Pat Shurmur probably thought the question was strange, and he probably was right.
Had he ever called a game in which a player caught 13 passes and gained only 80 yards, as Stefon Diggs did in Sunday’s 22-16 overtime loss to the Lions?
“I don’t know,” the Vikings interim offensive coordinator said. “I don’t keep track of those things.”
In 56 seasons of Vikings football, it’s never happened before.
It’s not an ideal stat, but it’s not a negative one either. It’s more of a stat that illustrates the get-it-out-quick survival mode that the Vikings and their new play-caller find themselves in at the halfway point of an injury-riddled season.
A decimated offensive line has used five different starters at tackle while also dealing with nagging injuries to both guards. Jeremiah Sirles, who entered final cutdown day on the bubble, has made starts at right tackle, left guard last week, and played extended minutes at right guard.
Now you know why Shurmur, a West Coast disciple who learned the quick, rhythmic passing principles during a decade spent under Andy Reid in Philadelphia, called the kind of game he did on Sunday.
According to Pro Football Focus, 30 of Sam Bradford’s 40 throws on Sunday took 2.5 seconds or less. That’s 75 percent, which was far above his season average of 62 percent. As a result, Bradford was pressured on only 27 percent of his drops and sacked twice after being sacked 11 times the previous two weeks.
Norv Turner had led the game-planning process before he resigned on Nov. 2. But it was Shurmur who kept pulling the quick trigger as the Vikings posted season highs for completions (31) and completion percentage (77.5) while matching the season high for first downs (22).
“We feel like we can throw the ball deep,” Shurmur said. “I think everybody has kind of tied it to the West Coast roots. There’s a controlled passing-game element to that, but there’s also the ability to throw the ball deep when shots provide.”
Bradford threw four passes that traveled 20 yards or farther on Sunday. He went 0-for-3 with one drop in the end zone by Cordarrelle Patterson. The other deep ball drew a 22-yard pass interference penalty.
“Sometimes, you’re able to get the ball down the field a little better against some teams,” Shurmur said. “And not so much against others.”
Considering the line’s inability to sustain its pass protection, Shurmur has no choice but to be selective with when he calls plays that take longer to develop. On Sunday, the first two longer-developing plays he called resulted in sacks.
So Shurmur adjusted. Bradford completed a season-high 11 passes behind the line of scrimmage and 14 more that traveled no farther than 5 yards downfield. Diggs was targeted 14 times with one drop. Two of the passes were behind the line of scrimmage, and 11 were no farther than 5 yards downfield.
Diggs’ longest reception was 12 yards on third-and-8. He also had an 8-yard catch on fourth-and-4.
“I’ve said it from the beginning that I’m very comfortable with Stefon,” Bradford said. “He’s one of the guys I felt like we hit it off in terms of chemistry. I think last game he just did a great job of kind of finding some of the soft spots in the zone underneath, which is why we utilized him so much in the quick-game stuff.”
In Vikings history, only two players have caught more than 13 passes in a game. Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter caught 14 for 167 yards in a 17-7 loss to Arizona in 1994. Running back Rickey Young caught 15 for 116 yards in a 27-23 win over New England in 1979.
Yes, that’s right. A running back holds the record. You see, in Vikings lore, old-timers will tell you that Jerry Burns, as Bud Grant’s offensive coordinator, was ahead of his time in successfully executing a high-percentage, ball-control passing attack a decade before it was named the West Coast offense in honor of Bill Walsh and the 49ers winning four Super Bowls in the 1980s.
This week, Shurmur and coach Mike Zimmer talked about getting the running backs more involved in the passing game. Somewhere, “Burnsie” was smiling. Same goes for Chuck Foreman, the former running back who led the team in receptions in 1974, ’75 and ’76.
“I never quite understood the whole ‘West Coast’ thing,” Burns told the Star Tribune years ago. “It was just taking what the defense would give you.”