Pundits across the country have indicated that 2013 is the make-or-break year for Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, but few have any hope for offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Despite a playoff appearance, and allowing the Vikings to spend the second-most time with a lead in 2013, fans and experts alike are calling for Musgrave’s head.
And they may be right.
In fact, the Vikings may have made a mistake in hiring him at all.
Bill Musgrave found himself with an offensive coordinator job shortly after Darrell Bevell, like so many other former Vikings, found a job with the Seahawks. He left Atlanta, along with Michael Jenkins, functionally earning a promotion from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and head coach Leslie Frazier were likely hoping that Musgrave could guide Christian Ponder’s development as successfully as he seemed to have guided Matt Ryan’s.
With Christian Ponder struggling, and the passing game mired in 31st, there’s ample reason to question Musgrave. More than that, the curiosity of keeping Percy Harvin out of red-zone packages until given explicit instruction to keep him on the field raises serious concerns about his acumen.
So, what does Musgrave bring to the Vikings offense?
The easiest way to determine if bringing in Musgrave was a mistake is to go through his responsibilities and skills at coordinator.
Bill Musgrave is simply one of the most innovative play designers in the National Football League today. While he won’t get credit for forwarding the concept of the “space” player, Tavon Austin should send him and Harvin a big thank you card for what they did to increase the value of undersized but agile playmakers.
More than that, Musgrave has broken the mold on the types of plays that can be called with “gadget” players and is one of the few people who knows how to create an offense around these sorts of playmakers. More than simply calling end-around and bubble screens, Musgrave has been able to give the ball to Harvin the same way using dozens of different looks.
It’s more than running the same screen pass out of different formations; it’s changing the blocking assignments and creating different lanes and angles for Harvin and Adrian Peterson to run through.
Implementing an inverted wishbone, for example, gave the Vikings new ways to give their best playmakers the ball while still getting an upper hand on the chess match on the field—the Vikings were usually a step ahead of defenses. While they were still going through their checks against new formations, the Vikings had already figured out how the defense was going to attack them, and they adapted.
That “Full House” formation was later adopted by the Green Bay Packers, who are attempting to do the same things with Randall Cobb.
Extensive game tracking has revealed consistently creative uses of offensive personnel, including a willingness to mix blocking concepts to enable the running game. Along with the 49ers, the Vikings have the most complex and innovative run-blocking schemes in the NFL.
Combining zone-blocking concepts with “power” man-blocking concepts and even deploying “trap” and “wham” blocks you don’t tend to find in professional football, each game calls for runs designed to take advantage of the defensive line’s tendencies.
Over time, Musgrave introduced plays with two or even three lead blockers (out of the "22" personnel package with two tight ends, two running backs and one wide receiver) or implemented running plays with no running backs at all—encouraging teams to switch to nickel and dime formations before being run up the middle (for a while, the "02" personnel package with no running backs and two tight ends resulted in successful runs) by Percy Harvin, who motioned into the backfield and then ran up the gut.
Against the Titans, outside stretch zone runs, along with modifications like the "pin and pull" zone run (where unblocked linemen pull to the play side instead of moving up into the second line right away), allowed Adrian Peterson 5.2 yards a carry (his highest yards per carry up to that point that year), while trap plays forced the Detroit Lions to give up 6.3 yards a carry against Detroit in Week 10.
The Redskins were treated to a man-blocking game (with classic "Power O"-type plays), while the Green Bay Packers had to deal with the full gamut of blocking schemes. It's easy to castigate Musgrave in general, but he deserves credit for scheming an extremely powerful running offense that enabled Adrian Peterson to get into the open field more than any other running back in the NFL.
The Vikings played out of "02," "03," "11," "12," "13," "21," "22" and "23" personnel packages throughout the year (the first digit designates the number of running backs, the second designates the number of tight ends), choosing to emphasize the versatility of players like Rhett Ellison, Kyle Rudolph, Percy Harvin and even Michael Jenkins on occasion.
The exception fans like to point out is the final game against the Packers with Joe Webb in at quarterback. This is an unfair criticism, as the Vikings had spent months (from July to December) installing a particular offense out of a specific playbook put together over a six-month period in the offseason prior.
In order for Musgrave to have "adapted" to Joe Webb's style of play, the Vikings would have had to install a variety of new plays with new base formations, offensive line instructions, receiver breaks, etc. Undoing six months of instruction for the fifteen regular offensive personnel to match a backup who may not even play is an impossible task—everything from the release stance of receivers to an offensive line's bucket steps would need to change to accommodate a new type of offense oriented around different drops and even basic principles like how to work back to the line of scrimmage would have been altered.
