Coaching Carousel 2016: Detroit Lions Offense

A detailed look at the impact of Jim Bob Cooter's transition from interim coordinator to full-time offensive coordinator. 

A Midseason Callup

Jim Bob Cooter was promoted to offensive coordinator on October 26th after Joe Lombardi and his offensive line coaches were dismissed. The team's turnaround over the final nine games was enough to earn Cooter the permanent role entering the 2016 season. Cooter has a memorable name -- arguably the best in coaching -- but if it weren't for his distinctive name, you would be forgiven for not knowing much about the man.

Coaching History

2007 23 College Tennessee Grad. Asst.
2008 24 College Tennessee Grad. Asst.
2009 25 NFL Indianapolis Staff Assistant to Offense
2010 26 NFL Indianapolis Offensive Assistant
2011 27 NFL Indianapolis Assistant to OC
2012 28 NFL Kansas City Chiefs Quality Control
2013 29 NFL Denver Broncos Offensive Assistant
2014 30 NFL Detroit Lions QB Coach
2015 31 NFL Detroit Lions QB Coach/Interim OC

Cooter enters this season as the league's 2nd youngest offensive coordinator, after a near meteoric rise over the last few seasons.

Deeds Not Words

Coaching is a results driven business, and it's hard to argue with the turnaround the Lions offense underwent once Cooter took over the play-calling.

7gms 1-6 27 43 0.635 295 6.85 1.9 1.6 19.3 63.9 3.31 0.3
9gms 6-3 25 37 0.689 267 7.27 2.2 0.4 24.0 95.0 3.96 0.6
  • The Lions improved from 1-6 to 6-3 with Cooter calling the shots offensively
  • Matthew Stafford dramatically improved his completion rate
  • Although the Lions threw the ball less, their efficiency was off the charts (+0.3 TDs vs a 1.2 reduction in INTs)
  • The rushing game leapt forward: 24% increase in attempts, 49% increase in yards, 20% increase in YPR, 94% increase in TD/game

Anecdotally, the changeover to Cooter worked wonders for the team's franchise quarterback.

“I think he’s a smart guy, he’s doing a good job of trying to create matchups, we’re getting the ball out quick sometimes, we’re holding it other times, it’s kind of tough to get a beat on us on what we’re trying to do,” explained quarterback Matthew Stafford.

"We just see (football) the same way, talk about it the same way and that's not to say we like the same stuff all the time," Stafford said of Cooter. "He likes some stuff that I'm not comfortable with, and I'm comfortable with some stuff that he doesn't like, and that's the way it goes. You pick your battles and go from there."

What Did Cooter Actually Change About the Offense?

Usually an interim coach has very little willingness or opportunity to summarily overhaul an offense (or defense as the case may be). There isn't enough practice time to implement wholesale changes, and therefore the interim coach is really trying to make small adjustments from within the existing system. In Cooter's case, while he kept the same terminology, he risked MEANINGFUL changes to the entire offensive construct.

  • Less Predictability -- Joe Lombardi's offense was maddeningly predictable, using similar personnel for simliar downs and distances. Cooter streamlined the personnel groupings and ran multiple plays from the same formations
  • Less Complexity -- Many players expressed frustration over the complexity of Joe Lombardi's weekly game plans. Cooter simplified things and believed the Lions were better off executing their plan and challenging defenses versus trying to react to what they thought opposing defenses would be ready for
  • Simpler Blocking Schemes -- Lombardi wasn't the only one fired mid-season, the offensive line coaches were also jettisoned. Cooter opted to put less pressure on the offensive line by giving them a simplified set of schemes. In essence, Cooter emphasized "positive plays" -- including lots of counters -- that would reward consistent positive yardage and minimize the chances for big losses
  • More Trust in Stafford -- Cooter trusted Stafford to win (or lose) games far more than Lombardi ever did. The trust wasn't simply a factor of letting Stafford audible more, but also in letting Stafford argue for (and be granted) key plays in big situations when they were huddling on the sidelines
  • More Trust in the Skill Players -- Cooter believed that in order to take pressure off the line, more pressure needed to be on the backs and receivers to make plays quickly. Players were given the chance to make adjustments based on in-play reads. Lombardi didn't trust his players to make those decisions
  • Better Skill Optimization -- Do a Google search for the Lions 2015 improvement and you'll find pull quotes from every skill player praising Cooter's ability to put players in position to do what they do best. It sounds simple, but Lombardi too often tried to mix packages of personnel into different plays
  • More Aggression -- When you start 1-7 and come off a bye week with everyone's jobs on the line, it makes sense to take chances. What did Cooter have to lose? He frequently called aggressive plays downfield and in particular in/near the red zone where 3rd and longs were a chance for another shot at the end zone instead of a field goal
  • More Spread/Shotgun -- Lombardi didn't like the pistol and never used it. Cooter mixed pistol into the play-calling and increased the amount of time Stafford was in the shotgun. That was another help to an overmatched offensive line, and also allowed Stafford to make faster decisions when his primary read was covered

Will the Honeymoon Last?...(Or How We Learned To Cope Without Calvin Johnson)

It's difficult to forecast an NFL offense that loses someone as integral as Calvin Johnson. I don't need to tell you how important Johnson has been to the Lions offense, but by way of reference:

Calvin Johnson as a % of Lions Offense (2009-2015 aka the Stafford Years)

  • 1,069 targets (24% of team's 4,454 attempts)
  • 605 receptions (22.4%)
  • 9,532 yards (31.6%)
  • 67 touchdowns (35.6%)

The Lions signed Marvin Jones Jr in free agency, but he's horribly miscast as Johnson's replacement.

  • Jones has missed 33% of his NFL career due to injury (Johnson missed 6% of his games)
  • Jones has never been 1,000-yard receiver
  • Jones is 6'1", 199 lbs. (vs 6'5", 239 lbs. for Megatron)
  • Jones ran a 4.5 40 before his foot injuries (Johnson ran a 4.35)
  • Jones has averaged 12.9 yards per catch (vs. 15.9 for Johnson)

Let's be clear, Johnson isn't replaceable and it's not fair to suggest Marvin Jones Jr is being looked upon as the savior. The Lions only hope of maintaining last season's 2nd half explosion is to find MULTIPLE replacements for Johnson.

  • Golden Tate -- Can he replicate his breakout 2014? (99 catches for 1,331 yards)
  • Eric Ebron -- He has the size to play a key role in the red zone. He was only targeted 8 times in the red zone last year
  • Theo Riddick -- Riddick was targeted 99 times last year as a de facto slot receiver, he'll be counted on for even more in 2016
  • Ameer Abdullah -- The Lions ground game took major leaps under Cooter and Abdullah needs to build off his late season play
  • Offensive Line -- The line was better under Cooter, but it wasn't good. The addition of Taylor Decker needs to stabilize the line that Detroit has invested immense resources in recently (Tomlinson, Reiff and Decker are 1st rounders, Swanson and Wafford are 3rd rounders)

Cautious Optimism Abounds...But Don't Get Overexcited

It's hard not to appreciate what Cooter accomplished in the second half of the season. He deserves this opportunity. Yet, let's also remember that this offense will deal with the loss of a Hall of Fame playmaker, still has questions on the line and at running back, and will no longer have the "who cares" attitude the team was afforded last year after starting 1-7 and having little to play for other than themselves. Stafford won't be as good as he was in the second half, and we should expect a material drop in his yards-per-attempt, but he should remain efficient and he'll be afforded opportunities to throw downfield. The running game is shaping up to be another committee season, but regardless of Ameer Abdullah's development, Theo Riddick will be on the field aplenty.

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