Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner is 66 years old, and the same as he ever was.
He still parts his hair to the same side, like he’s done for 30 years. He still prefers drawing plays up on a whiteboard to using a PowerPoint presentation; walking through installations to sitting in meetings.
He still talks like he has a throat full of pebbles. It’s one of Turner’s signature qualities, and one which his new quarterback, Cam Newton, loves to playfully imitate.
“What you see of him one day is the same you’re going to see of him any other day,” said Panthers backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who was with Turner from 2015-16, when the latter coached in Minnesota.
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“That’s what you get from him.” Turner has been coaching in the NFL for about three decades. And sure, he’s the same guy.
But when he was hired in January, Heinicke said Turner adjusted to the team’s versatile playmakers and dual-threat quarterback, not the other way around. “Here’s the best thing I can say about Norv to kind of put a bow on it,” said tight end Greg Olsen.
“He doesn’t look at it like ‘I’ve got to find guys to run my offense the way I’ve run it for 30 years in the NFL.’
“He views his role is to take what he has, utilize what the skill sets of those players are, and do what they do well.”
That’s just a sign of Turner’s flexibility and creativity, said Heinicke.
But that’s only part of what has made this Carolina Panthers offense so explosive over the past three weeks.
Excluding Newton, Carolina has three dynamic and versatile young playmakers, all former first- or second-round picks, who have stepped into big roles for the Panthers this year.
Christian McCaffrey is a running back who can play receiver, and DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel are receivers who can play running back.
In fact, Moore leads the league in rushing yards by a wide receiver with 117, while McCaffrey is just one of three running backs who has more than 500 rushing yards and 375 receiving yards.
So several of the Panthers’ offensive plays include some form of misdirection that caters to what these three do well.
That is dangerous for opponents, who must account for their positioning on every snap. “We have so many weapons that at any time you don’t know who has the ball,” said McCaffrey last week. “Anybody can have it and everybody’s a decoy.”
But as a whole, Turner’s offense doesn’t just feature its “positionless” guys. And it’s not all misdirection.
Against Baltimore, the Panthers were able to play most of the game out of their 11-personnel, with one running back, a tight end and three wide receivers.
They were able to feature their more “traditional” pass-catchers, like Olsen, “X” receiver Devin Funchess and slot receiver Jarius Wright.
Because Carolina can do so many different things with its offense, everyone can get an opportunity. And it’s an anomaly that one player is featured exaggeratedly more so than others. That too is by design.
“The biggest thing I noticed when I was with Norv in San Diego was how the ball, well there’s one.
And there are five guys who have a chance to get it,” said Rivera.
“And if you do everything you’re supposed to do, and you do it as hard as you can, you just might get it. “So that’s why, when the game is over, that’s the first thing I look at. I want to see ball distribution. I want to see how many guys touched the ball.
When it’s spread out, it means everybody is doing their job.” Last week, nine different offensive players touched the ball.
The week before, 11 did. Carolina has rotated its offensive skill players 106 times this season. Turner’s offense blends the traditional playmakers with the non-traditional. Everybody gets a piece, which works as long as nobody thinks they’re bigger than the whole.
“If someone told me to sit down and write the type of offense that would fit everyone, get everyone included, there’s no way I could have done it,” said Heinicke. “Those guys sit down and think of stuff that I would never see, (they do it) right off the bat...The way they see those things and communicate it to us. ...You’ve seen it. It’s kind of taking off a little bit.”
Of course, it’s not just about the guys who are getting the ball. It’s about the guy throwing it, too.
Like it always has, Newton’s ability to run adds an advantageous layer to what the Panthers do on offense.
The threat of this is equally important as any misdirection play Carolina can call. It always occupies at least one defender, if not more.
While Newton has up to five passing options on any given play, Rivera joked last week that his legs are actually a sixth.
Carolina at times skips the first five altogether, and designs runs for Newton as a first option. And as has become tradition, Newton leads the league in quarterback rushing yards with 342. But in the passing game, the combinations of things Carolina can do stacks up.
And the decision making gets more complex. Yet it’s here where Newton is particularly excelling over the past few weeks.
“He’s seeing things really well right now,” said quarterbacks coach Scott Turner, Norv’s son. “What we always try to do with him is just give him a clear plan, so that he has a great understanding of why a play is being called and what we’re trying to accomplish. .... “We talk to him about just trusting what he sees. If it looks cloudy, just move on to your next read.”
After Carolina beat Baltimore in Week 8, Rivera cited a touchdown pass from Newton to Olsen as an example of how well he’s seeing the field.
The Panthers were in 11-personnel with three receivers stacked to one side. Newton noticed Ravens safety Eric Weddle drifting toward the stack pre-snap, which left Olsen in a one-on-one situation.
In the two seconds between the snap and the throw, Olsen was Newton’s third read. But he connected with the tight end for the score. “He doesn’t miss a lot,” said Turner. “He’s been doing this a long time. ...We really just emphasize trusting what you see, making a quick decision and getting the ball out of your hand. And then good things tend to happen.”
A step ahead
Misdirection or not, the plays Norv Turner calls throughout the game are an effort to set up advantages later on.
“To listen to him talk during a game is impressive,” said Rivera. “Because as plays are happening, he’s thinking ahead. ...And that is a part of why (he’s so successful). He knows what he just called and he starts thinking about the potential for the next play.”
In fact, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Turner’s play-calling isn’t how he’s married together a dual-threat quarterback, “traditional” pass-catchers and three “positionless” players.
It’s how he sees multiple scenarios at once.
“I can remember when I was in San Diego (as a defensive coordinator) and he came in my meeting and asked me about (Arizona Cardinals receiver) Larry Fitzgerald, and how we were going to take him out,” said Rivera. “I started explaining to him. ...Then he turned to the offensive line coach. ...And he was carrying on two football conversations, one on offense and one on defense at the same time. And I said, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’”
Turner is able to process the immediate and the big picture at once.
And even eight games into the year, he’s still holding things back.
“I think really good play-callers do that, they have enough foresight to think about what’s coming next,” said Rivera. “That was one of the things that I was always impressed with with (Turner) when I was with him in San Diego, how he always seemed to be a play-call ahead.
Vintage Norv Turner
Carolina’s play designs are touched by every hand on the offensive staff, which is a blend of veteran and young assistants who marry creative new concepts with ol’ faithful plays.
But some of Turner’s “trick” plays are his own, and extra special. They always have been. The only difference is the players who execute them.
Take Sunday’s double reverse, for example, that resulted in a touchdown and completely baffled the Buccaneers.
Other than that week in practice, Carolina had never run the double reverse. The closest thing Tampa Bay had seen on tape was a single reverse to Moore.
But Turner has had that one in his pocket for a long time. He once ran it with 5-foot-11, 185-pound Leslie Shepard, who is now 49 years old.
It was Dec. 20, 1998. The opponent?
Like it was for Shepard in 1998, the double reverse was the perfect opportunity on Sunday for a player with Samuel’s speed and shiftiness. It was called at exactly the right time.
But that’s just Turner, same as he’s always been.