What makes Norv Turner’s Air Coryell system go? (Part 1)

He’s a great play caller. But does his philosophy fit the Ravens current skill set as they search for a new offensive coordinator?

Norv Turner’s philosophy is the same scheme the Ravens have run since John Harbaugh, Joe Flacco and Ray Rice’s first day on the job in Baltimore, the “Air Coryell” system. Cam Cameron is a disciple of it, ran it for over four years here and it has been mediocre at best. The Ravens best offensive season under that system is 2009 where they ranked 13th. Jim Caldwell picked up and ran this same system and the outcome was the 29th ranked offense this past season.

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Turner had great success with this offense in his early coaching days in the NFL. He led the Dallas Cowboys under Jimmy Johnson to two Super Bowl titles with the Coryell offense. His scheme fit the Cowboys skill set. Any scheme with the right players for it will flourish.

The Air Coryell offense relies on four key things to be successful. 

  • A tall receiver who can stretch the field and win in jump ball situations. (Michael Irvin, yes. Torrey Smith, no).
  • Power running game with fullback help as lead blocker and extra pass blocker. (Emmitt Smith and Daryl Johnston, Yes. Ray Rice and Vonta Leach, No. Rice isn’t a power back, and Leach doesn’t see the field nearly enough).
  • Strong offensive line to allow time for mid-range to deep passing options to open up. (Early 90’s Dallas, greatest O-line ever. Present day Ravens, not even close).
  • Pass catching tight end who finds space in the middle opened by the WRs stretching the field. (Jay Novacek, yes. Dennis Pitta, yes).

One out of four is, not good.

The Coryell system places heavy emphasis on mid to deep range passing. What good is a mid-deep passing oriented offense when you get down in the red zone, if you can’t run the ball for those tough yards inside the 10? An offense based on throwing deep gives you limited, predictable options when you get the ball inside that short field. The Ravens didn’t have the line, or the power running to pound the ball into the end zone from short yardage. Only the Norv Turner led offense of the Cleveland Browns, and the Tampa Bay Bucs had fewer rushing TDs on the year than the Ravens seven scores on the ground. The Browns found the endzone on the ground a mere four times.

In the red zone, Flacco’s completion percentage is 48%. The team rushed for 2.2 YPC, and 1.4 YPC inside the 10. Norv Turner’s Browns trio of QBs amassed a 43.2 CMP% in the red zone, and RBs 2.4 YPC.

So how have other Norv Turner teams measured up? Using the four items on the “Coryell Checklist” above, here is how teams under Turner have fared since 2002. Has his system been successful without all the necessary pieces? (Xs denote the key pieces each team had).

TurnerFor the most part, success in the Coryell system is based on the right personnel. The Dolphins met half of the requirements with power running from Ricky Williams, and a good TE in Randy McMichael. Middle of the road requirements, middle of the road PPG produced. The Raiders in 2005 had Randy Moss, though he gave a forgettable effort, and the point production suffered. Same result in Turner’s lone year in San Francisco. Frank Gore was a power runner, but that’s all they had as Vernon Davis hadn’t broken out yet.

The Chargers team he took over for the majority of his career was the perfect match for his system. You had big WRs in 6’5” Vincent Jackson, and later 6’5” Malcolm Floyd. There was power (basically he can do anything) RB Ladanian Tomlinson. The offensive line featured multiple Pro Bowlers, and of course Antonio Gates manning TE. When they made the switch to a more finesse back in Ryan Matthews, lost a few key players on the O-line like Pro Bowlers Marcus McNeil, Kris Dielman and Nick Hardwick, once again, points were hard to come by.

As far the Browns go, the running game was so bad it brought down the rest of the team. Plus they don’t really have a QB. They have big receivers Josh Gordon and Greg Little. There are Pro Bowlers in Joe Thomas and Alex Mack on the O-line, but Oneil Cousins was pretty awful on the right side of the line. Jordan Cameron broke out as a top TE.

For more evidence that the Coryell system needs at least three of the four components to be successful, take a look at what a scheme change did for San Diego. In 2012, Turner’s final season in San Diego, they had the 31st ranked offense and 20th in PPG. Enter new head coach Mike McCoy from Denver and his OC Ken Whisenhunt with the Erhardt-Perkins scheme. The Chargers returned practically the same weapons on offense in Rivers and Matthews, a below average O-line,  dealt with injuries to many receivers opening the door for rookie Keenan Allen, and a declining talent in Antonio Gates. The Chargers offense ranked 5th overall and 12th in scoring.

