Detroit — It ain’t broke, exactly.
So when Jim Caldwell, the Lions’ new head coach, was asked Wednesday about his plans for coaching up Matthew Stafford, the team’s franchise quarterback, he took issue with the premise of the question: Is he fixable?
“I’m not certain I’d use the term ‘fixable’ — don’t attribute that one to me,” Caldwell said, chuckling. “But I do think that the guy has ability, that he’s gonna be a very, very fine player in this league. And it won’t be long.”
It can’t be. Not if Caldwell means it when he says, “The time is now.”
“Not two years or three years from now, down the road somewhere,” he added, in his opening remarks at the press conference inside Ford Field. “We’re right here, right now.”
And that they were Wednesday, introducing another head coach after another losing season, this time after arguably the worst late-season collapse in franchise history, had a little something to do with Stafford’s play.
So did their 6-3 start, as they seized the NFC North lead this fall, of course. But as the Lions lost six of their final seven games amid a flurry of mistakes and turnovers, it was Stafford’s play that was the most confounding. He threw 12 interceptions in that stretch and fumbled away two more possessions — those turnovers proved critical in close losses to Tampa Bay, Baltimore and the New York Giants — while completing just 54.4 percent of his passes.
“I think it’s hard to put it on one single thing,” Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said Wednesday, in his first extensive remarks about his team’s disappointing finish. “But what I saw watching tape was a guy that wanted to make every single play himself. And I think sometimes when you play this game, you’ve got to trust everybody around you to be where they’re supposed to be, do what they’re supposed to do. You have to understand what your role is through the game.
“Coach Caldwell said it best when he was talking about our game against Baltimore. He said, ‘You know, a lot of games are lost and not won. There are more games lost than there are games won.’ And that happens when you have players out there trying to do more than what they should be doing.”
So what do they do to fix that? That’s the question going forward for Caldwell and his staff, which will start to take shape in the coming days.
The real answers won’t come until the spring, in late March or early April, when coaches can start working directly with players.
But Caldwell met with Stafford during his initial visit with the Lions on Jan. 3 in Allen Park. He’d already reviewed film of all of Stafford’s pass attempts last season to prep for his interview, “so I had a feel for him, at least.” And when the two finally sat down for a half-hour chat, “I gave him my opinion of what I saw. But I also talked to him and listened to him about what he thought he needed work on.”
Caldwell declined to get into many specifics on that subject.
“I’ve got to look at him further, I’ve got to dig down a little bit deeper,” he explained.
“But we do have a set of parameters that we use in terms of coaching quarterbacks that we know works,” he added. “And I’m anxious and excited to give (Stafford) an opportunity to work within those parameters. …
“There’s not any player in the league that doesn’t need work perfecting his craft. They all do. This game moves too fast, too many talented players. It takes work, it takes dedication, and you’ve gotta sharpen your skills.”
And the Lions’ hope now is that they have a coaching staff that’s better suited to do just that with Stafford, the former No. 1 overall pick in which they’ve literally invested the future, with $82 million already in his pocket and an 8-month-old contract extension that runs through 2017.
Caldwell will be heavily involved in the offense, obviously, and may be looking to bring in Clyde Christensen, his longtime colleague in Indianapolis who has worked most recently with Andrew Luck, as his offensive coordinator. That’d be a good start.
And for all the angst about Stafford’s future in Detroit, he’s off to a pretty good one, too. In fact, Caldwell didn’t balk at comparisons to the situation he inherited in 2002 as the quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis, where Peyton Manning was entering his fifth NFL season leading a pass-happy, turnover-prone offense.
“A lot of similarities,” he said. “A lot of similarities in terms of the teams as well.”
And he didn’t hesitate to promise better results from Stafford, who became the first quarterback in franchise history to post three consecutive 4,000-yard seasons.
Due for greatness
Stafford can make all the throws — we see that. He reads coverages well. And he certainly doesn’t lack for confidence.
“I think you’re going to see improvement from the onset,” Caldwell said. “He’s a willing guy, he’s capable, he has an immense amount of talent. We’ve just got to bring that to the forefront. …
“You take a look at some of the great ones in their fifth year. Look at the numbers. And then look at them in their ninth and 10th year. You see that they just start to grow and develop and they keep going. And that’s the stage that he’s at right now, and he’s going to turn into an outstanding player.”
As expected, accountability was one of the buzzwords Wednesday at Ford Field. And that’s an area Stafford has to be better, becoming a more vocal leader off the field and a more responsible one on it. His bosses do, too, including Mayhew, whose to-do list this offseason has to include a legitimate No. 2 receiver near the very top. For a team that dropped too many balls last season, that was certainly one of them.
Still, when it comes to winning and losing, the responsibility is bound to fall on the quarterback’s shoulders.
“He’s a great player — I think he knows that,” Mayhew said of Stafford. “He can do some things that other people can’t do with the football. And I think that leads to some ‘Wow’ plays, and leads to some confidence that he can make plays that he actually can’t make.”
Time to fix that, without a doubt.