Norv Turner's impact on tight ends

Turner stretches defenses, while another coordinator boosts TEs at least as much

Updated: August 8, 2014, 11:53 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Norv Turner is renowned for being a tight-end-friendly coach -- he's widely credited for Jordan Cameron's breakthrough in 2013 -- and it's one reason many fantasy analysts and owners expect a similar step forward in 2014 from Kyle Rudolph, the starting tight end for Turner's new team, the Minnesota Vikings.

The truth in the numbers, however, is that Turner's influence is somewhat exaggerated, perhaps a greater product of the personnel at his disposal.

In Turner's 29 seasons coaching in the NFL, six of them as a wide receivers coach (Los Angeles Rams, 1985-90), eight as an offensive coordinator (Dallas Cowboys, 1991-93; San Diego Chargers, 2001; Miami Dolphins, 2002-03; San Francisco 49ers, 2006; and Cleveland Browns, 2013) and 15 as a head coach (Washington Redskins, 1994-2000; Oakland Raiders, '04-05; and San Diego Chargers, '07-12), a Turner-coached tight end managed a 100-point fantasy season six times, or a seasonal per-game average of at least 6.0 on six occasions.

Antonio Gates was responsible for five of them. Cameron had the other.

Taking them as a collective group -- and using fantasy points per game for these purposes -- Turner-coached tight ends have averaged 0.9 points per game more than the NFL's average for a single team during the entirety of his coaching career. The details of this, which include his year-by-year breakdowns, are available in the table at column's end. Meanwhile, in the past five seasons, perhaps a more representative sample due to the league's increasingly offensive focus on the position, Turner's tight ends averaged 2.6 fantasy points more than the league's average.

To put these numbers into context, consider that one of the 11 other new-to-his-team offensive coordinators has stats -- both career and in the past 10 seasons -- that are as good as and arguably better than Turner's: Gary Kubiak of the Baltimore Ravens.

During his 19-year NFL coaching career, 11 of them as an offensive coordinator (Denver Broncos, 1995-2005, which included quarterbacks-coach duties during his first eight seasons) and eight as a head coach (Houston Texans, 2006-13), Kubiak-coached tight ends have averaged 2.7 fantasy points per game more than the NFL's average. And in the past five seasons, Kubiak's tight ends have averaged 2.6 fantasy points per game more ... an effectively identical rate to Turner's (within decimal points).

Strategically speaking, though, Kubiak seems to have done more with less, not to mention that he has distinctly made the tight end more of a focal point of his offense. In the past three seasons, for example, examine their teams' tight end usage patterns:

Kubiak's teams: 334 two-TE sets, 444 targets, 61 red zone targets
Turner's teams: 171 two-TE sets, 371 targets, 55 red zone targets
Average NFL team: 148 two-TE sets, 339 targets, 47 red zone targets

Now consider the personnel at each coach's disposal: 53 percent of the tight end snaps for Turner's teams during that three-year span went to Antonio Gates and Jordan Cameron; Owen Daniels was the leader for Kubiak's team, with just 37 percent. Few would put Daniels -- or Garrett Graham, who ranked second -- on par, skills-wise, with Gates or Cameron. Kubiak has exhibited greater reliance on tight ends overall, on two tight end sets and on tight ends in critical situations, and he's gotten more out of the personnel he has had at the position.

So why isn't Kubiak -- and therefore his tight end Dennis Pitta -- getting as much attention for this as Turner and Rudolph are?

Perhaps it's the freshness of Cameron in fantasy owners' minds or the elite personnel Turner has recently coached, inflating his cumulative numbers. But what's being misread about Turner's offenses is his reliance on downfield passing, which suits the wide receivers often as much as the tight ends. To that end, Turner's Chargers teams, during his final five seasons as head coach, averaged from wide receivers the league's highest rate of air yards per attempt (14.3) and yards per reception (16.2) and had the 10th-most catches of 20-plus yards (184). Turner's Browns in 2013, meanwhile, ranked sixth in yards per reception (14.2) and eighth in 20-yard catches (39) and produced fantasy's No. 1 wide receiver, Josh Gordon (221 points despite two missed games).

Perhaps it's that Daniels, Kubiak's most productive pass-catching tight end during his Texan days, made the trip east with Kubiak this offseason, lending itself to a target-pie concern between him and Pitta. At 31 and having missed 26 games over the past five seasons due to injury, however, Daniels better fits the mold of the stay-at-home blocking tight end that Kubiak loved during his Houston days. Make no mistake: Pitta is the Ravens' pass-catcher, and he might be the best one he has had on the roster since ... Daniels in 2009, before he began his string of injuries.

Kubiak's offenses also tend to be more conservative at the wide receiver position, relying on shorter-range tosses with a higher rate of completion. Sure enough, in his final five seasons with the Texans, his team had the third-highest catch rate among wide receivers (63.7 percent) but ranked 23rd in air yards per attempt (10.9). Those tendencies play directly into the hands of Pitta, and they make him an especially attractive option in PPR formats.

Finally, returning to Turner, it's possible that what's being missed upon his arrival in Minnesota is his potential impact on Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson, if you recall, managed a 92nd-ranked 1.53 vertical targets per game last season and had a below-league-average 8.4 air yards per attempt during the season's final eight weeks, when he was performing at his fantasy best. That has perhaps deflated his stock entering 2014, because it ignores his speed and ability to adhere nicely to Turner's downfield trend. Could it be that it's Patterson and Pitta who benefit most from the Turner and Kubiak moves, rather than Rudolph and the Ravens' running game?

Certainly it's possible, the data saying probably so.

Norv Turner's impact on tight ends

"Norv" is the average fantasy points per game scored by his team's TEs (all who were on the roster that season), "NFL" is the entire league's average fantasy points per game (FPTS/G) by TEs, "Diff." is the difference between the two.

Gary Kubiak's impact on tight ends

"Gary" is the average fantasy points per game scored by his team's TEs (all who were on the roster that season), "NFL" is the entire league's average fantasy points per game (FPTS/G) by TEs, "Diff." is the difference between the two.

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