This story has probably already been done here before, but a refresher about this can always be fun. Norv Turner's offense is based on the famous (especially around here) "Air Coryell" Offense that swept through San Diego. Turner learned his stuff through long time Coryell assistant Ernie Zampese.
The "Air Coryell" Offense (Originally called "The West Coast Offense", but do to a mistake by a San Francisco writer during the Walsh era, that name stuck on Walsh's Offense we know it by today) features a combination of deep passing and power running. The theory being that if the safeties are playing deep then you can pound it up the middle all day, and if they come up, then you can beat them deep for an explosive play. Quarterbacks tend to take more 7-step drops to give their receivers more time to get open down the field.
Norv's particular flavor of the "Air Coryell" focuses more on execution than the complex schemes run by other Coryell disciples (like Mike Martz). Norv's offense tends to be more quarterback friendly since it favors taking controlled chances like quicker mid-range passes that develop off of play action rather than writing up slower developing plays that leave the quarterback exposed. Because Turner's offenses are more about being able to execute the plays rather than on a series of complex plays, his offenses are usually in the top tier of the NFL, but are usually billed as predictable (Sound familiar Charger fans?).
Classic Turner Offenses rely on certain personnel.
- Quarterbacks who have a strong enough arm to throw deep with accuracy (Phillip Rivers is particularly adept at this).
- A strong running game that typically features a running back with good power (Emmett Smith is the perfect example of a Turner style running back, through I like what I am seeing with Mathews so far this year).
- Wide Receivers who can stretch the field. They usually have good speed and can catch jump balls in the endzone (One of the reasons that Vincent Jackson works so well in this system. Another example, using a different model would be Torry Holt of Rams fame who used his speed and crisp route running to get separation)
- Tight End is where Turner starts to get a little fuzzy. On the one hand, his system works very well with a receiving Tight End like Antonio Gates, which he uses to attack the space the Wide Receivers create in the middle of the field often breaking off mid-range gains such as 10 to 15 yard gains. On the other hand, in other places Turner has visited, he has seemingly had a preference for the "F-Back" Tight End who works as a Tight End/Running Back/Fullback/Wide Receiver (much like he has utilized Randy McMichael this year and back when he ran the Dolphins). An F-back is a multipurpose, unpredictable tool on offense. I suspect that he typically prefers the McMichael type of Tight End, but saw that he had a special talent in Gates and decided to take advantage of that however he could.
- Fullback is another fuzzy area for Turner. In the past he seems to have preferred a Power Fullback whose primary job is to act as a lead blocker in the running game, but who is also skilled enough to catch emergency passes from a Quarterback under pressure. He who shall not be named is the perfect example of this (Hint, this person is credited with paving the way for LT during his glory days). Yet despite this Jacob Hester, the Charger's fullback is used more like the F-back type that Turner prefers in his Tight Ends. Again, I think this is a case of adapting to the talent of the team rather than forcing them to adapt to his style.
- Finally, we have the Offensive Line. Turner doesn't do the whole "Zone Blocking" thing that Shanahan made famous in Denver. He appears to prefer a big and physical offensive line like he enjoyed in Dallas for all those years.
So that being said, we now see why Phillip Rivers, Vincent Jackson, and Antonio Gates have worked so well in this offense. What is interesting is that this year teams are playing the Chargers different than they have in the past. They have taken note of the fact that Charger's Running Backs were fumble prone last year and also not as effective with the Power Running that Turner is known for. Also, with Sproles gone as an underneath option, opposing defenses have concluded that the best way to beat the Chargers is to play their Safeties deep and try to take away the long ball. This puts more pressure on that defense's front 7, which is ok if you are the Vikings who have that as a strength anway, but not so good if you are the Broncos, who have more talent in their back end than their front end.
This is why San Diego has suddenly developed a running game and a potent screen passing game. Since Mathews is doing a much better job of not putting the ball on the ground so far (Knock wood). And even though Tolbert is still having troubles, the Chargers are still enjoying success on Offense, even if they are having a harder time with the flashy deep passes that they have been known for in recent seasons. All they need to do is cut down on the mistakes (they made great progress in this area last week against the Dolphins), and teams will eventually start having to bring their safeties up to defend against the running game and the short passing game, and we will be able to see the Chargers Offense we all know and love with the healthy addition of an actual running game!