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Jim Bob Cooter could be key to improved Lions running game

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Jim Caldwell run teams have historically struggled running the football, but that may change with their young offensive coordinator.

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Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Jim Caldwell has not found success in the running game since becoming the head coach of the Detroit Lions. It’s easy to pin that on the offensive line or lack of talent and health at the running back position, but history has shown that Caldwell, throughout his career, has been one of the least successful coaches in history for creating and sustaining a run game.

That has led to logical skepticism from fantasy owners, fans, and critics alike regarding players like Ameer Abdullah, who has shown talent, but must still play in an offense that has, at times, refused to commit to the run game. There is some hope in the form of burgeoning offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, but before I get to that, it’s important to have some background.

Caldwell’s ability to manage the run game has not been pretty in the NFL. Looking solely at the times he had play calling responsibilities, from 2009 to 2016, his teams have only been in the top half of the league for rushing one time. That was 2012, and there is a massive asterisk next to that year because he only became offensive coordinator for the final three games of the regular season after Cam Cameron was fired.

The Ravens kept Cameron’s offense installed since it was so late in the season. The Ravens would go on to rank 18th in 2013 in rushing attempts, but averaged a putrid 3.1 YPC—worst in the league. Caldwell was let go and became the head coach of the Lions, where he would fail to top 25th in attempts or yards per carry in any of his three seasons in Detroit.

All told, Jim Caldwell was a head coach or offensive coordinator for eight seasons and only managed better than 25th in rushing attempts or yards per carry twice, and that’s only if we include a season he coached only three regular season games. In terms of rushing success, Jim Caldwell led teams have only ranked in the top 25 once, and again, that was in 2012. He has ranked 30th or lower in half of his professional seasons.

Jim Caldwell led offenses

#Carries Rank YPC Rank Yards Team Attempts Yards TD YPC
#Carries Rank YPC Rank Yards Team Attempts Yards TD YPC
31 27 30 Detroit Lions 350 1310 9 3.7
30 25 32 Detroit Lions 354 1335 7 3.8
25 28 28 Detroit Lions 396 1422 11 3.6
18 32 30 Baltimore Ravens 423 1328 7 3.1
12 12 11 Baltimore Ravens 444 1901 17 4.3
29 15 26 Indianapolis Colts 382 1594 8 4.2
28 25 29 Indianapolis Colts 393 1483 13 3.8
31 30 32 Indianapolis Colts 366 1294 16 3.5

The numbers mostly speak for themselves, but this isn’t some hate article here to slam Jim Caldwell. I point out these numbers only to illustrate how he has coached in the NFL from a philosophical standpoint and why it isn’t all that surprising that it’s been two years since he’s had a 100-yard rusher.

The big question going forward is whether we can expect that to continue. Jim Caldwell’s lack of running success goes all the way back to his time at Wake Forest, from 1993-2000, so why would we expect it to change now? Caldwell hired an offensive coordinator who has the same basic philosophies in Jim Bob Cooter, so is there any hope? Well, yes, and it comes in the form of youth and eventual experience.

Jim Bob Cooter is one of the youngest coaches in the NFL, and it’s pretty easy to notice, at times, that he is relatively inexperienced as a play caller. You get the occasional flash of brilliance that makes you excited for the future, then you get back-to-back screen passes to Anquan Boldin and you bash your head against your coffee table.

What’s important to notice here is that Cooter has been growing as a coach, and while it’s not certain the Lions have the luxury of waiting for him to figure it out, Cooter has made some statements that hint of him trending in the right direction, especially in the run game.

After the Lions’ loss to the Dallas Cowboys in 2016, he was asked about going away from Zach Zenner in the second half. Zenner had just finished thrashing the Cowboys stout run defense in the first half, and it was expected the Lions would continue to ride that horse as far as they could. Instead he barely played and Dwayne Washington was put in his place. Washington was ineffective and the Lions would eventually abandon the run, a common trend in the past few years. Cooter would go on to say this:

“I don’t think you can play a guy 70 snaps at running back, so we were going to mix and match guys, guys were going to play different amounts of reps. I think Zenner probably got more reps in the first half. It’s not a sustainable strategy to play one guy every single snap at running back, in my opinion. So we weren’t going to do that."

It was an indication that, like many expected, the Lions used a snap count on their running backs. Caldwell has always been a running back by committee guy, so this came as no surprise. It explained, in part, why Cooter went away from Zenner despite his production, but it wasn’t until after the Lions’ loss to the Packers that he said something a bit more promising:

"Zenner’s in phenomenal shape," Cooter said. "As the game wore on, kind of felt like he could keep going and felt like it made sense for us to do that, hopefully kind of adjusting to a stance I made earlier in the week. So obviously my lack of playing competitive NFL running back hurt me there from a knowledge base, but he’s in good shape and he held up well I thought, so who knows what could happen in the future. I’ll keep it open-ended."

Cooter would then play Zenner almost every snap against Seattle. While he wasn’t as good running the football, he was very good receiving out of the backfield, catching all six of his targets for 54 yards. It’s a small sample, but a very good sign Cooter takes that lesson into 2017.

Caldwell’s perceived snap limitations on his running backs was all but confirmed with Cooter’s statements, and the budding offensive coordinator showed he was able to back up his lessons. If that continues, it may be the philosophical shift the Detroit Lions need to finally get a run game that doesn’t rate in the bottom seven of the league in nearly every category. It may, dare I say it, even signal a move towards a run game that could even be good.

Poll

Will this offense break out of Caldwell’s rushing rut in 2017?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Yes, this is a top 10 rushing team!
    (13 votes)
  • 28%
    This could be a top half rushing team.
    (125 votes)
  • 52%
    If they break middle tier, good enough.
    (228 votes)
  • 12%
    It’ll be better than 30th, but not much.
    (56 votes)
  • 2%
    I wouldn’t be surprised if it bottoms out.
    (11 votes)
433 votes total Vote Now