Bill Musgrave Breakdown: 5 Questions With Vikings Analyst


Yesterday night the Oakland Raiders opted to hire Bill Musgrave as their new offensive coordinator, passing over Marc Trestman to hire the former Jacksonville Jaguars playcaller who worked under new head coach Jack Del Rio in 2003 and 2004. Musgrave most recently was the quarterbacks coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, coaching up Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez while learning some of the up-tempo offense ran by head coach Chip Kelly for one season.

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However Musgrave’s biggest claim to fame is his work with the Minnesota Vikings where he rode Adrian Peterson to a 2,000 yard rushing season while also working with below average quarterbacks in a run where the team never quite reached the success it should have with the weapon of the best runner since 2000 in the backfield.

We sat down with Vikings and NFL analyst Arif Hasan to break down Musgrave’s run in Minnesota and how it could translate to Oakland. Here is our interview with Hasan in full:

1) First things first is the presence of Adrian Peterson during Musgrave’s tenure in Minnesota? How much did the presence of the best running back in the league mask Musgrave’s OC abilities? How do you see that factoring now that he has another big role in Oakland? 

I think this is definitely relevant in evaluating Musgrave, but not particularly relevant for the Raiders. I’ll explain that part in a bit, but the first thing you have to remember about Bill Musgrave is that there isn’t much of Adrian Peterson’s historic season that I think should be reasonably assigned to him, for two reasons: 1) It’s Adrian Peterson with the best run blocking he’s had in his career, 2) Musgrave was not the run game coordinator; that was Jeff Davidson, the offensive line coach. The reason that won’t matter much to the Raiders is because I think that Mike Tice will do much of the run game coordinating and that he’s very good at that. So, it’s a wash.

So in that regard, yes Adrian does make it tough to evaluate Musgrave. It also, to some extent, guided his philosophy. Even poor coordinators would know that, on-balance, it’s smart to run the best running back in football. He did it in Minnesota and he did it in Jacksonville with Fred Taylor. I don’t know if he will continue to engage in run-heavy schemes because there seems to be more passing talent than running talent in Oakland, but I’m not sure his history is a great guide.

The Vikings offense in 2012 was 14th in points scored, 15th in DVOA, 15th in points per drive and so on. Accounting for field position and strength of opponent, the numbers don’t change much. If you “spot” him the 2000 yard season, he compares OK to the other offenses who had 2000-yard rushers. In points scored, those offenses ranked (in reverse chronological order) 16th (of 32), 8th (of 32), 2nd (of 30), 4th (of 30), 12th (of 28) and 15th (of 26).

I still think that doesn’t tell the whole story, however, and Musgrave too often left points off the field. Remember, it was also a crazy year for kicker Blair Walsh (35 for 38, going 10 for 10 on kicks over 50 yards) and the kick return game (3rd-highest average in NFL history, behind two players from 1967), not just Adrian Peterson.

Generally speaking, I think broad statistics do not capture Musgrave’s impact on the offense because of these sorts of factors.

2) Beyond Peterson, what were your thoughts on Musgrave’s use of the Vikings talent? Percy Harvin comes to mind as a player on the Minnesota roster at the time, how did Musgrave utilize his talent outside of Peterson? 

Outside of Percy Harvin, it’s generally acknowledged that there wasn’t much talent at wide receiver. That’s not something it’s very easy to blame on Musgrave, either. Between Jerome Simpson, Devin Aromashodu and Michael Jenkins, what were you going to do? I think Patterson and Jennings are talented but I think for the most part, Musgrave shined at using unique players and threw out clunkers when it came to running a conventional offense. So the Greg Jennings of the world floundered while the Pattersons and Harvins flourished.

At times, Musgrave’s use of Harvin was inspired. I loved it. Musgrave is an intensely creative play designer and while I’ve spent a fair bit of internet space criticizing Musgrave, one thing that he deserves credit for is unlocking Harvin—evidently the only person to do so. I have written odes to that aspect of his design ability (I’ll link them at the end of this Q&A), but suffice to say he found new and effective ways to get Percy Harvin the ball. It wasn’t just one formation or one gimmick, like lining him up in the backfield, but it was a whole series of graduated concepts that built off of each other and did a good job establishing and breaking tendencies. It worked well off of expected opponent responses.

Creative is good, and effective is better, but very often Musgrave would get a little too creative and sacrifice effectiveness. I also think that creativity would eliminate some aspects of Harvin’s play that made him a good playmaker, even if it wasn’t a unique ability he had. Harvin, in my mind, is a reliable deep option that was rarely used that way (ever. At Florida, he was effectively a running back, while under Bevell in Minnesota and Seattle he rarely went deep. The Jets don’t do it much either). When he was used on deep routes, Harvin was quite good.

