Vikings: Turner has fully loaded weaponry
Every team has injuries in the NFL, but last year seemed to hit the Minnesota Vikings especially hard.
The expected starters during training camp ended up missing a total of 50 games, but the challenge was especially difficult for offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who had 39 of those 50 missed starts come on offense.
Besides losing quarterback Matt Cassel three games into the season, the offensive line was a mess. Matt Kalil was the only player that didn’t miss a snap the entire season, and he played through a knee injury that required surgery in January. Left guard Charlie Johnson missed two games, right guard Brandon Fusco missed 13 games and right tackle Phil Loadholt missed five games.
Tight end Kyle Rudolph tried to play through a sports hernia injury, but eventually he gave way to surgery that caused him to miss six games and be far from 100 percent the rest of the way.
Through it all, Turner tried to adapt, mixing and matching lineups as necessary, and that 39-game injury count didn’t include the loss of running backs Adrian Peterson, who missed all but the season opener with legal issues, and Jerick McKinnon, who wasn’t the projected starter at running back but would have been the starter for the final 11 games if a back injury didn’t take him out of the lineup for the final five games.
This year, things are much different in Turner’s world, at least for now.
Peterson is back, and that’s a tremendous start.
“It was nice,” Turner said of his first week of having Peterson immersed in the offense since mid-September. “I’ve been around a lot of these guys a lot of years and he’s one of the top guys I’ve ever been around. He just comes out and it looks like he hadn’t missed a day. It was nice having him.”
Peterson’s return will send McKinnon to backup mode, but that didn’t dampen his enthusiasm.
“Last year, got a lot of playing time, more earlier than I expected it,” McKinnon said. “From my standpoint, knowledge is key at this level. The physical aspect and all that is going to take care of itself. The greatest athletes are in the NFL, so for me it’s just to keep learning, keep growing and when that time comes, be ready.”
Turner said McKinnon looks faster because of his confidence in the system in his second NFL season.
But the gains in the offense go well beyond the backfield and running game.
Turner acquired a deep threat that has been so important to his offensive success in years past with the signing of Mike Wallace. When Cordarrelle Patterson didn’t turn out to be that player last year because of his consistency, the Vikings dumped Greg Jennings in favor of Wallace, who has gushed his approval of returning to a deep threat in what he called a “legendary” offense under Turner.
Charles Johnson, who replaced Patterson last year and found his place as a deep threat in his first NFL opportunity, says he doesn’t care about labels like “starter” or “backup,” but wants to see every receiver get his opportunity.
“I don’t think nobody has a set spot,” said Johnson, who has been working with the starters. “We’re all out here competing. It doesn’t matter who is running with the ones right now because it’s offseason and spring and nobody’s really penciled in. We’re still out here competing. We’re all trying to create our spot. We’re all trying to get better. I really don’t care too much about who is starting, I want everybody to play. I want everybody to be successful, because if we’re all doing well that means our team is doing well.”
Despite all the weaponry back in Teddy Bridgewater’s arsenal, he indicated last week that one of the most important is Rudolph. Turner knows how it all comes together. Wallace and Johnson can stretch the field deep. Peterson can keep linebackers honest with his explosion, and Rudolph can take advantage of that linebacker uncertainty.
“We’ve seen him here at a high level, we saw him early in the preseason at a high level. He’s working hard, he’s had a great offseason with his body to try to make sure he doesn’t have those nagging injuries,” Turner said. “When he’s healthy and running like he’s been the last three weeks, it’s exciting to have him. We’ll get some coverage on the outside with the speed that we have; he can open it up a lot. He’ll get matchups – if they’re going to play eight-man fronts, the tight end gets great match-ups through the passing game.”
Last year, Rudolph exuded enthusiasm at the opportunities tight ends have in Turner’s offense. This year, it seems they have everything they need – an emerging quarterback who should be the best the Vikings have had since Brett Favre in 2009, deep threats on the outside, and Peterson bringing it all together.
That leaves room for a healthy, understated Rudolph to find the openings in the middle of the field.
“I think everyone knows last year when we got our new coaches and Coach Turner comes in with his system, the tight end position plays a big part in that system,” Rudolph said. “It was exciting for me to be healthy in that system all spring, to have the opportunity to run around in the preseason games. Unfortunately, I had to have the surgery.”
This year, at least at this point in the offseason, it’s almost like the Vikings went on a signing binge. Wallace was the only major piece added, but the return of Peterson, Rudolph and emergence of Johnson is producing a plenty of optimism at Winter Park and from observers around the league.
But the unassuming Turner knows nothing is easy, and offseason projections and speculation mean little if the injuries return or the work isn’t put in.
“Every NFL season is challenging. Last year, offensively, obviously Adrian being gone after one game, the constant change in the offensive line made it challenging, but our guys handled it,” Turner said. “I’ve been in those situations where, in the last six games guys kind of, I don’t want to say packed it in, but didn’t give themselves the best chance. The thing that was impressive, and I think it starts with Coach Zimmer, this group continued to work hard, giving themselves the best chance to win. We got better in November and we got better in December and I think we’re better now than we were in December. That’s what you have to do in this league if you’re going to be successful.”
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