The Vikings did install a few new plays, as our own Ryan Riddle points out is the most you can do. Matt Bowen, a former defensive back with the Bears and current contributor for the National Football Post echoed this sentiment (the link to the original article is dead, so a reproduction in a forum has been linked), with only one day to install first and second down packages and a different day to install third down and red-zone packages.
Smart Football hammered home the point with an extensive post reminding football coaches and fans that players do best when specialized and given fewer, more consistent responsibilities, not something that's possible when being forced to install a new offense.
From direct snaps to Percy Harvin to lining up Jenkins at tight end to playing a five receiver set in a 13 personnel package, Musgrave does a good job creating new plays out of old looks and vice versa. While he shouldn't be credited with inventing new offenses, he's clearly one of the brighter innovators in the league.
A critical job for any member of the coaching staff, but play designers in particular, is the arduous task of watching one’s own film and finding any tendencies. More importantly, coordinators need to figure out the most likely response to putting their plays on film and take advantage of them
Again, Bill Musgrave shines here. Minnesota has consistently stayed a step ahead of defenses by showing fronts and plays frequently enough to establish a pattern, then break it.
This is more difficult than it seems. Jason Garrett has a well-publicized tendency problem, for example. In 2009, the Cowboys ran a formation called Double Tight Right Strong Right (which functionally looks like a single wing formation) and ran with a lot of success from it, using a strong side dive play. They ran 7.8 yards per carry from that formation.
After the first five weeks, they averaged 4.4 yards a carry.
In 2010, they lined up in the formation 81 times and ran the ball 82.7 percent of the time, diving to the strong side 77.6 percent of the time. Unlike in 2009, the Cowboys averaged 2.15 yards per carry on those plays. All other runs average 4.87 yards a carry.
When defenses cheated, Garrett didn’t adapt. He neither changed the frequency of his run calls, he also didn’t dial up play-action passes when defenses sold out for the run when seeing the Double Tight Right Strong Right formation. It killed the effectiveness of the play and the formation. The Cowboys didn’t use a “constraint” play to punish defenders cheating.
Chris Brown, at Smart Football, explains the nature of constraint plays:
Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.
Musgrave has done a fantastic job setting defenses up to defend a particular look after weeks of repetition and breaking it at opportune moments. A good instance of this appeared in the Vikings Week 2 game against the Colts, where the Vikings ran upwards of five fake end-arounds with Harvin after continuous sweeps and end-arounds the year before.
A week later, the Vikings turned those fake end-arounds into swing passes that the 49ers struggled to defend.
Time and again, Musgrave has proven to be adept at self-scouting and consistently makes sure to design plays to punish defenses that cheat to play a particular formation.
For all the creative genius that Musgrave might embody, his situational play-calling and in-game understanding of tendency and context is severely wanting. The “Blazer” package was never a terrible idea—dozens of successful teams have found interesting ways to use “Slash”-type players receiving direct snaps—but the play-calling out of the package was abysmal.
Despite a playbook that likely called for more than a handful of play-calling options, a shocking percentage of them were runs up the middle. Not only did this obviate the advantage of giving the ball to Joe Webb, it created an offensive tendency that was easy to suss out and stop.
That is evidence of the fact that his in-game tendencies aren’t nearly as varied or interesting as his game-by-game tendencies. Yes, he can make defenses confused at the snap, but he doesn’t do it with game context in mind.
Musgrave continuously called for plays on third down where no receiver would pass the down marker in his routes, and would rarely take advantage of the space created by certain down-and-distance situations.
He led a team in Jacksonville stacked with players like Fred Taylor and Jimmy Smith, yet only ranked 29th in total scoring. After he left, the Jaguars ranked 12th and 9th in the two years following.
Musgrave has always been a conservative coach that would rather complete high-percentage passes for little gain instead of taking risks for larger gains. Many times, that’s OK. Even Nick Saban says, “If you take what the defense gives you, they'll eventually give you the game.”
But the risk-averse approach and high-percentage passing plays were nonsensical at times. Why, for example, would a coordinator call a play on 3rd-and-17 that has four of five eligible receivers working back towards the quarterback after a five-yard break?
Musgrave has long been content to throw screen passes on third and long situations and it seems that he calls plays blind to the situation at hand. A typical example comes from the first game against the Detroit Lions. Three 3rd-and-10-plus yards plays were short passes that relied on yards after the catch, and four of the five 3rd-and-short situations (three yards to convert or less) were passes instead of runs.
