If you have not read Part 1 of this mini-series, first do so here.
What did Jim Bob Cooter do differently that lead to a 5.5 point increase in points per game?
In part two, we will dissect what exactly offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter was doing differently from Joe Lombardi, how that was effective, and the plan moving forward.
The most glaring modification of the Detroit Lions’ system from Joe Lombardi to Jim Bob Cooter was the switch from a zone-blocking scheme to a more traditional power-blocking, or man-blocking, blueprint.
A zone scheme, as noted in the linked post, relies on agile, quick, intelligent big men to move defenders around laterally to create holes for the running back and a pocket for the quarterback. As many writers and media noticed, some even before the season, the Lions were not well equipped enough to play zone. However, Joe Lombardi decided to try it anyway, despite ex-general manager Martin Mayhew’s best attempts to draft players who fit the exact opposite profile of a zone-blocking lineman. Kent Platte, previously of SideLion Report, measures nearly every player in each draft by his own calculation of “Relative Athletic Scores,” and recently found that the Lions have the least athletic offensive line in the entire NFL.
At this point in the offseason, only newly drafted tackle Taylor Decker has a RAS of over 5 (on a 1-10 scale, 10 being highest). The next highest is Riley Reiff, at 3.55. It is not as if a line that lacks athleticism cannot be good, though. Oakland, who ranks 30th on the list of athleticism, was ranked 4th in pass protection last year from Football Outsiders, and Pittsburgh, who was 31st most athletic, ranked 8th in both run and pass.
The disconnect with the Lion’s shambolically lethargic line was the fact that they were being shoehorned into an ill-fitting sneaker. Martin Mayhew was out drafting guys like Larry Warford, Laken Tomlinson, and Riley Reiff, who all excel running a power scheme. An exception was made, oddly, in 3rd round pick Travis Swanson, who played in a zone heavy offense in Arkansas, but he boasts a paltry 2.92 RAS. Lastly, at the right tackle position, LaAdrian Waddle was penciled in as the starter, with Cornelius Lucas behind him as backup. Simply put, neither were good enough to earn starting jobs, and lived up to their UDFA grades.
Predictably, the offensive line, which many perceiving as an up-and-coming force in 2013, faltered tremendously. One play in particular stood out as tragically inept against the Minnesota Vikings last year. Travis Swanson was asked to pull from center, after snapping and chipping a defensive tackle, to LEFT TACKLE to take care of a free rushing defensive end.
Yes, in the span of about 1.5 seconds (I used a stopwatch) Travis Swanson, one of the most un-athletic linemen on the team, is asked to snap the ball, chip a defensive tackle, and pull to his left to face an unblocked speed rusher. Oh yeah, and this particular play is a Play Action Pass to the right, therefore, Stafford is completely at the mercy of the left edge rusher.
Brilliant, isn’t it?
Needless to say, after the ghastly performance in week seven, Joe Lombardi was let go. The first major change for newly promoted offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter was to revert back to what had worked. The Lions ditched nearly all of their zone protection and blocking schemes for a power based system. Magically, the offensive line began to resemble the lines of a few years ago, instead of the milquetoast version of 2015. Running lanes, albeit, minuscule, were beginning to show, Stafford was finding a pocket, and the offense simply passed the eye test for the first time in two years. Luckily, we had seen the last of the line experiments.
While fixing the offensive line was box one that needed to be checked off, Cooter still had more ideas to implement into his offense for it to be successful. However, much like the line, the answer was not to move forward with a new system, but to backtrack. As the season wore on, the Lions’ offense began to resemble something that Lion’s fans had already seen before. Scott Linehan, the former offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions, had predicated his offense to work quickly. Shotgun hand-offs were a regularity under Linehan. Short, quick, underneath routes were common to open up the deep ball. The offensive line had assignments that were in clearly front of them. Jim Bob Cooter emulated many of Linehan’s ideas. In 2013, Linehan’s last year in charge of the offense, Matthew Stafford was leading the league in quickest time to throw.
In 2.24 seconds, Stafford had been identifying the defense, internally mapping his throws, and releasing the ball. In 2014 and half of 2015 under Lombardi, the offense was taking its time setting up plays. Long-developing routes, irredeemably exotic line assignments, and miscommunication became the norm for the offense. Even though the routes were long to develop, they often were not successful at materializing. In the first seven games under Lombardi in 2015, Stafford attempted 39 deep passes (over 15 yards in the air), completing 16.
The average yards per catch on the deep balls was 33. All stats via Pro Football Reference.
In the last nine games under Cooter, Stafford attempted 45 deep passes, completing 16. The average yards per catch on these deep passes was 24. This means that, under Lombardi, the receiver’s deep routes were substantially more effective than routes under Cooter. This is mainly an effect of how the two offensive coordinators wanted to play. Lombardi based the offense on these types of routes, and Cooter simply had them in his back pocket. This also meant that Stafford was getting hit more often than not as well, waiting for the routes to materialize. Under Cooter, the Lions were utilizing route concepts familiar with Scott Linehan’s. Bubble routes to Golden Tate, quick slants to Calvin Johnson, and “pick” plays were becoming the new normal. Cooter recognized the skill set of his players much faster and more reliably than Lombardi ever did in just a few months. Theo Riddick was used mainly as a 3rd down/pass down back under Lombardi, and often collected stats in garbage time. Cooter saw his unique skill set and implemented him into his system much more often. The result was an 80 catch, no drop season from the 3rd year running back.
So what is the plan going forward for this offense? As noted in part 1, Jim Bob Cooter had only a few short weeks to start implementing his offensive strategy during the season. The result, while effective, was a varied interpretation of a basic West Coast offense. The goal of said offense is to get the ball out quickly and accurately, let your play makers make plays, and, when the time is right, go deep. Matthew Stafford showed those abilities in spades last year, posting a 60% or better completion percentage in every game, even those under Lombardi.
An entire offseason to work with his offense later, we should see more wrinkles in the playbook than last year, and hopefully, a more cohesive unit as a whole. The running game should be the main focus for Cooter this offseason. Ranking dead last by a good margin in rush offense is not something coordinators set out to achieve. Bob Quinn seems to be on the same page as his offensive coordinator, drafting three offensive lineman in the first five rounds, including noted run blocking beast Taylor Decker. To take all the pressure off of Matthew Stafford, an acceptable running game is a must. Too often the Lions place the game entirely on Stafford’s shoulders, no matter given a lead or coming from behind. A solid run game is a necessity for this offense to continue to its achievable heights.
In Part 3 of 3, I will be breaking down a few plays from 2015 that exemplified the differences between the two coordinators, both good and bad.