I cringe every time I think about it, so I apologize for bringing up Joe Lombardi as a jumping off point. The former Lions offensive coordinator was less of a coordinator and mostly just offensive. He had a scheme he wanted to run and he'd be damned if he was going to let a little thing like not having the right personnel to run that scheme get in his way. Lombardi wasn't just trying to square peg his players, his method of adjusting wasn't by finding players who could fit the holes he had, but was creating new shaped holes in the hopes someone might miracle their way into success. It was a disaster that only two people in the universe thought would work long term (Lombardi himself and former bottom-tier fullback Heath Evans). Jim Bob Cooter has brought, at the very least, something different to Detroit.
As tortured as the Detroit Lions fan base has been in the past
few 50-some-odd years, I've found there's a tendency to latch onto anything new that seems to be working and to elevate it above where it really is. This isn't a phenomenon unique to the Lions; you'll find it on most teams, it just seems more pronounced here. So when the offense improved at the tail end of 2015, Jim Bob Cooter was almost deified by fans. I don't want to sit here and say the fans are wrong, because they're not. Cooter has done some things that are more impressive than any offensive coordinator we've seen in Detroit since Scott Linehan in 2011 and moreso than any non-Linehan OC for decades. There have, however, been some bigger than expected speed bumps that need to be addressed. As an aside, when these get brought up, it's often brushed off as Caldwell's problem and not Cooter, which I always find amusing. Even if Caldwell calls the plays—he rarely does—it's Cooter's offense and his play design which is often where the problem arises.
First, the good
Against the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that was one of the stingiest in the NFL at allowing points, Cooter brought out some plays that haven't been seen in Detroit before. This isn't the first time it's happened this season, and some of the plays that he's pulled out have been near perfect pieces of art the way they were drawn up to utilize the Lions' personnel and attack specific holes in the opposing defense. It's what you expect out of an offensive coordinator, and we saw it literally zero times from Joe Lombardi. Lombardi would occasionally find plays in his playbook—photocopied from New Orleans with zero modifications—that would work, but there wasn't anything revolutionary or unique to them. Sometimes plays just work how they're supposed to.
With Cooter, we get to see plays like Riddick's first touchdown against the Eagles, where it wasn't anything fancy but just a savvy use of a mismatch. Riddick was singled up on a linebacker from his spot in the backfield with Jones on the outside. Everyone on the right moves inside to keep the safeties in place, Jones runs a slant inside, Riddick runs an out and it's money in the bank even if it wasn't all that accurate of a throw. His second Riddick touchdown, though, was perfectly executed by nearly everyone involved and was drawn up beautifully. Stafford drew coverage down and to his left with Golden Tate, while Larry Warford, Travis Swanson and Graham Glasgow all leaked out to the right to lead the way for Riddick. This play worked so perfectly that when the ball left Stafford's hand, all three interior linemen were in the open field with only a single linebacker to beat. Warford cut him down, while Glasgow dealt with the backside to keep the DE from catching up. Swanson got out in front of Riddick and lunged at a likely terrified defensive back while Riddick followed him into the end zone. You won't be able to pull tricks out like that every drive or even every game, but that play doesn't exist in most playbooks. With Jim Bob Cooter calling plays that utilize the strengths of his personnel, it worked so perfectly it was incredible.
Riddick with his 2nd rec TD today. #Lions up 14-0 over #Eagles early. https://t.co/dONlfFncKp— uSTADIUM (@uSTADIUM) October 9, 2016
And now, the bad
The problem is that plays like this happen often enough to make you excited for Cooter, but sparingly enough that the team has won by a combined two points this season. His best plays also tend to happen with passing plays. The Detroit Lions are still one of the worst rushing teams in the NFL. They've only rushed for 4.0 YPC in the third quarter this year, with both first and second quarter coming in at 3.8 YPC and the fourth quarter, when you should be running out the clock, coming in at a woeful 2.7 YPC. The team still comes in at below average—around 20th, so the optimistic can point out it's not dead last like last season—as a rushing team both in volume and efficiency.
Adding to that the weekly second half collapse that's happened every week since the first one. The Lions are scoring about 35 percent less in the second half than the first, but they're being sacked about six times as often—12 in the second half, as opposed to two in the first half. Some stats that look positive at first glance are really just shining light on the problem. The team has a much higher completion percentage in the second half. This is mostly due to high percentage throws, but considering they rush quote a bit less in the second half it's also to augment a run game that has tended to sputter and die fairly early.
Jim Bob Cooter is dealing with too many injuries to give a fair assessment of his play calling abilities, and we're only a handful of games into his first real season as an NFL coordinator. Still, it's important to highlight the struggles he's had getting an offense full of talent to move down the field consistently. It shouldn't overshadow just how much better than Joe Lombardi he has been—low bar to clear, I know—nor should it overshadow the moments of brilliance when we get to see them. Let's just be fair when this first year offensive coordinator makes first year offensive coordinator mistakes and struggles with his adjustments. We should have expected these sorts of struggles, but we should also expect those struggles to be mitigated with experience as he gains it, and then start to see it dissipate. Right now, Cooter is the only coordinator I'd be comfortable keeping in 2017. If those improvements don't materialize, I won't be sad to see his exit along with his boss.