Can the arrival of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner rev up the production of the team’s sputtering running backs, particularly Christian McCaffrey?
LaDainian Tomlinson, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who knows Turner very well, said that’s a given.
“(Turner’s offense) is all about rhythm and timing. And really, he wants to run the football,” Tomlinson, who retired after the 2011 season and is an NFL Network analyst, told the Observer this week. “That sets up everything else that he wants to do through the passing game.
“But he likes to get the running game going.”
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That’s something that didn’t happen often in 2017 under former offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
Both veteran power runner Jonathan Stewart (45.3) and dynamic rookie Christian McCaffrey (27.2) trailed quarterback Cam Newton (47.1) in yards per game. Head coach Ron Rivera and Shula admitted they had not found McCaffrey’s “ceiling,” and they spent a large part of the year figuring out where he fit into their offense.
But that won’t be the case under Turner, Tomlinson said.
Turner was the offensive coordinator in San Diego in 2001, when Tomlinson was a rookie. That season, Tomlinson gained 1,236 yards rushing and 367 receiving. He said that success was partially because of Turner’s understanding of how to best use him.
“I think the thing that sets him apart is that he really understands how to use his personnel,” Tomlinson said. “When you’re working with him, he always gives you the sense of, if he calls a play for you, it’s going to work every single time. He makes you feel like he designs plays just for you to be successful.”
Tomlinson said Turner recognized he was more comfortable as a rookie with the perimeter running concepts Tomlinson ran successfully at TCU. Instead of trying to change Tomlinson’s style, Turner adjusted his play-calling.
“He implemented a lot of runs to get me outside where I felt comfortable right away, early in my career,” Tomlinson said. “And then when he came back, he knew that I was in an offense where I ran inside a lot, you know, up the A-gap, a lot of power stuff. So he implemented those runs as well as changing it up to some of the things that I liked doing.”
Turner returned to San Diego as the Chargers’ head coach in 2007, with Tomlinson and scatback Darren Sproles on the roster.
The pair became one of the most dynamic tandems in the NFL, with San Diego’s offense focused on their complementary styles. Tomlinson was able to develop more as a power runner, and Sproles caught passes out of the backfield and in the slot, a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties.
But Tomlinson pointed out that he wasn’t confined to the “power runner” role. Turner expanded the offense to include some Tomlinson-centric wrinkles. Tomlinson’s favorite was the “Ernie H post,” play, in which he lined up in the backfield and began a route toward the flat, then cut in toward the goalpost to beat his defender inside.
“Norv felt like I was going to score a touchdown on that play every single time he called it, and I agreed,” Tomlinson said. “I felt like I was going to score every single time he called that play.”
Tomlinson said a versatile back such as McCaffrey can take on a “premier role” in Turner’s offense, because Turner adjusts his offense for what works well for his personnel, and scraps what doesn’t.
Like Sproles, McCaffrey excels in space and is a mismatch for linebackers and safeties.
Tomlinson cited a favorite play of Turner’s to call for Sproles: A shallow crossing route out of the backfield called “Texas,” and its variation, the “pivot” route.
“Sproles was so good at running that Texas route, that teams would start to overplay that, and so what did Norv do? Time and time again, he’d call a pivot route. Which looks like a Texas route, but then Darren would pivot back out,” Tomlinson laughed at the memory.
“Those linebackers would jump that Texas route thinking they’ve got him, and Sproles comes pivoting out the other way, and then you have a linebacker left inside while Sproles is running in the flat wide open.”
Option routes for running backs against linebackers and safeties, Tomlinson said, are the foundation of Turner’s offense.
“He understands how to utilize those matchups ... so that you can have those (mismatches).”
Carolina will still favor a power run scheme – but not often with McCaffrey, Tomlinson said. But he doesn’t expect the Panthers to rely on Stewart, either. In fact, he doesn’t expect Stewart, who has one year left on his contract, to return in 2018.
“They’re going to draft a running back, a physical style of running back, so that they can run the ball up inside a little bit and loosen defenses up for Christian to get back in there and do his thing on the perimeter,” Tomlinson said. “That’s how Norv has done it in the past. I’m almost positive that he’s going to create the same type of formula that he’s used everywhere else, and they’re going to get a running back to run the ball inside.”