For even more evidence, here’s a look at the nine teams that ran Air Coryell based offenses in 2013, according to Pro-Football Reference. Let’s put them through the same checklist and see how they stacked up.

CoryellIt’s pretty clear that the right personnel have to be in place for Norv Turner to be a good fit. The Ravens don’t have it. Even having a good QB in Flacco isn’t enough to overcome the weaknesses. Looking at the Falcons, you have to think that Matt Ryan and their offense would have been much better had Julio Jones not been injured, and giving them three out four on the Coryell Checklist. Also missing Steven Jackson for four games didn’t help. You could also make a case that some teams are one piece away, like the Rams. Maybe Tavon Austin at 5’9” wasn’t the right draft pick for St. Louis. 6’4” Justin Hunter (Titans) or 6’3” Aaron Dobson (Patriots) could have been better fits out of last year’s draft class. But who knows. You can’t judge draft picks until a few years down the road.

The Browns, where Turner still resides, could be missing someone to shore up the right side of the line, and of course a real QB. Have to wonder how good they could be if they keep Turner, kept former head coach Rob Chudzinski, drafted a RT or RG and a QB with their two first round picks in the upcoming draft. That offense could be right up there in the top ten given the other emerging weapons in Gordon, Little, and Cameron.

So how do the Ravens stack up on the checklist for 2014 if they want to adopt Norv Turner and keep the Coryell system going? Torrey Smith at 6’1” isn’t considered “big” and physical. Marlon Brown is big but doesn’t stretch the field. Ray Rice and the O-line had trouble getting the tough yards last year. Fullback was an afterthought, but maybe Turner changes that. The O-line has holes at C, RT or LT depending on what they do with Eugene Monroe. There is currently not a TE on the roster. Sure we’re all banking on them dong the right thing and bringing back Dennis Pitta, but currently he’s not.

The Ravens have some holes to fill if Norv Turner is going to be their choice. Not only do they need to acquire those players, but they have to play well and stay healthy. They need Ray Rice to come into next season in the best shape of his life, run with a purpose on every down, and the team has to actually commit to using a fullback as a lead downhill blocker and extra pass blocker. They need to resign Dennis Pitta, which is a top priority no matter what the system. 

In my opinion, too many things have to go exactly to plan for this system to work. There seems to be little flexibility in a scheme like Air Coryell. Flexibility is essential in today’s NFL, as teams must adapt to numerous in-game and personnel situations without being predictable. One player goes down and the whole system crashes. We have seen that first hand. Bryant McKinnie was that one player in 2012. The Ravens offense sputtered, until he came out of Harbaugh’s dog house in week 16 solidifying the O-line. The rest is glorious history. The pieces that made Air Coryell unstoppable for four games in the 2012 postseason, fell apart along with the offense the following year. The offenses ineptitude should have come as little surprise had we done this exercise in August.

In the upcoming part 2, if you don’t like the Air Coryell idea, what scheme would work best in the Ravens current make up? 

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About the author

Mike Randall   

Ravens Analyst

Mike was born on the Eastern Shore, raised in Finksburg, and currently resides in Parkville. In 2009, Mike graduated from the Broadcasting Institute of Maryland. Mike became a Baltimore City Fire Fighter in late 2010. Mike has appeared as a guest on Q1370. Now a Sr. Ravens Analyst for BSL, he be reached at mike.randall@baltimoresportsandlife.com.

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2 Responses to What makes Norv Turner’s Air Coryell system go? (Part 1)

  1. Gene says:

    Fantastic article! Your the only reporter who has brought this to light; the connection to Turner & Cameron. Turner would be Cameron 2.0, back to long developing passing plays. After Turner left San Diego, Rivers had an MVP year, because they got the ball to thier playmakers faster.

  2. Mike Randall says:

    Thank you. That’s the thing about this style is that it’s predicated long throws. When the QB doesn’t have time for those to develop because the line is poor like it was, they need to adjust to a quicker passing game. We screamed for it all year, but it seems like it’s just not a focus of this playbook. Just because Flacco can heave it a mile doesn’t mean he has to try to four or five times a game.

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