Matthew Stafford had 29 TD passes and 19 interceptions in 2013. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Newark, N.J. — Jim Caldwell, the Lions new head coach, became Peyton Manning’s quarterback coach with the Indianapolis Colts in 2003. Manning was 26 and in his sixth NFL season.
In the next six seasons with Caldwell, Manning threw for more than 25,000 yards and 195 touchdowns, with just 65 interceptions. He won MVP honors in 2003 and 2004 and led the Colts to the Super Bowl in 2006. Those teams from 2003 through 2008 never won fewer than 12 games.
The Lions are hoping Caldwell can have even a remotely similar impact on quarterback Matthew Stafford, who will be 26 and entering his sixth NFL season in 2014.
“Jim Caldwell meant a great deal to me in my career,” Manning said during Super Bowl Media Day Tuesday. “I felt like once he got to Indianapolis and became my quarterback coach, I felt like my game really improved. I think it took a step up and Jim had a great deal to do with that.”
That is part of what Manning expressed to Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, whom he cold-called to endorse Caldwell for the Lions job. He also explained Caldwell’s method.
“He had a set routine that we tried to perfect every day, in the meeting room and on the practice field and through all the drills,” Manning said. “I felt like from 2003 through 2008 when he was my quarterback coach, I was playing at a high level. I was glad to call the Lions on his behalf and share my thoughts on what he might be able to do to help their organization.”
Stafford’s level of play has regressed dramatically since he threw for more than 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2011. The Lions hired Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who had success with Drew Brees in New Orleans, with the goal of getting Stafford back on track.
Caldwell has yet to hire a quarterback coach, but NFL Network analyst and two-time MVP Kurt Warner would encourage them to do so.
“It was very valuable for me,” he said. “I had different kinds of quarterback coaches, some that were more based on technique and the physical part of it, and others that were very good at the mental side of things.
“But regardless of what they do well, they have to be able to stay on top of you and to be the guy you can lean on in different situations. He becomes vital.”
Warner laid out a scenario that could well have impacted Stafford’s second-half decline last season.
“You go through a season and you are getting beat up and worn down,” Warner said. “A lot of times your mechanics will start to fall apart. You need somebody who knows what they’re talking about, somebody who can look at the tape and go, ‘OK, we need to work on this. I notice this is going on.’ ”
Warner also said a good quarterback coach can help with the mental aspect of playing the position, especially in terms of grasping the game plan and anticipating adjustments during the game.
“You can only do so much individually,” Warner said. “You can only take so much of a burden on yourself. You need somebody outside of you to help give you a different perspective.”
Warner said he didn’t know Caldwell or Lombardi well enough to comment on them. But he’s seen enough of Stafford to know where he needs help.
“With Matthew’s talent, he’s going to need somebody to harness him and get him more technically sound with his mechanics,” he said. “Somebody to get him more honed in on the ins and outs of reading coverages.
“Not that he can’t read coverages; it’s just he’s so talented physically, that sometimes he gets away with things because of that talent. I think if you continue to do that, it’s going to come back and haunt you. We’ve seen that.”
For Stafford’s game to mature, Warner said, he’ll have to discipline himself to stop taking unnecessary chances.
“It starts to hurt your team,” Warner said. “The more you are tuned into thinking, ‘I can’t really take that chance. I don’t even want to take that chance, even though I might be able to make that throw,’ the more you stay within the framework of what’s available, the more he’s going to be successful.”
Former Ravens head coach Brian Billick agrees.
“For every quarterback there’s that fine line between — what is it the golfers say? — never up, never in?” he said. “But at some point he has to think, ‘I can’t turn the ball over that way.’ Matt’s got to understand that. They (Caldwell and Lombardi) have to find a way to keep that explosiveness but not turn the ball over. That’s going to be Job 1 for them.”