He also seemingly has not installed an effective no-huddle offense, creating the most lackadaisical looking two-minute offense in the league. Against the clock, the Vikings have too many plays where the primary read comes out over the middle (where a completion would drain time remaining) instead of out on the sidelines (where a receiver who steps out of bounds can stop the game clock). They also have very few plays designed to get receivers open at all three levels of the field, making the no-huddle offense set up predictable and inflexible.
This baffling inability to process the game situation and call the correct plays has lost games for the Vikings and probably will in the future.
Not only is Musgrave credited with helping Matt Ryan along his career, he takes credit for Matt Schaub's improvement at Virginia and Steve Beuerlein's rapid development at Jacksonville.
Unfortunately, it would be easier to say that the former Oregon quarterback has hampered more than helped Christian Ponder.
The NFL's best quarterbacks will throw across the field, horizontally and vertically. Varying target depth keeps defenses on their heels and also tends to effectively move the ball. Unfortunately, the route concepts run by the Vikings rarely created opportunities to throw downfield and is partially responsible for Ponder's league-lowest 9.8 yards per completion, a full half-yard lower than second-lowest Blaine Gabbert.
Pro Football Focus (a subscription advanced statistics company) also found that Ponder had the highest percentage of his yards come from yards after the catch of any other quarterback, implying not just that Ponder has the lowest average depth of target in the NFL for passes, but that it's not close.
Alex Smith was often criticized for not slinging the ball downfield, and had an average depth of target at 7.7 in 2012. Christian Ponder's was 6.8. Ponder threw 36 passes over the course of the season that went over 20 yards. The second-lowest was Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had 15 more.
Much of this is on Ponder for taking easy throws and on the receivers who struggled to get open, but Musgrave undoubtedly encouraged the shorter throws not just by designing plays with fewer deep options, but encouraging the quarterback to stay at home in underneath routes instead of deeper downfield.
Given that the "Sophomore Slump" phenomenon for quarterbacks is a myth, it's a troubling sign for Musgrave's reputation as a developer of high-level signal-callers. Ponder is rarely asked to make the most difficult throws, including intermediate outs and end-zone fades, so it is difficult to see him getting better. Without experience making tough throws, he won't be able to make them when the team needs them most, limiting his ability to keep the Vikings on top.
While there's something to be said about maintaining a quarterback's confidence with easy throws, it cannot possibly help a quarterback's confidence to be consistently reminded that he has the lowest percentage of his yards come through the air, that he has one of the lowest yards per attempt and that he plays too conservatively to win games. Younger quarterbacks need a balance of confidence-building throws and challenging calls in order to grow and play with assuredness.
While it is great to have an offensive coordinator who can design excellent plays and get the team to execute them, creativity is a little less important than you think and certainly less important than situational play-calling. Tom Moore and Peyton Manning ran the simplest offense in the NFL for over a decade and changed very little of it. Bill Walsh created a basic framework of a few plays and moved from there.
Obviously, creativity can provide massive benefits, as Bill Belichick and Mike Martz have proved. But more important than that is making sure the team is consistently making the right decision in high-leverage situations like third down or in the two-minute drill.
The Vikings should have known that Musgrave was far too conservative as a play-caller. His history speaks for itself and he hasn't broken that mold with the Vikings, either.
In 2010, the Vikings could have hired the quarterbacks coach of the Denver Broncos, Mike McCoy. Not only is he immensely creative, he's flexible—he designed offenses for Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning. Not only that, he survived three different offensive regimes at the Panthers and is head coach at the San Diego Chargers.
Alternately, they could have hired the brilliant Jeff Tedford from California, who has an even more impressive reputation at developing quarterbacks, including coaching Super Bowl winners Trent Dilfer and Aaron Rodgers. He's also well-known for developing David Carr, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington and Kyle Boller. While none of those players lit up the NFL, they were devastating college quarterbacks. Given a chance at an NFL job, he could mold even better talent to new heights. His offenses are surprising and innovative and combine many more interesting passing patterns.
If they wanted to stick to West Coast principles, they could have given James Urban of the Philadelphia Eagles a shot, who showed fantastic adaptability folding Michael Vick into Kevin Kolb's offense and making it even more impressive. He was a member of Marty Mornhinweg's aggressive offensive staff and could likely have brought that aggressive philosophy over while still maintaining a good schedule to bring Ponder along.
Many are calling this year a "make or break" year for Christian Ponder. That's true; he needs to prove he can be the quarterback of the future for a rapidly improving Vikings team. But that's equally true of Bill Musgrave, who arguably should have been fired at the end of this season, anyway.
Jeff Tedford is still available, after all.