Minnesota's offense has a simple focus: Adrian Peterson. The Vikings aren't scheming to surprise opponents with, suddenly, 50 passes per game.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, however, still has plenty to work on. Just because the Vikings have a straight-forward, no-frills style doesn't mean Musgrave hasn't had to dig deep in the playbook to find combinations, alignments and calls that work to keep the attack balanced and the defense guessing at least some of the time.
Coaches and players have credited Musgrave for his ingenuity, particularly over the last month as the Vikings won four straight games to force a rematch this Saturday with Green Bay in the playoffs. In last Sunday's win over the Packers, Musgrave unveiled several wrinkles that proved effective.
In the second quarter, wide receiver Jarius Wright lined up as a fullback in front of Peterson before running to the flat and snagging an 8-yard touchdown pass. In the third quarter, fullback Jerome Felton, who had two receptions and no carries over the first 15 games, lined up as a receiver and was wide open for a 17-yard reception during a drive that reached the end zone.
"As the ball was in the air I was like, 'Hold on, is that coming to me?'" Felton said.
The Vikings accumulated a season-high 444 yards against the Packers. Coach Leslie Frazier, without prompting, credited Musgrave and the other offensive assistants for the plan.
"He's so intelligent and so creative in what he does, and obviously with Adrian there are only so many runs you can create and do, but he still finds new ways to get him the ball and obviously that's working," quarterback Christian Ponder said. "In the passing game, finding ways to get guys open and create different throws and play actions and all these different things. He has such a great understanding of defenses. I think that's the biggest thing that impresses me."
Musgrave's system hasn't always worked so smoothly. The Vikings netted 120 or fewer yards passing six times this season, though they won four of those games. As the offense sputtered early in their worst loss of 2012 — a 36-17 setback at home against Tampa Bay — one agitated and inebriated fan in the crowd started yelling toward the coaches' box, "Hey Musgrave! Three and out! Three and out! Three and out!" (Musgrave stands on the sideline during games, so the complaint was misdirected.)
Wide receiver Percy Harvin acknowledged earlier this season that his frustration with the organization, expressed publicly during minicamp, stemmed from a lack of clarity about his role and said the communication from Musgrave last year wasn't consistent. One of the reasons Frazier hired Musgrave in 2011 was the work he did in Atlanta with quarterback Matt Ryan, the 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, but Ponder regressed at midseason and looked lost until a recovery last month.
After that first game in Green Bay, when Ponder threw two costly interceptions deep in Packers territory, Musgrave tried to take some of the mounting pressure on the quarterback, asking him to make throws the next two games that were even safer than usual. With a couple of important victories to help Ponder's confidence recover, he played more assertively the last two weeks.
"As players we go out there and execute and actually make it happen, but you need coaches to put you in positions to be successful," center John Sullivan said. "I think Bill's done a great job of that."
Musgrave is a soft-spoken as coaches come, holding pleasant but unrevealing news conferences each week with reporters and rarely showing emotion on the sideline during games. There's a mad scientist at work in that mind of his, though. He wrote a quarterback's handbook years ago, with 100 rules to live by for those playing the position at all levels, based on his own insight, beliefs and experience. Musgrave said earlier this season that Ryan memorized it his rookie year with the Falcons.
In training camp this year, after a lethargic practice, Musgrave tried to motivate his group by putting a bunch of leaves and sticks on a table during a meeting and lighting it on fire, visual evidence of the offense's responsibility to be the spark of the team. He had a garbage can of water nearby to safely extinguish the flames.
Now, five months later, and Musgrave is still finding ways to ignite the Vikings.
"He tries to put us in the best position possible to make plays," wide receiver Michael Jenkins said. "You're pretty excited to see what's in the playbook when you come in for the next week. It's a fun offense to play in."