Deconstructing Jim Bob Cooter’s Offense: Part 1
By Ty Finch
There are two ideas about Jim Bob Cooter that are undeniably true; he has the best name in the entire NFL, and his offense was visibly better in 9 games than any of the previous 24 under Joe Lombardi.
There are, however, quite a few more elements about the Lion’s offensive coordinator that are not as easily discernible. Was his offense successful because of how little opposing teams knew about it? Will defenses figure him out having more tape? Was his offense actually as effective as fans think, or want to believe? Some of these questions can only be resolved with time, while others just need a bit of digging to formulate an explanation.
Most Lions fans know that the first half of the 2015 schedule was absolutely brutal. It was filled with playoff-bound teams, elite quarterbacks, and top 5 defenses. The most optimistic of fans were hoping for 2-3 wins in the first 5 games. That turned out to be a dream scenario, as the Lion’s playoff hopes were dashed early going 0-5. Much of this horror start was due to the inefficiency of Joe Lombardi’s offense, and how poorly the offensive line was playing. The game that encapsulated the Joe Lombardi experience was the nightmare against the Minnesota Vikings in week seven. There were eight sacks total that week; seven of which were on Matthew Stafford, and the eighth on Joe Lombardi as an offensive coordinator. Enter Jim Bob Cooter.
There was a noticeable difference in how the offense worked just two weeks into Cooter’s reign. After the debacle in week eight against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Lion’s offense began to take shape. Players were being used correctly. Stafford looked far more comfortable in the pocket and behind the center. The offensive line was now merely below average instead of the worst in the league, largely, and incredibly, thanks to the play of a former Arena Football player Michael Ola. All of these elements were brought to glorious light in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Lions offense scored 45 points, which is the most points they have scored since 2011 when they put up 48 in a win against the Chiefs and 49 in a win over the Carolina Panthers (via Pro Football Reference). The big win on Thanksgiving was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise morbidly dark season. That win also helped form a widely held belief that Cooter was the answer to our offensive coordinator woes.
It is not bold to suggest that when teams play better defenses, they generally score fewer points. This was especially true in respect to the 2015 Detroit Lions. In the first seven games under Joe Lombardi, the Lions faced an average Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) rank of 13.5 (1 is best, 32 worst) and scored an average of 19.8 points. (DVOA is a more specific way to rank defenses and offenses team by team. Read more about DVOA including how the system is calculated at Football Outsiders.)
In the last nine games under Jim Bob Cooter, the Lions faced an average DVOA rank of 17 and scored an average of 24.3 offensive points (via Football Outsiders). A +4.5 difference in scoring per game is admirable, considering most NFL games are decided by less than a touchdown, and Jim Bob Cooter had merely a few weeks to implement his schemes.
Playing weaker defenses assuredly had a hand in the increase in points. However, as noted, the difference between a 13th ranked defensive DVOA team and a 17th ranked team is hardly worth an extra four and a half points per game. For example, the 13th rated defense in DVOA in 2015 was the Indianapolis Colts, and the 17th rated defense in DVOA was the Philadelphia Eagles. Those teams gave up 25.5 and 26.9 points per game respectively.
If we were to extrapolate that, albeit inexact, method of thinking, we could reasonably suggest that the Lions could have scored 1.4 more points per game over the second half of the season if Joe Lombardi were still the coach, all things being equal. That would have increased the points per game from 19.8 to 21.2, which is just above the NFL average of 20.6 (via TeamRankings.com). In this instance, Jim Bob Cooter’s offense was just a field goal above Joe Lombardi’s. So while Cooter’s offense was assuredly more effective than Lombardi’s was, the difference, had Lombardi stayed as offensive coordinator, was not as gaping as some fans had thought.
Even though it was obvious to most that the Lions offense was performing better, there were still signs that not all of the kinks had been worked out just yet. The Lion’s offense only mustered 14 points against the (then) St. Louis Rams, who ended the season ranked seventh in DVOA, and 18 points to the Oakland Raiders, who ended up 15th in DVOA. Granted, re-shaping an offense in such a hurry is always going to be a tough chore for any coordinator, but it is somewhat distressing to see those blips. In part 2, we will examine what went wrong in those games, as well as exactly what Jim Bob Cooter was doing differently that led to the largely positive results in such a short amount of time.