Allen Park — Matt Patricia uses a lot of P-words. Process, Patience, work in Progress, Please stop asking me questions I won’t answer. Any first-time head coach taking over a non-playoff team probably would do the same, except the Lions aren’t your standard landing spot for a first-time head coach.
Why is it different here?
For one, Matthew Stafford. For two, continuity with Jim Bob Cooter.
There’s justifiable concern about the defense. But much more should be expected of the offense, which returns virtually intact and has a couple components most overhauled teams don’t have. Stafford is entering his 10th season, has started 112 consecutive games and is in his prime, still easily the team’s best player. Unlike in most regime changes, nothing much changed for Stafford, who still straddles the line between star and star-crossed.
This will be his fourth season with Cooter as offensive coordinator, the primary assistant retained from Jim Caldwell’s staff. With a new boss, the pressure is on Cooter, and it would help if his offense alleviated pressure on Stafford, sacked a career-high 47 times last season. It’s impossible to say if Patricia is fully committed to Cooter or simply wanted stability on one side of the ball for now. GM Bob Quinn kept Caldwell initially, but that commitment lasted only two seasons.
Stafford and Cooter get the luxury of maintaining a relationship that works, as Stafford has gotten better and more dependable. They do not get the luxury of process, patience or being a work in progress. At least based on Quinn’s hiring practices, Cooter doesn’t get that luxury.
The preseason revealed very little, as the first-team offense collected three field goals on eight possessions. Small sample size, sure, and the new staff used games for player evaluation, not scheming. The revamped running game showed flashes, but no firm evidence the offense will be balanced enough to contend.
Cooter is sticking to the prevailing narrative in Allen Park — say little, promise nothing.
“I thought it was a productive preseason from a process standpoint, from an improvement standpoint, from us sort of getting to evaluate those guys,” Cooter said. “So, we’re a work in progress, getting better as a unit.”
Every team is a work on progress, but when you have a top-10 quarterback like Stafford, progress shouldn’t take as long. The Lions went 9-7 with the NFL’s worst running game, and it’s been upgraded. The rookie running back looks promising. The new pounding back looks promising. The rookie offensive guard looks promising.
First-round pick Frank Ragnow was added to a line that could be very good if healthy, especially if T.J. Lang, who sat out the preseason, can find his form. Veteran LeGarrette Blount, 31, still appears to have sufficient power. Second-round pick Kerryon Johnson might be the Lions’ best hope in years to break their ridiculous streak of 68 games without a 100-yard rusher.
The Lions have shown they can be a decent team relying on Stafford, flinging and hoping. But more than ever, they need more from an offense that finished seventh in the league in points, 13th in total yardage. Stafford has shown he can deliver when healthy and given help. But under Cooter, the running game never has finished higher than 28th. It was so bad, Quinn said he was deeply bothered by the lack of toughness and drafted accordingly.
Do the Lions need to run better to make Stafford better? Of course. Do they need to dial down their passing in the process? No, not with a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Marvin Jones and Golden Tate.
I’d suggest if the Lions merely bump the running game from 32nd to maybe 22nd, the offense can make a significant leap. The relationship between quarterback and coordinator is huge, and to Patricia’s credit, he acknowledged that in retaining Cooter. But results must come quickly.
Stafford has talked often about his comfort level, and the numbers reflect it. Since Cooter took over midway through the 2015 season, Stafford’s completion percentage has risen from 60.1 to 66.3, and his touchdown-interception ratio has improved dramatically.
“Like anything, the more you’re around — players, coaches, each other — you really get to know each other better,” Cooter said. “Something that we may have had two different opinions on two years ago, maybe we’ve ironed that out one way or the other and now we’re of the same opinion. So, we’re continuing to go down that path and hopefully getting better at figuring out the right way to play football.”
OK, quite a few words that don’t say much. And there’s not much more to say, just do. The Lions have invested heavily in their offensive line — Taylor Decker, Ragnow, Graham Glasgow, Lang, Rick Wagner. They have a compelling receiving trio in Jones, Tate and Kenny Golladay. They added a tough older back and a tough younger back.
For Patricia, first impressions are still being made. In the meantime, Stafford and Cooter must enhance impressions and alter perceptions. The Lions are 0-3 in the playoffs under Stafford, the best quarterback in the NFL — considering longevity — without a postseason victory.
In a rare flash of frankness, he acknowledged the reality when asked if quarterbacks get judged by playoff success, fairly or unfairly.
“One hundred percent they do,” Stafford said. “I don’t hear about many people talking about a running back, or a receiver, or a defensive end’s career playoff career record. But it’s understandable, we touch the ball on every single play and make a lot of critical plays and decisions. Whether it’s fair or not, it’s not up to me to judge or think really too much about because it’s out of my control.”
Judgments might be out of his control, but as the Lions embark on yet another transition, a lot remains under Stafford’s control. He’s carried this team for a while, and whether the running game finally pops or not, the weight isn’t any lighter.