EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — With the usual cadre of teams aggressively arranging interviews for head coach vacancies in this first week after the regular season's conclusion, Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has become a person of high interest.
The vast improvement by the Vikings during Shurmur's first full year in charge of the offense has made it easy to see why.
"He has absolutely zero ego," tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "He comes in here as a tight end coach when we already have a system in place. He gets moved up to offensive coordinator halfway through the year and could have very easily run his system that he's run his whole life. He adapted his offense to fit us."
Head coach Mike Zimmer said he'll grant permission to teams seeking to take advantage of the first-round bye the Vikings have for the playoffs and speak with Shurmur in Minnesota this week. The NFL permits such an interview window to keep candidates whose clubs advance deep into the postseason from being passed over. The Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and New York Giants have reached out, according to multiple reports, among the six teams with openings.
"I think he's done a great job, and I think he deserves another opportunity," Zimmer said.
That's another strength that Shurmur will present, having spent two years as coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2011-12. He went 9-23, which is better than his three successors have done with the league's most woebegone franchise.
"He's a good guy to work with. He's smart. He's respectful," Zimmer said. "And he's tough on the players when he needs to be."
After finishing last in the NFL in rushing yards in 2016, the Vikings ranked seventh in 2017. They rose from 18th to 11th in passing yards. They jumped from 28th to ninth in touchdowns on possessions inside the 20-yard line. They went from 19th to third in third-down conversion rate. They climbed from 23rd to 10th in scoring.
These gains in moving the ball and getting it across the goal line came despite the loss of both the starting quarterback and running back during the first quarter of the season. Injuries forced seven different starting combinations across the five offensive line spots, too, with the original lineup getting only six starts together.
"Most places looking for head coaches probably are ones looking for somebody to work with the quarterback and be able to develop a quarterback," Zimmer said. "He's had the opportunity to work with a few here. So I think that's part of what's probably making him be an attractive candidate."
Yes, quarterback Case Keenum is the right place to start for other teams examining Shurmur's updated resume.
Sam Bradford was Shurmur's guy, a relationship built through previous stints together with two other teams. After the resignation of Norv Turner halfway through the 2016 schedule that triggered Shurmur's promotion, Bradford had his offensive coordinator in place again. He thrived in the opening win over New Orleans this year, only to be sidelined by knee trouble. Rookie running back Dalvin Cook went down with a season-ending knee injury three games later.
But Keenum has kept thriving, with Shurmur finding an effective run-pass balance in his playbook while blending several types of offenses he's been a part of in the past. Keenum posted a passer rating above 100 in eight of 15 games, after doing so just five times in 26 career games prior to joining the Vikings.
"I still think we have some room to grow," Keenum said. "Pat does a great job calling the games. The more time we spend in meeting rooms watching film, talking through defenses, we're getting more and more on the same page and seeing things through the same set of eyes."
Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs have been able to line up in any of the wide receiver spots and run a variety of routes, and Shurmur has seized on their versatility.
"He knows that to be a really good offense, we need to spread the ball around and keep getting guys involved," said Thielen, who finished fifth in the NFL with 1,276 receiving yards. "He just lets us do what we do well and do it a lot."