"We didn't travel this far just to lose," Golden Tate told the assembled Detroit and British media earlier this week. Choosing to spend all of the week leading up to the fourteenth International Series game in London - as they did last year ahead of the tenth International Series game - the Lions have taken as many measures as they could to ensure that they didn't travel this far, just to lose.
"We have sleep protocols from our sleep specialist," coach Jim Caldwell explained, someone who "gives us great direction." On her orders, the Lions spent a large portion of Wednesday and Thursday in sunglasses, to help them adjust to the time difference. "I would have mine on right now," Caldwell said sheepishly, "but you guys might think I have them on for another reason."
In some ways, the Lions are the team that least need help adapting. Last year, the team made history by taking part in the first ever NFL game to kickoff at 9:30am ET, a game which they won in dramatic fashion. This year, all three International Series games are kicking off at 9:30 ET, but unlike last year, when the game kicked off at 1:30pm local time, this Sunday's match up against the Chiefs will be a 2:30pm local kickoff - a result of the United Kingdom switching out of daylights savings a week before the United States do. There's a few other changes - the team staying in a different hotel being the most notable - but the Lions will be hoping for the same result as last year's London trip, though no doubt aiming for a more comfortable finale.
Caldwell relived that game for the British media on Thursday. "The waning seconds were nerve wracking to be honest with you," said Caldwell, "we had so many things happen, had the holding penalty, had delay of game penalty, all across the board that was some kind of finish. We're glad we came up on the winning side, that would have been a heart wrenching loss if it had been the other way round."
It was one of several questions about London: whether the players got a chance to explore the city (they did; some went sightseeing, others went shopping - Theo Riddick took so long shopping that Joique Bell paid for a £166 Uber, over $250, back to the hotel rather than wait for him); whether having played in London before gives the team an advantage (Tate felt it gave them a "little bit of an edge," whereas Caldwell stated that "there aren't a whole let of edges to be gained" in the NFL). But the one topic that unsurprisingly was the most asked-about was the firing of Joe Lombardi and the offensive line coaches, and their replacements in Jim Bob Cooter and Ron Prince respectively.
"There were teams that were interested in him last year to interview him as a coordinator," Caldwell said, adding that it showed Cooter had "not only has our respect, but respect of people in the league where he's worked." Caldwell felt that the relationship between Stafford and Cooter, who will continue as QB coach as well as being OC, makes it "an easier transition because of the translation (for Stafford) that has to be done. It's very quick and simple for Jim Bob to say "this is just like this", or "this is in a particular category." While he wouldn't outright say that if Cooter will call a more aggressive, downfield game, he did say that it was "part of it, [but also] to be more effective in all phases, really."
Calvin Johnson admitted that Cooter is "letting us know that things are going to be a little different" with him in charge, "but we have a lot of things we're doing that we do well and are going to keep on doing. But there will be some nuances, probably." When referencing the coaching change, Megatron did say "it's an unfortunate business," but continued: "when you're not winning, things like that happen, but at the same time, we're moving on." Golden Tate was more effusive on Lombardi's firing: "[I have] a lot of respect for Joe, enjoyed playing for him, it's unfortunate. It hurts to have that happen to him in the middle of the season. Lot of respect for the guy, I had record numbers last year so I really liked playing under him."
As for the other coaching changes - the firing of OL coach Jeremiah Washburn and his assistant, Terry Heffernan - first round draft pick, guard Laken Tomlinson, said that "that's just the job, everyone has a job to do here." Tomlinson was cagey about the change in his coaches, only responding to my question about Prince's approach as "every coach has their different philosophies, they're not going to be the exact same - differences in the way they coach." When pressed, however, Tomlinson did hint that there may be some simplification of the blocking schemes, saying "I believe the simpler a concept is, the more you're not thinking, the more you're actually moving." However, after quoting his old coach from Duke - "a confused player looks like a lazy player" - Tomlinson was left denying that confusion had played a part in some of the blocking miscues the team had suffered, saying only "we just went out trying to execute and weren't successful. Obviously you're going to have communication errors and things like that." Getting clearly more tetchy at the questions about confusion, his final response to a question on whether the previous blocking schemes were 'overly complex', Tomlinson shrugged and said "we're not going to throw out our playbook" before the team's PR staff closed off availability with the players.
Caldwell later responded to questions about Tomlinson's comments - and about the complexity of the previous OL schemes in general: "I don't make excuses about anything, I don't think so, I don't believe [it was overly complex]... don't take that as [Tomlinson] said it was complex before - he's a smart guy. Simplification is only good if it works. For now, we're just trying to get our guys to do what they do well. We may have a different variety, a different twist here and there, but you can't make a thousand changes in a very short period of time and expect your team to grasp it."
Cooter himself on Friday said that at this point he had only really been making "a few tweaks, simplifying a tweak or two, making things a bit easier on guys, trying not to put too much on their plate." He also admitted that while he did have his own overall philosophies in terms of what he wants his offense to look like, he didn't want to share them with the media ahead of facing the Chiefs.
Moving away from the offense, there were plenty of comments and questions about the defense too, which has underwhelmed through the first seven weeks of the season for the most part. Haloti Ngata said that in his opinion, the defensive line are beginning to put things together: "hopefully we can continue to do good things, we've been doing some good things on the DL, starting to gel a little better, having Ziggy who's becoming a dominant player every day and every game, and Jason Jones and Caraun Reid who's a young player, it's exciting." Ngata went on to talk about his frustrations being injured earlier in the season, saying that he just "wanted to be back, being out for two weeks sucks, your team being out there and you not doing anything. Just wanted to come back and contribute and whatever I can to help the team win." His contribution showed last game, picking up his first sack of the season, which he credited to "having players like Ziggy and JJ and guys who open myself up to have one-on-one blocks; coach does a great job of scheming up things and hopefully we can continue to make plays."
When Caldwell was asked about the defense, he said "the big thing is to minimize big plays. I think we've been doing a decent job of stopping the run which is our number one priority, to make certain that we do a great job there to at least force teams to throw it more often than they'd like... we've got to consistently do that a little bit better so we can corral those big plays, don't let the ball over our heads for substantial gains in the passing game and just keep those things to a minimum and we'll be alright."
The last topic of the week was on their upcoming opponents, the Chiefs. Caldwell was up front about the biggest challenge they present - their defensive front: "[they're] very difficult, because they've got inside pass rushers and outside pass rushers, which is an issue, so we just have to be good at what we're doing. We have to be able to do multiple things to keep those guys at bay. They're similar to what we faced in Denver in terms of excellent pass rushers on the guys inside that can give you problems as well."
Matthew Stafford agreed with his head coach's assessment, joking that they're "just a bunch of Pro Bowlers... they're a bunch of good football players, [Justin Houston]'s playing well, [Tamba Hali]'s a really good football player, [Allen Bailey]'s playing well, they just got guys who can get after the passer."
Finally, Cooter gave his take on particular Chief, who played college football at Tennessee while Cooter was on the staff - Eric Berry: "he's a great person, a great player, a great teammate. I don't know anybody that knows the game like Eric Berry. I'm a big fan of his - when I don't have to play him or game plan against him!"
Still, Cooter's knowledge of Berry might come in handy as the Lions look to remain perfect in London.