ALLEN PARK, Mich. — The Detroit Lions announced they won’t renew the contract of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter after the offense sputtered throughout head coach Matt Patricia’s first season with the franchise.
Cooter, 34, had been the Lions’ offensive coordinator for three-and-a-half seasons, remaining with the team during the transition from former head coach Jim Caldwell to Patricia after last season. The offense never really materialized despite three first-round picks and two highly touted free agents on the offensive line.
The Lions ranked in the bottom-third of the league in most categories throughout the season. Matthew Stafford appeared to regress after two of the better years of his career under Cooter in 2016 and 2017. He threw for fewer than 4,000 yards (3,777) for the first time in a season in which he played all 16 games.
The offense also had an air of conservativeness to it, something Patricia took some responsibility for in the last few weeks of the season.
“Jim Bob’s in charge of the offense and he puts the packages together, but I’m in charge of all of it,” Patricia said in mid-December, a day after the Lions were eliminated from playoff contention. “So, all three phases are going to have what I feel is going to help us win that game in particular the best, sure, no doubt.”
The offense Cooter started the season with was much more powerful than the one he finished the year with. The Lions lost starting receiver Marvin Jones Jr. and starting running back Kerryon Johnson to knee injuries during the season. Right guard T.J. Lang suffered multiple injuries before landing on injured reserve. The Lions traded receiver Golden Tate, one of the more productive pass-catchers in team history, at midseason. So some of the conservative nature of Cooter’s game plans was due to the personnel.
“In the offseason we have a lot of philosophical talks about what kind of offense we want to be to help our team win — what kind of this, what kind of that,” Cooter said in mid-December. “But once you get to this point in the season, you better just adjust. You better just play the best guys and rotate the guys as needed and maybe make sure certain guys are [getting] a certain amount of reps and sort of keep an eye on that whole thing.
“Once you get to this point in the year, it’s not about philosophy. It’s about reality. It’s about going out there and trying to win the game with the guys we have, and our guys are out there fighting really, really hard to get that done.”
Cooter’s game plans appeared to become more creative as the season went on despite the lack of personnel, including a touchdown pass to offensive tackle Taylor Decker and the use of offensive guard Joe Dahl as a fullback. But the production never matched Cooter’s last attempts at creativity.
Cooter said he believes he was put in a position to succeed this season despite all the movement and shuffling due to trades and injuries. In Week 17, his leading rusher, Zach Zenner, had been placed on injured reserve and then released. His leading receiver, Brandon Powell, had been inactive most weeks this season. And the receiving corps in general had none of the playmakers Cooter once thought he would have.
“Gosh, the opportunity to run an NFL offense, go out there, call plays, draw up different plays for different guys, try to adapt as the season goes, that’s the job of an NFL offensive coordinator,” Cooter said last week. “So, I kind of say it going into each year, I probably say it in the spring every year, every year is a different year. Be that different players, different coaches, an injury here or there, the schedule’s a little bit different each year, whatever.
“That’s the league. I plan on being in this league for a long time. I plan on sort of going through a bunch of these seasons, whatever manner they take, and they’re going to take a lot of different manners. So, we’re going to do everything in our power, I’m going to do everything in my power to turn that into a positive situation. So, like I said, it’s kind of the same answer I give you in the spring.”
Cooter’s offense finished well against a depleted Green Bay team, with 402 yards of offense, the Lions’ best output since Week 7, when Detroit was still in the playoff race.
He initially received the job after the franchise fired Joe Lombardi in the middle of the 2015 season after a 1-6 start. Caldwell kept Cooter as his offensive coordinator following the season, and he rebuilt the offense along with Stafford. Prior to being the Lions’ offensive coordinator, he was Stafford’s quarterbacks coach in 2014 and half of 2015.
He came to Detroit after stints as an offensive assistant in Denver in 2013, an offensive quality control coach in 2012 and an offensive assistant in Indianapolis from 2009 to 2011. He was a backup quarterback at Tennessee, where he then was a graduate assistant in 2007 and 2008.
Cooter’s dismissal means Stafford will start the 2019 season with the fourth different offensive coordinator — and potentially fourth drastically different offense — of his career. Scott Linehan was his offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2013, followed by Lombardi and then Cooter.