I think that’s an issue for Musgrave in general, which is that he assigns player roles and then does not explore the boundaries of what players can do outside of those roles that can help the offense. Jerome Simpson, for all of his issues, is good at finding open spaces, sitting in zones and reading defenses. He is also very fast. Musgrave liked that last fact quite a bit and had him play in roles suited for a traditional split end without thinking about the opportunities afforded by a receiver who is very good (and natural) at option routes.

Greg Jennings is a fantastic receiver (whose statistical regression in Minnesota is more due to quarterback play than it is age or offensive coordinator, or that he “doesn’t have Aaron Rodgers”) who excels in a phonebooth, but he was used as a bog-standard slot receiver and “small” flanker in two-receiver sets. He’s good at that, too, but he could have benefited from drive/shallow options, smash routes and so on—even more two-way go type stuff that slot receivers are expected to do.

One final bit—Joe Webb was converted to wide receiver, but every indication was made that he would be given a “slash”-type role in the mold of Kordell Stewart, with a package that would see him on the field (called “Blazer” after Joe Webb’s now-defunct college mascot). It was one of the worst experiments with a unique player I’d ever seen. Imagine a wildcat (which is what it was, functionally) that only had runs up the gut.

3) Musgrave never had the greatest quarterbacks in his time with the Vikings? Ponder and Cassel don’t exactly scream top of the league in passing, does that excuse some of his failures in creating a balanced attack or should Raiders fans be concerned with Derek Carr’s development now that they have their new offensive coordinator? 

No he did not. In some sense it probably does excuse him. But Cassel is an interesting case in my mind. Average passer rating is 87.1. Cassel had two years above that—Josh McDaniels and Charlie Weis were the coordinators in those years. People generally accept that those guys are good coordinators. Cassel ranked 10th and 8th in passer rating those years.

I will say that Cassel had his third-best year with Musgrave at the helm, but that was over a six-game sample, and he benefited from some unique luck, like unusually long receiver runs and a lot of dropped interceptions (which is why Pro Football Focus ranked him 28th that year—and he only ranked 25th in passer rating anyway).

We could go into other, better quarterback stats, like adjusted net yards per attempt and so on, but the point remains the same: Cassel is not a terrible litmus test for coordinators because he doesn’t look that bad with decent ones and he looked pretty bad with Musgrave. His other offensive coordinators were Bill Muir and Brian Daboll. Muir is out of the league, and Daboll is a tight ends coach.

That said, it’s not like Cassel is God’s Golden Arm, so I will agree that having him and Ponder (and Joe Webb, Josh Freeman and Donovan McNabb) are not amazing tools to work with. Still, it is difficult to believe that Christian Ponder throws three whole games with a passer rating below 39.6 (achieved by throwing only incomplete passes) out of 36 total games were it not for Musgrave. I cannot say with certainty that Ponder would have developed better under a different coordinator, but I will say it is unlikely that Musgrave’s offense contributed positively to Ponder’s development. It eschewed aggression, took the offense out of the quarterback’s hands, consistently called for easy throws and so on.

Because of the strength of early impressions in memory, Vikings fans will like to say that the offense became more aggressive under Matt Cassel, but the truth is that Ponder, McNabb and Cassel all had very low depths of target and they all operated with a number of easy throws where difficult ones were called for. Those throws tend to be easy for a reason.

If you’re of the belief that an excessive use of screen passes can hinder a quarterback’s development, watch out. Ponder threw 26% of his passes behind the line of scrimmage. The league average is 17.1 percent, and the so-called elite QBs in that time (Manning, Rodgers, Brady and Brees) threw behind the LOS 14.7% of the time. Even screen-happy Washington threw it less often in Griffin’s rookie year. Only Nick Foles threw it behind the LOS more that year (in his six games).

It’s not even the high volume of called screens that are a problem. Nick Foles threw it deep more often than Ponder did, as did every other quarterback with a high screen-pass rate. The route concepts in the offense rarely even let a receiver go intermediate, much less deep. It was stifling. You didn’t see classic route concepts, like smash, levels, shake and so on that let a receiver get deep with another receiver creating a conflict—instead there were a lot of curls, shallow crosses, hitch/stick routes and so on.

As for footwork, mechanics and so on, I couldn’t tell you if Cassel got worse with Musgrave or if Ponder would have done better in that regard elsewhere, but I can say it looked like Ponder’s mechanics regressed in his time in Minnesota and that he occasionally looked more sound mechanically at Florida State. Ponder never went through his progressions quickly enough—how much of that is on the OC and how much on the quarterback? Difficult to say, but I would guess it is not the fault of only one of them.

4) Minnesota never seemed to get over the hump despite having Peterson in his prime with Leslie Frazier and Musgrave at the helm? How much is that to blame on Musgrave, or was it a factor of not having the roster pieces needed to contend in the NFC despite the rushing attack? 

