What Norv Turner Can Do For Jordan Cameron in Cleveland

Does Norv Turner really use his tight end more than other NFL coaches?

Twinkies are commonly thought to have an infinite shelf life. But guess what? Their shelf life is actually just 45 days.

George Washington Carver didn’t invent peanut butter, either. Nope, the Aztec Native Americans were actually the ones who found and discovered the tasty substance.

And you know John F. Kennedy’s famous, “Ich bin ein Berliner” declaration? German’s laughed at the fact that JFK called himself a jelly donut, right? Wrong. Kennedy actually was correct when he made the statement in 1963.

There are loads of generally accepted facts that are, in short, simply wrong. We accept them without digging for truth. We see it in fantasy football all the time too. Theories of “third-year breakout receivers” and “contract season performances” are acknowledged, but usually without a fight.

One of those things - albeit more of a niche - surrounds Norv Turner’s historic use of tight ends. The belief is that the now Browns offensive coordinator likes to target and use his tight ends often, and because of this, drafting the top one in a Turner offense is valuable.

But is it truth, or are we staring at another common misconception?

Turner's Tight End Usage and Efficiency Since 2001

I took a look at Norv’s tight end production from his time as the Chargers offensive coordinator in 2001 through his duration as the Chargers head coach last season.

The analysis is pretty straightforward. I took a peek at which tight ends were tops on Norv’s team – each year – and noted their target and efficiency numbers. For some tight ends, I went back and checked to see how they did prior to Turner entering the equation. The results are below:

2001: San Diego Chargers Offensive Coordinator
Tight End: Freddie Jones

First stop: San Diego. Turner coordinated the Chargers offense back in 2001, which was actually Drew Brees’ rookie season with the team. Doug Flutie started for the Bolts that year though, targeting his top tight end, Freddie Jones, 60 times through the air. Jones played just 14 contests that season, starting only nine, but still ranked 13th in the NFL in targets among tight ends. More importantly, he finished 10th out of 25 in terms of receiving net expected points per target (Rec NEP/Target) at the position (minimum 20 receptions), shedding light to the fact that he was effectively adding points for the Chargers offense.

Jones finished the season with fewer than 400 yards and four scores, but at a time when tight end play was lacking, Jones was a pretty good player at his position. All in all, Norv’s usage was definitely in the upper half of the league, and the tight end effectiveness was as well.

2002 – 2003: Miami Dolphins Offensive Coordinator
Tight End: Randy McMichael

Turner went from Doug Flutie to Jay Fiedler after the 2001 season, moving to Miami to coach the Phins. There, Randy McMichael was born.

In 2002, McMichael’s rookie season, the Dolphins tight end hauled in 39 receptions for 485 yards and four scores. He ranked ninth in targets that season (again, as a rookie), and finished with a Rec NEP/Target rank of 16 (minimum 20 receptions). I’m not sure what’s more impressive: The fact that Turner was able to make the first-year catcher more than significant in Miami’s offense, or the fact that any rookie could catch almost 40 balls with Jay Fiedler at quarterback.

The next season saw even better success. McMichael ranked fifth in the NFL in tight end targets, capturing a Rec NEP/Target of .53. In essence, McMichael was adding .53 points to the Dolphins point output per target, ranking him 15th in the league among noteworthy tight ends.

2004 – 2005: Oakland Raiders Head Coach
Tight End: Doug Jolley

Please, Norv! Please continue your tight end treatment in Oakland!

Doug Jolley was the one playing the position when Turner was in Oakland, and he wasn’t especially effective. In 2004, Turner’s first year as Raiders head coach, Jolley hauled in just 27 receptions on 48 targets, ranking him 20th among tight ends in the targets category. His efficiency wasn’t spot on either, finishing 19th out of 34 in Rec NEP/Target among 20-plus reception tight ends.

The 2005 season was virtually the same, as Jolley caught 29 balls on 50 targets. He ranked 31st out of 34 relevant tight ends in Rec NEP/Target, proving to be one of the least effective tight ends in the NFL.

Come on, Norv.

2006: San Francisco 49ers Offensive Coordinator
Tight End: Eric Johnson and Vernon Davis

Turner was only able to win one divisional game as Raiders head coach and was fired at the turn of the 2006 New Year.

He was soon picked up by the 49ers, and coached quarterback Alex Smith during his first full season as the starter. That year, the 9ers used a duo at tight end: Eric Johnson and Vernon Davis.

Norv was once again slotting a rookie tight end into his lineup, as Davis ended up seeing 42 targets. Eric Johnson saw 49 more, and combined, the two tight ends would’ve ranked 10th in terms of tight end looks that year.

But the one interesting aspect surrounding the San Francisco situation was how the 49ers used their tight ends the year prior to Turner. In 2005, the 49ers leading tight end pass catcher hauled in – wait for it - nine receptions. Nine. You know who caught more than nine passes at tight end this past season? Konrad Reuland did.

Though the 49ers selected Vernon Davis the following season to improve the productivity, it was Norv Turner who effectively changed the tight end landscape in San Francisco.

2007 – 2012: San Diego Chargers Head Coach
Tight End: Antonio Gates

Fortunately for Turner, the Chargers weren’t happy with a 14-2 regular season record in 2006. They fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer and brought Turner back for another stint with the team. This time it lasted six years. And this time, Antonio Gates was part of it.

Please remember, Gates was really good before Norv Turner was part of the picture. Gates ranked in the top four in terms of Rec NEP/Target in each of his three seasons prior to Norv, so it wasn’t as though Turner was the reason Antonio Gates became a real and fantasy football monster.

Even still, Norv continued to feed Gates over his time in San Diego. The chart below tells the story:

YearTargetsRec NEP/Target Rank
2007752nd out of 40
20086015th out of 40
2009791st out of 39
2010501st out of 42
2011643rd out of 39
2012499th out of 43

Ranking is out of all tight ends with 20 or more receptions

Gates didn’t always stay healthy under Turner, but his effectiveness on a per play basis was always tops in the league. However, as I mentioned, we shouldn’t assume this outstanding play was a result of Norv Turner’s love for tight ends. Rather, it shows us that, if Norv believes in his tight end talent, he’ll use him. And he’ll use him effectively.

What Does This Mean for Jordan Cameron?

A popular sleeper selection entering the 2013 season is Browns tight end Jordan Cameron. For some background, Cameron was a fourth rounder in 2011’s NFL Draft, and has shown signs of great athleticism, something Norv clearly liked in Antonio Gates. Plenty are associating the tight end usage in Turner’s past offenses with Cameron, projecting a quality future.

Given the numbers above, it seems that Cameron does have a shot to break through this season. Since 2001, we’ve seen consistent top-15 tight end volume and efficiency from Turner’s tight ends, and with the exception of Doug Jolley, Turner has produced plenty of fantasy-worthy tight end seasons. Just don't think that Cameron will automatically post Antonio Gates-like numbers. Instead, I'd liken his situation to Randy McMichael's in Miami, which was solid for that particular NFL era. McMichael was the 9th and 8th best fantasy tight end during his two years with Turner.

It appears the Norv Turner tight end usage story is, in fact, not necessarily a false truth. If Jordan Cameron ends up being as physically dominant as many think he can be, there’s a chance the Browns could have themselves a sleeper at tight end.