ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Jim Bob Cooter might be out of a job, a fall from potential head-coaching candidate two years ago to the unemployment line, but don’t think just because the Detroit Lions’ offensive coordinator is going to change that the offense will suddenly improve.
It might — and that is clearly going to be the plan for the Lions as they try to find the fourth coordinator to work with quarterback Matthew Stafford in his career. But for Detroit to have an offense that finally works and truly unlocks Stafford’s skill set, change has to come from above the coordinator.
The philosophy — and trust — have to be there from the head coach.
While Cooter was the man responsible for the playcalls, Matt Patricia admitted that he had some say on what happened from a philosophy standpoint on offense, particularly when it came to how aggressive or conservative the approach was.
“I would say that in general Jim Bob is in charge of the offense, and he puts the packages together, but I’m in charge of all of it,” Patricia said last month. “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.
“We’re going to look at it as a holistic team and try to do what we can in all three phases to work together as a team based on what our opponent does to try and put ourselves in a situation to win.”
More often than not this season, that didn’t happen — and that’s why Cooter is out of a job. Cooter said earlier in December that he took “ownership” for everything that happened offensively, as he’s supposed to do.
But to think the head coach doesn’t have some influence would be naive. Perhaps some of that came down to trust — Cooter was one of the holdover hires from Jim Caldwell’s staff, in part because of his work with Stafford, and Patricia clearly valued familiarity with almost all of the hires he made himself. Some of it is clearly on Cooter, who should have been better all season at utilizing the strengths of his options and eliminating some of the predictability that existed before the Lions fired Caldwell and hired Patricia.
It is something he showed flashes of, especially once the Lions lost key players such as T.J. Lang, Golden Tate, Marvin Jones Jr. and Kerryon Johnson. But the spurts of good game plans or creative playcalls were too few and far between.
There is something to the loss of so many talented players and what it does to an offense — and the playcaller.
“I can just assume that if it’s a guy that is significant to your offense and your game plan, it will be tough to kind of put someone into that role when that person does all that stuff and you have to put a different person in that,” running back LeGarrette Blount said. “You know, probably isn’t as quick, isn’t as fast, isn’t as agile. You just don’t know.
“But I think he did a really good job of filling in the role of missing a couple guys with K [Kerryon Johnson] and with GT [Tate].”
Cooter started to show some cohesion with those alternate parts in the season finale against Green Bay, a 31-0 shutout in which the leading receiver, Brandon Powell (six catches, 103 yards), and leading rusher, Zach Zenner (21 carries, 93 yards), had both been afterthoughts the majority of the season.
It can be asked where that offensive performance was before — Powell and Zenner played in prior weeks, albeit in smaller roles — and whether it can be duplicated or if this was a one-off against a beat-up, headed-for-the-exits Packers team.
Beyond what Cooter did, there’s a level of culpability higher up — and this went for Caldwell as well as Patricia. In Caldwell’s case, the run game didn’t have much of a presence, as evidenced by his teams, no matter where he coached, having below-average rushing attacks.
In Patricia’s case, the two things that showed were conservatism and how the Lions handled late-game and late-half situations. There has been little question that throughout his career, Stafford has been better in no-huddle, tempo situations. He has been particularly strong in the fourth quarter. Yet the 2018 Lions, even when trailing in the fourth quarter, when that style of play makes the most sense, rarely looked like the team they were in 2016 and 2017.
The urgency they used to have just didn’t seem to be there, even when they had most of the same offensive options that had so much success the past two seasons (before they traded Tate and lost Lang and Jones to injury). The biggest change was the head coach and what he wanted.
Against the Rams, in a game that came after the trades and injuries started to pile up, the Lions had a chance but trailed in the fourth quarter. Instead of picking up tempo, the Lions slowed. Patricia, in explaining it, said he was looking for “good, controlled plays.”
“I think if you get yourself into a situation where you’re going to be more at risk for a bad play or a situation where you’re trying to run some time down, you’re trying to be methodical about what you’re doing,” Patricia said. “You’re trying to make sure that you have good plays called and good situations handled. There are a lot of guys on the other side of the ball that you’re trying to defend there or trying to protect against, so in those situations, we’re trying to do everything to give us a chance to win.
“And handling the clock and handling all that where, in that situation, we just wanted a really good drive. Just needed a good drive to go down and get some points. So that was the most important thing for us right there.”
Patricia acknowledged that there are different phases of tempo to use late in games. But the Lions rarely went to the one that worked so well in the past — not that they would have beaten the Rams or many other teams they lost to, considering six of the team’s losses were by double digits.
But the late-game management showed that it is more than just the coordinator who needs to change. For the offense to succeed, Patricia and the Lions need to find an offense they trust and one that fits their quarterback.
For a while, it seemed Cooter was finally the fit Stafford needed. Now, after a bad season, the Lions are searching for the right way to unlock the offense. Again.