Niyo: Cooter's bold influence on Lions offense taking hold
New Orleans — Against these Saints, it’s almost a sin not to score.
So what the Lions did Monday night, winning a game in the Superdome for the first time since 2000 and setting a franchise road record for prime-time points in the process, was miles short of a miracle.
Still, the Lions’ 35-27 victory in New Orleans was another glimpse of something new, and improved. And for Matthew Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter, the Lions’ young offensive coordinator, it’s another sign of progress, which then begs the question about how long that relationship will last.
With the offseason looming, and more changes possible, if not likely, there’s no telling what’s in store for this coaching staff, from Jim Caldwell on down.
But the more you listen to Stafford and his teammates on offense, the more you wonder about the possibilities with what’s already here, at least in terms of the franchise quarterback’s relationship with his new play-caller. There’s a comfort level there that’s worth something, at the moment, and worth exploring, at the very least.
“The way he communicates with us — he’s a fun guy, a younger guy to be around,” said Calvin Johnson, the Lions’ veteran receiver who at the ripe-old age of 30 is only a year younger than Cooter. “And he’s getting better and better every game.”
So is the Lions’ offense, for the most part. Stafford has completed better than 68 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions the six games following the bye week, which is really the only fair way to measure the new coordinator’s work. That adds up to a three-digit passer rating and four wins — five if not for that Hail Mary by Green Bay a few weeks ago.
The schedule has something to do with that, obviously. And these Saints are about as bad as it gets in this league, on their way to shattering the NFL record for most touchdown passes allowed in a single season. They entered Monday night with 36, four shy of the 1963 Denver Broncos’ mark, and Stafford tossed three in three first-half drives after an initial three-and-out.
He finished the night 22-of-25 for 254 yards, an 88-percent completion rate that’s the highest of his NFL career. His previous best was 80.6 percent (29 of 36) in that playoff-clinching win over San Diego on Christmas Eve in 2011.
And with Johnson limited to one catch for the second week in a row — hampered by an ankle injury and hounded by extra safety help all game — Stafford got others involved, completing passes to nine different receivers Monday.
“You guys can see the way Calvin’s running around out there (that) he’s doing everything he can right now — he’s fighting through,” Stafford said. “But they were doubling him the whole game. Every time I caught the snap, I’d look up and 31 (free safety Jairus Byrd) was sprinting to where he was. So, we knew we were going to have to make them pay with other guys, and we were able to.”
His receivers made some tough catches as well. Johnson got rocked on his lone reception but managed to hang on, Golden Tate reached high to snare a crucial third-down pass in the second half, and tight end Eric Ebron, who had one of his best games as a pro, set up the final touchdown with one of his own.
It helped that Stafford’s line was able to give him time to operate, and backfield tandem of Ameer Abdullah and Joique Bell produced 148 rushing yards on just 17 carries.
But it was one run in particular that broke the Saints’ collective back, as Abdullah — one series removed from a costly fumble — took a misdirection pitch from Stafford on third-and-1 near midfield and took it around right end for 27 yards. Three plays later, the Lions scored to effectively put the game out of reach with 5:24 left.
Taking it to the house
“That was dialed up by our coaching staff all week,” Stafford said. “It was a perfect time and situation for it. You knew they were gonna be extremely aggressive, trying to stop the run.”
So, Cooter had the Lions show a look that signaled a power play was coming — a play that’d worked well in the first half — and then Stafford fooled them with the pitch that “let Ameer go be fast on the outside.”
Letting Stafford play fast — and free, in a sense — has been biggest change since Caldwell fired Joe Lombardi and promoted Cooter, who had served as the quarterbacks coach.
He dramatically pared down the verbiage that seemed to bog down Stafford in the huddle and at the line. He also simplified things for the linemen, eliminating some of the guesswork as well as the zone blocking as the coaches try to rebuild their confidence as a unit.
“Jim Bob Cooter has done a phenomenal job at finding out what guys do best and putting them in positions to succeed,” said Tate, who caught a pair of touchdown passes for the second consecutive week. “When you have the athletes we have, it’s just simplifying. And that’s what we’re doing.”
And by doing so — by making those kinds of calls — it may make it a tougher call for the Lions’ brass when the season's over.