When Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer added Tony Sparano and Pat Shurmur to his staff in January, the narrative quickly turned to their experience as NFL head coaches.
However, it is their input on offensive tweaks and personnel traits that might have been most influential over the first four months of the 2016 calendar.
Sparano and Shurmur have offered advice on how their previous offenses handled certain situations or plays that were effective when facing different defensive pressures. Perhaps their greatest influence came leading up to the NFL draft.
Sparano offered his insights as the offensive line coach and the qualities he was looking for apparently played a big role in drafting offensive lineman Willie Beavers.
“I know Tony Sparano gave us some specifics that we need to look for at that position, and it’s size, it’s strength, and what he calls the ability to dent people when you hit them,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said after drafting Beavers. “This kid has the size, strength and ability to dent people because you’ve seen him do it when he’s playing against Big Ten competition. Technically he’s not all there yet, but it is those type of guys that have his traits that are the guys that our coaches really want to work with. There are some other guys that were in the draft that were appealing, but because this guy has the size and athletic build and has the ability to dent people, you can see that when he hits you, he hits you.”
Beavers recalls talking with Sparano at the NFL Scouting Combine and the Senior Bowl.
“They’re all awesome guys,” he said of the Vikings’ coaches. “I got a chance to meet with the offensive line coach at the combine and the Senior Bowl and he’s awesome. I can’t wait to get to work for him.”
That process started at rookie minicamp and will continue over the next five weeks through organized team activities and the full minicamp.
Spielman said the scouting staff really liked Beavers’ performance during the college football season and Sparano’s desired traits helped shape the pick.
Zimmer liked the offensive experience that Sparano and Shurmur could bring to the coaching staff, and since they joined in January he has been impressed with their work ethic.
“They’ve come in and grinded. I’ve asked them to do some things, research,” Zimmer said at the NFL owners meetings in March. “Actually, it’s been really a good flow with all those guys with guys that were here and those guys when they came in. But it’s still early and we’re working through things, but everybody has good ideas and now we just have to put it together. That’s the second part of it. To me, getting this offensive line fixed was my No. 1 priority.”
The biggest free-agent signing the Vikings made was guard Alex Boone, who, like Sparano, was with the San Francisco 49ers before coming to Minnesota. While Boone was on the offensive line, he came to appreciate the coaching style of Sparano, who was teaching tight ends. Boone called it a “no-nonsense” attitude.
That apparently carried over into meetings with Spielman, Sparano and Shurmur regarding personnel.
“I think both of them with their knowledge, with their experience in the league, with the traits they’re looking for at their positions, I always ask anytime we bring in a new coach, or we bring in a new scout, ‘What did you do you at other places?’” Spielman said. “Look at our process, is there things that we can always add to make us better in the process we go through as we get ready for the draft? They had some different ideas, but I know coming out of those meetings and as we talked about the players, I can truly tell you what type of player was appealing to them and what type of player wasn’t. There was no grey area with those guys, which I really appreciate. Us as a scouting department, or me personally, may not totally agree with them, but I know where they stand and that’s the most important thing.”
Beyond assessing the personnel and potential draft picks, Sparano and Shurmur have also had input in the offense, although Zimmer has made it clear that Turner is the coordinator and says Turner has changed up his offense over time. Yet getting new ideas or input on how another offense operates never hurts.
In fact, Zimmer said he is probably more “hard-headed” with his defensive philosophies than Turner is offensively.
“Their input will be just like it is everywhere else. They’ll have a lot of input and Norv has been really good about listening and talking,” Zimmer said in March. “Now’s a good time of year to sit down and talk about different things and philosophies – not necessarily philosophies, but the way you did it or the way we did it and how can the good things that you do help with what we did and kind of merge some of the stuff together.
“… We don’t want to change the offense, but we want to be able to, if people have good ideas, which Tony and Pat both do, then we’re going to try to merge that into the offense a little bit. If they weren’t going to have input I could have gone and got a tight end and offensive line coach anyplace.”