Wojo: Cooter still unlocking mysteries of Lions offense

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
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Allen Park – It didn’t take long for Jim Bob Cooter to have an impact on the Lions offense. It didn’t take long for the young coordinator to connect with Matthew Stafford. And it sure didn’t take long for Cooter to understand the responsibilities of his new high-profile position.

“I’m glad to be here in front of you guys,” he said to reporters, “talking about almost nothing.”

He was joking, although not totally. There’s a fascination with Cooter that began, frankly, with his name. It grew when he replaced Joe Lombardi midway through last season and helped Stafford become more efficient, as the Lions turned a 1-7 start into a 6-2 finish.

But unlike so many coordinators who run offenses with catchy monikers defined by specific traits, Cooter, 31, isn’t advertising much of anything. We saw how he directed Stafford with shorter, safer passes, but now the Lions have an entire offseason to put everything in, and players are embracing it.

In fact, I’d suggest the Mystical Mystery of Jim Bob is the most intriguing element on an offense loaded with questions. Is Stafford truly different under Cooter, or was that a classic closing mirage? Will it work without Calvin Johnson? Will it incorporate more of a running game? Will it forever alter the notion of Stafford as a gun-slinger?

“We’re not going to bury that (gun-slinging) guy yet,” Cooter said Thursday as the Lions wrapped up workouts. “We had to do what we had to do last year. I don’t think we’ll put any restraints on our quarterback, so there may be some short passes, there may be some long ones.”

Uh, OK. In a word or two, could you describe your ideal offense?

“Efficient and successful,” Cooter said with a smile. “I mean, whatever that means.”

It’s Cooter’s offense

Those deep revelations aside, suffice it to say Stafford will remain the centerpiece, but won’t be asked to win games by himself, or lose them by himself. For nearly a decade, much of what the Lions did was predicated on how defenses dealt with Johnson. So in a sense, Cooter gets a clean whiteboard to use, and players do too.

“We’re all excited for Jim Bob calling the plays,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “I don’t know what you call it, but to us, it’s just Jim Bob Cooter’s offense. We have talent, so utilize it. He’s gonna take risks and we’re gonna make plays so he keeps on doing it.”

Ebron caught 47 passes for 537 yards last season but hasn’t touched his potential, yet. Ameer Abdullah showed flashes and Theo Riddick is an underrated versatile back. Golden Tate and Marvin Jones form a good tandem, but the Lions need more dependable receiving options. There also could be a major shuffle on the offensive line, with No. 1 pick Taylor Decker getting early snaps at left tackle, bumping Riley Reiff to the right side, where he’s better suited.

It’s far from a given the Lions will simply pick up where the Cooter train left off. But if you’re pinning your hopes on anything, it might be your best option.

In the first eight games last season, Stafford had 13 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. Cooter took over just before the disastrous trip to London, where the Lions lost to the Chiefs, 45-10. In the final eight games, Stafford completed 70 percent, with 19 touchdowns and two interceptions. It was a staggering difference that could be a function of the schedule, or actually a legitimate sign Stafford works very well with Cooter.

Whatever it was, it’s rapidly expanding, as Cooter has added more.

“We had three days and a bye week to install an offense (after Lombardi’s firing),” Stafford said. “We kind of built it piece by piece, with some stuff we’ll either continue to do or no longer do. … Jim Bob is an extremely bright guy. We have great communication, a great rapport.”

Straightforward approach

Players talk warmly about Cooter, and you can tell he’s not some imperial leader with an unyielding plan. That’s been a problem here, with coordinators forcing systems that didn’t necessarily match the personnel. In the NFL, the system had better fit the quarterback, or either the system or the quarterback will be gone. And Stafford likely isn’t going anywhere for a while.

Ebron is another who could flourish in the right offense, and the No. 10 overall pick in 2014 is voicing renewed exuberance.

“Jim Bob is straightforward, he’s gonna tell you what’s up,” Ebron said. “You ball, you play. You don’t, your ride the pine. He’s not hiding anything, he’s not gonna baby-sit anyone. Everybody’s been babied growing up, especially my era of kids, and I’m only 23. Jim Bob brings the best out of us. He told me what he expects from me as soon as I walked in the building, and then he just dropped the mic and left it at that.”

Cooter doesn’t seem like a mic-dropping kind of guy. In fact, he’s wary of microphones, reluctant to divulge much, which aligns with the tight-lipped approach by the Lions that borders on paranoia. Jim Caldwell can be pleasant and engaging, but isn’t touting anything. Neither is new general manager Bob Quinn.

The Lions used to tout before they delivered, going back to bombastic GMs and coaches whose names no longer are spoken. Cooter is respected enough that his presence probably helped Quinn decide to retain Caldwell, with the hope of furthering Stafford’s development.

“We try to have conversations with all the offensive guys, especially the quarterback,” Cooter said. “What does he like? What does he not like? We’re still in that process, but we’re going to try to do what our guys do best.”

It’s unclear what that is, at many positions. Mystery loves company, and Cooter should have more to reveal, and a lot to unravel.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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