a Sproles role in the near future). His improvement in pass protection will also allow him to see the field more on third down and in passing situations—he’s never been the best, but he’s gradually improved his pass blocking efficiency from around league worst (60th of 61) in 2007 to average in 2012 and 2013 (46th of 63 and 29th of 54, respectively) per Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking efficiency metrics.
There’s little doubt that Adrian Peterson ranks among history’s best running backs. With Norv Turner, he could be even better.