I don’t think the Vikings would have won the Super Bowl with better pieces and Bill Musgrave or with a better offensive coordinator but the same pieces. If you “spot” the new offensive coordinator a 2000-yard running season, I think the Vikings would have gotten closer with an average OC and they would not have had to go on an improbable, four-game winning streak at the end of the season in order to get into the playoffs.

Coaches often like to think of the game (in-game) not in terms of yards or points, but first downs. Getting and preventing first downs is generally the priority on a play-by-play basis. Adrian Peterson got 3 or more yards 67% of the time he ran (league average outside of that is 55%). It shouldn’t be hard to make first downs, but the Vikings ranked 17th in first downs per down series. Musgrave as notoriously bad for third-down playcalling.

It should also be noted that Musgrave kept Percy Harvin out of red zone packages (like completely, you couldn’t see him on the field with less than 20 yards to go) until he was given explicit instructions by the head coach to put Harvin in (it was beautiful when it happened).

The offense constantly had to punt because of a repeated usage of five-yard curls and comeback routes on third-and-seven (or longer). For every positive that Bill Musgrave (deservedly or undeservedly) earns, the overwhelming weakness of his is his situational playcalling, and it overshadows the positive qualities involved with creative playcalling, unique offensive integration and potentially quarterback development. It’s such a bad quality of his that I don’t think any other quality he has much matters.

He also has a habit of overcomplicating. Despite the fact that he made throws easy (too easy) for the quarterbacks, he loved dialing up really complicated and intricate plays that were prone to failure, particularly with Harvin (something Davidson is not responsible for). I wrote this about that issue, in this case specifically to a two-fullback formation he pulled out:

"While I have no problems with complicated schemes or complex plays, adding complexity to something that can be simple only increases the likelihood of failure. Adding an additional blocker at the cost of an additional defender is almost always a loss for the offense, because it only adds to the number of things that could go wrong at the point of attack without increasing the chances that something could go right. If every blocker makes their block, it works (like Peterson’s 21 yard run out of this formation), but that is true of any formation."

"And just like any other formation, when one blocker messes up, the play dies. It increases the likelihood that a blocker’s mistake has an impact, and increases the impact of that play failure."

"Oversimplifying is almost always preferable to overcomplicating, nearly regardless of activity. This is an example of adding complexity without any discernible benefit. It also serves as a huge run alert for the defense, increasing the likelihood they run downhill into the gaps to prevent a run. While this theoretically could set up a good play action for the next game (relying on self-scouting to take advantage of one’s own tendencies), there would only be two reliable receivers on the play. One tight end (because at this point, only Rudolph can be considered reliable among the tight ends) and one wide receiver (as a result of the package)."

5) Lastly, how do you see Musgrave panning out in Oakland? He only lasted two years under Jack Del Rio the first time around, will this be any different than his mostly forgettable time with the Vikings save for Adrian Peterson putting up historical rushing totals? 

I don’t think he will pan out. I think he will be fired and replaced, hopefully with the rest of the coaching staff in place. I cannot stress enough how mind-boggling his in-game management is. Instead, I’ll link to some pieces I wrote a while back. Here’s one criticizing him after the 2012 season. I wrote a piece on Percy Harvin that includes a ton of stuff about his creativity in a guest post for Field Gulls here. I wrote game notes on the Vikings offense for a few games in 2012. The playcalling sections in each of the notes will be relevant. Here’s Week One, Week Two, Week Three, Week Four, Week Five, Week Six and Week Seven.

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Lots of screens on third and long. Lots of routes that only go five yards on third and long. A very high percentage of plays where no receiver goes past the down marker on third down. It’s infuriating and I have no idea how I can emphasize it enough.

There are other issues—his week-to-week gameplanning is superb, but his in-game adjustment ability is abysmal. The offense rarely could run quickly, and a lot of two-minute drills stalled out. Some of that lack of urgency may be on the coach, but it wasn’t just urgency (a huge problem that he is partially responsible for), but a long time to actually call the play. The no-huddle was effective, but he couldn’t figure out how to exploit that (either going to it too late, or not considering it at moments of the game outside of the two-minute warning).

Still, the third-down stuff is what sticks. As I point out in the Bleacher Report piece, these criticisms existed before Minnesota—he had them in Jacksonville and Carolina too.

I hope that helps. For those curious about my other work, I no longer write for any of the sites I linked, but instead write for Vikings Territory and Vikings Journal. My favorite recent piece is one where I era-adjust Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks and compare their first years in the league to Teddy’s. I will be doing something similar for each rookie quarterback after the Super Bowl.

Thanks to Arif for taking the time to talk with us about Musgrave in Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter @ArifHasanNFL.