Joe Lombardi talks to Saints quarterback Drew Brees during training camp in July 2013. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)
Mobile, Ala. — Joe Lombardi was a busy man Tuesday.
After agreeing in principle to become the Lions offensive coordinator in the morning, he drove about two hours from the Senior Bowl in Mobile home to New Orleans to tell his family -- his wife Molly, a Bay City native, and their six children. Then he drove back to Mobile in time to watch the South practice in the afternoon with Lions president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew.
By early evening, Lombardi’s new job became official, and he, along with head coach Jim Caldwell, will soon have the task of turning around quarterback Matthew Stafford’s career path after two disappointing seasons.
Lombardi, grandson of Hall of Fame NFL coach Vince Lombardi, spent the past seven years with the Saints, including the last five as quarterbacks coach for a group that included Drew Brees, and will bring a background heavily influenced by Saints head coach Sean Payton.
Assuming the Lions hire an experienced quarterbacks coach, the team will have three coaches with extensive histories of working with quarterbacks to help Stafford stop his regression.
When Lombardi arrives in Detroit, Saints tight end coach Terry Malone said the Lions can expect an offense that attacks. Since Payton took over as head coach in 2006, New Orleans has finished in the top six in yardage in the NFL every season.
“If you like at all what we’ve done with our offense in New Orleans, then I think you can expect a lot of the same things because that’s where Joe’s learning comes from,” said Malone, who worked as a Michigan assistant from 1997-2005. “His thought process is really going to be greatly influenced by the way Sean Payton sees football. It’s a type of offense that we always think we’re on the attack because we think we have great weapons, and we’re going to constantly stretch the defense.”
In addition to Stafford at quarterback, Lombardi will have Calvin Johnson, the NFL’s best wide receiver, at his disposal, as well as running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, who both spent time with Lombardi in New Orleans.
The Lions have not yet said whether Lombardi or Caldwell will call plays, but either way, Lombardi will bring a history of being a teacher for players and coaches.
When Frank Smith joined the Saints as an offensive assistant in 2010, he said Lombardi helped him understand his responsibilities and adjust to life as an NFL coach. Smith described Lombardi as “meticulous” in his understanding of both offense and opposing defenses.
“I just know that he’ll be quite a success in Detroit just because of the type of person he is, the type of family guy he is, and his wealth of knowledge as a coach,” Smith said.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has said the goal is for Stafford to return to his 2011 form, when he threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns against 16 interceptions. In each of the two years since, Stafford’s yardage and completion percentage have declined while his interceptions have increased.
The Lions signed Stafford to a contract extension last offseason that will keep him in Detroit through 2017, and the hiring of Caldwell and Lombardi prove the team is devoted to making Stafford a star.
Lombardi played tight end at the Air Force Academy and graduated in 1994. His coaching career began in 1996 at Dayton, and he climbed the college coaching ranks before becoming the offensive coordinator at Mercyhurst College from 2002-05.
Lombardi’s first NFL job was in 2006 when he was a defensive assistant for the Atlanta Falcons, and he worked under Bill Johnson, who now coaches the Saints’ defensive line.
“He’s a smart man, and they’re getting a good young coach,” Johnson said.
After the year in Atlanta, Lombardi spent two years as an offensive assistant with the Saints before being promoted to quarterbacks coach.
“He was the guy that went in and implemented the game plan with Drew,” Johnson said. “And he always did a good job of communicating with Drew, what he was comfortable with and all those things.”
The Saints won the Super Bowl in Lombardi’s first year as quarterbacks coach, beating the Indianapolis Colts when Caldwell was a rookie head coach. In that 2009 season, Brees threw for 4,388 yard, 34 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, with a passer rating of 109.6.
Brees has struggled at times with turnovers since that season — 22 interceptions in 2010 and 19 in 2012, but he played great this season with a 104.7 passer rating and 39 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions as the Saints finished 11-5.
“You have to believe in what you do as an offense, and pushing the ball down the field, sometimes there’s going to be a play that the defense makes, and yet you don’t want a quarterback that’s hesitant,” Malone said. “You want a quarterback that’s attacking, and Matthew certainly has the arm and the ability to be a big-time quarterback. And I think Joe will be able to give him some things that will help him make better decisions.”
Malone described Lombardi as a “matter-of-fact guy” who is all about business.
Although he carries the Lombardi name, Johnson said that isn’t the reason for his rise through the coaching ranks.
“He does a good job not using that, but he can’t help who his daddy was and who his grandfather was,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that’s something that he’s really used in coaching, but I know he’s proud of being in that lineage and I think it’s a good thing.”