TEMPE, Ariz. — During his time in Minnesota as offensive coordinator, Norv Turner called plays from the coaches’ box, helping guide the Vikings to the NFC North title in 2015.
Not far from Turner was a young offensive assistant, not yet 30, no more than 5-foot-7 inches tall, a former small-college player who had his career derailed because of injuries. Drew Petzing was just getting started in pro football, but his future already looked promising.
“He was right there next to me for every call I made,” Turner said during a telephone interview.
Petzing wore a headset, communicating with Turner and quarterbacks coach Scott Turner. He read defensive coverage and charted plays. He pointed out tendencies and reminded the coaches of certain points in the game plan.
“When you come in as an offensive assistant, you kind of do a little bit of everything,” Norv Turner said. “And I think you get tested that way a little, guys that are willing to do whatever you ask them. It doesn’t matter what it is, how big, how small, (they) enjoy doing it. That’s the way Drew was.”
This week, Petzing returned to Minnesota as offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals. After two days of joint team practices, the Cardinals will battle the Vikings in a preseason game Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium. The contest is another chance for the Cardinals to show how they have adjusted to Petzing, as well as another opportunity for Petzing to show how he has developed as a first-time NFL play caller.
It’s a different business these days. Twenty years ago, an NFL offensive coordinator had an average age of 49 years. Ten years ago, the age decreased to 46.7. This season it’s 42.5. In this sense, Petzing fits the profile. At 36, he’s one of 14 offensive coordinators who have yet to celebrate their 40th birthdays.
He is different in other ways. While the game has changed, most of today’s offensive coordinators had playing careers rooted in offense. Seventeen were quarterbacks. Others played running back, tight end, receiver or offensive line. Only three played defense in college. Nathaniel Hackett of the Jets played linebacker and long snapper. Tim Kelly of the Titans was a defensive tackle.
Petzing was a defensive back at a school known for academics. It’s where his coaching journey started.
Middlebury College is a private liberal arts school located in Vermont. A Div. III school, it does not offer athletic scholarships. Petzing’s father, Larry, was a defensive back there in the 1970s and Petzing followed in 2005. Although undersized, he was tough and smart enough that coaches thought Petzing eventually would find his way onto the field. Injuries, however, kept him sidelined.
Petzing suffered a foot injury as a freshman and tore his ACL as a sophomore. The next season, Petzing asked Middlebury coach Bob Ritter if he could help the coaching staff. Always needing help, Ritter agreed. He had no idea what he was getting into.
First, Petzing showed up in the afternoon. Then he arrived before lunch. Next thing Ritter knew, Petzing was in the coach’s office in the morning. Finally, Ritter said to Petzing, who was pursuing an economics degree with minors in math and philosophy: “Look, your dad is going to kill me if you end up flunking out, so we need to figure this out.” The next year, Ritter officially put Petzing on staff and paid him a stipend. Petzing worked with the defensive backs and outside linebackers.
“A lot of guys love football, but it’s playing,” Ritter said. “Drew would just come down and listen. And he’d watch film. Gradually, we’d give him some things to break down, particularly his senior year. But he was just soaking it all in. We loved having him around.”
After graduation, Petzing worked as a volunteer and as a graduate assistant at Harvard and Boston College, living at home with his parents. In 2012, he was hired as outside linebackers coach at Yale. Petzing had no intention of leaving until an opportunity as an operations intern surfaced with the Cleveland Browns.
Petzing had to take a pay cut, but the experience was invaluable. Petzing once told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that his duties included everything from helping with the playbook to driving released players to the airport. One hiccup: In 2013, Cleveland fired head coach Rob Chudzinski. Back home, Dean Petzing, Drew’s younger brother, wondered if this meant Petzing would have to return to college coaching.
Instead, Norv Turner, the offensive coordinator in Cleveland, helped bring Petzing to Minnesota, where Turner had been hired for the same position under head coach Mike Zimmer. “I had a lot of faith in Drew and a lot of respect for what he did, so it was important that we get him to Minnesota,” Turner said.
Future Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon was hired at the same time in Minnesota as an assistant defensive backs/quality control coach. Both he and Petzing made strong first impressions.
Said Robb Akey, then an assistant defensive line coach, about Gannon: “You could see he was able to teach. He didn’t need to hear things twice and he could think ahead and see things on game day. He was a sharp dude. Obviously, you could see he belonged.”
Said Akey about Petzing: “He was a hard-working son of a b—-.”
Gannon and Petzing bonded.
“When you’re a young assistant on offense, young assistant on defense, you have to do a lot of work together,” Petzing said. “You’re checking scripts, you’re doing the breakdowns, you’re doing a lot of the back-end work to make sure that everything’s running smoothly so you get to know somebody really well. It’s not always the most exciting job, but it obviously is very demanding.”
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With the Vikings, Petzing worked as an offensive assistant, assistant wide receivers coach, assistant quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach over the next six years. (Some Minnesota receivers referred to him as “Uncle Drew.”) He established himself on offense, and it made sense to his family. Larry Petzing, who made his living in accounting, said his oldest son always had strong concentration skills. Even as young as 4, he could sit at a Yankees or Mets game, and instead of focusing on food or what was going on in the stands like others his age, Petzing was locked in on every pitch, following the balls and strikes on the scoreboard.
Dean Petzing, today a lead offensive analyst who works with quarterbacks at LSU, said growing up, his older brother always excelled at games that required producing strategy or calculating odds. “He’s always kind of been able to just figure it out and find a way to make things work and be extremely successful,” Dean Petzing said.
After Petzing spent three seasons in Cleveland, the first two as tight ends coach, the third as quarterbacks coach, Gannon brought him to Arizona, where as offensive coordinator, he’ll be charged with reviving Kyler Murray once the quarterback fully recovers from ACL surgery. Murray has not yet practiced and is expected to miss a part of his fifth season. His development under Petzing will be the organization’s top storyline.
So far, the Cardinals have praised Petzing.
“Drew’s been great,” veteran quarterback Colt McCoy said. “He’s tasked with a big job, coming in and teaching us all a new system. He’s always had an answer. He’s always had a vision of what he wants it to look like and there’s open lines of communication. As you’re learning a new system, that’s really all you can ask for.”
The biggest problem Norv Turner sees with young coordinators is they often try to do too much. They make things too complicated. He doesn’t think Petzing will fall into that trap. Play calling starts with preparation. He calls that a Petzing strength. Then it’s about adjusting. Turner said Petzing can do that as well.
“One thing about play calling is finding out what your players do best and make sure you give them a chance to do that,” Turner said. “If Drew was listening — and I know he was — he’s heard me say that a thousand times. He’ll do a good job there.”
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(Top photo: Norm Hall / Getty Images)