Niyo: Getting Lions' offense in gear will be work in progress
Allen Park — School’s out for summer, but class is in session as the Lions officially begin training camp today.
And with attendance no longer a worry — the arrival of Darius Slay and Damon Harrison this week quelled any concerns about a high-profile holdout — the attention shifts back to where it usually rests with this team. Or just about any NFL team, really.
All eyes will be on the quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who begins his second decade in the league with an all-too-familiar challenge. He’s trying to figure out how to turn this franchise into a playoff winner for the first time in decades, and at the same time, he’s trying to learn a new offense.
So among the key questions facing the Lions — and second-year head coach Matt Patricia — is how quickly Stafford and new coordinator Darrell Bevell can settle in and find a rhythm for an offense that clearly was missing a beat last season.
The early returns looked promising this spring, but now comes the real test as the pads come on and the kid gloves come off.
Stafford finally will practice with his full complement of receivers when camp kicks off in Allen Park — Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones both spent the spring rehabbing injuries — and in a couple weeks, the New England Patriots will be in town for joint workouts ahead of the Lions’ exhibition opener.
So how far along is the offense right now? And what exactly will it look like?
“It’s kind of hard for me to quantify at this point,” Stafford admitted Wednesday. “It’s definitely different. There’s a lot of things I like about it. A lot of things I’m still getting used to, still learning.
“But it’s my job to be a coach on the field. And for me to be able to do that, I’ve gotta be as well-versed as the guys that are teaching it. So that’s a process and that takes time and experience, something that this time of year is perfect for.”
He’s done this before
It’s also a process he’s familiar with, which should help. Bevell is Stafford’s third coordinator in five years, and his fourth in seven seasons. And among the things Stafford has learned over the course of the last decade — even before the 144 games and nearly 10,000 snaps that counted on his permanent record — is how to “make that learning process go a little quicker.”
This offseason presented some unique challenges, obviously, as Stafford’s wife, Kelly, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in April. But she’s recovering well, life has largely returned to normal at home, and Stafford, who played through a significant back injury at the end of last season, didn’t miss any practice time this spring.
“He had a lot going on, as we all know,” Bevell said. “But he was really committed to us. He was here. He was putting his time in. He was working hard. He really led the way on learning the offense and getting to know the new language, being able call it, helping guys when they needed help. I was just impressed with the level of dedication and commitment that he had to us, with the other things he had going on.”
So was his new position coach, Sean Ryan, a veteran assistant who joined the Lions after previous stints with Houston and the New York Giants. Like most NFL coaches, Ryan says he has long been impressed with Stafford’s arm talent. And after working with him this spring, he says he has a greater appreciation for his “excellent” vision and his football IQ as well. More than anything, though, what he found most encouraging “was how he just jumped right in.”
“He’s a 10-year vet who’s had success, but there was no questioning,” Ryan said. “It was, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this’ and ‘I’m on board — let’s go.’”
But where to? That’s what we’re all wondering, and so are they, to an extent. Now that the offense is installed, it’s time to fine-tune the playbook in the August heat and figure out what’ll work in September and beyond.
“We’ve had some great conversations already,” Bevell said. “We’ve put a few things in that he feels comfortable with, and other things we’re going to push him on. I think by the time we get (to the season opener), we need to be able to have enough stuff, offensively, that we can challenge the (opposing) defense. But not too much where it’s overloading ourselves. So that’s the balance that we’re trying to get right now.”
Balance is a buzzword we’ll hear plenty of in the coming weeks. So is the idea of being “multiple,” which means different things in different schemes. But after things grew increasingly stale — and predictably static — with Jim Bob Cooter calling the plays the last few years, it’ll be up to Bevell to find the right mix. And just what that’ll look like, no one’s ready to say just yet.
“I don’t mean to give you a generic answer there, but I just think we’ll do a little bit more,” Ryan said. “I just think it’ll be a little bit more multiple with this guy.”
This guy’s track record — first in Minnesota, and later in Seattle — certainly suggests we’ll see much more in the way of varied formations with plenty of motions and shifts. And it’s a safe bet we’ll see more movement out of the quarterback as well.
Probably more gun
Stafford operated out of the shotgun on about two-thirds of the Lions’ snaps last season. That was down from previous years: Detroit led the league at 77 percent in 2017, and ranked second only to Chip Kelly’s San Francisco 49ers the year before that at 84 percent, according to Football Outsiders. But something closer to a 50-50 split might be the target, as Patricia and Bevell hammer home a run-first mentality and try to open up the play-action game where Stafford — and his top two outside receivers — excel. (Stafford averaged a career-low 6.8 yards per attempt last season, though skill-position injuries — and the Golden Tate trade — certainly had something to do with that.)
And while Ryan harps on the need for consistency in Stafford’s footwork, Bevell says he’ll find ways to put his underrated mobility — and maybe the offensive line’s as well — to better use. Mind you, he’s not trying to turn Stafford into Russell Wilson. Varying his “launch point” is how Bevell described it.
“Hopefully he’s a little bit harder to find back there,” Bevell said. “Not just standing right behind (center). ... He can make some plays with his feet. He’s done that in the past. He’s good on the move, so we’ll be able to use all of those things.”
About that past, though. They all insist they’ve put it behind them, including Stafford, who shrugs off the blame he shouldered for last year’s 6-10 finish. He says he and Patricia both learned from last year's uncomfortable debut and they have a "great relationship" now. He loves the additions the front office made in free agency and the draft. But he balks at the notion this is a bounce-back year for him personally.
“I feel like every year I come in here, I’m trying to prove myself,” he said. "If you’re coming in here feeling like you’ve done everything you need to do, and you’re just sitting pretty, you’re in the wrong sport. You’re in the wrong job. It’s prove-yourself-every-day out there. It’s prove-yourself-every-week. And this year is no different.”
Only it is, of course. But that’s just part of life in the NFL, and something Stafford, now 31 and facing another career crossroad, says he has fully embraced.
“The NFL, it’s about change,” he said. “Everybody’s changing. There’s coaches going from here to there, there’s players going from here to there. We’ve got new guys on our roster I’ve never played with before, and new coaches I’ve never played for before. So the quicker you can make that ‘change’ feel like normal and like home, the better.”
Because no matter what, the one constant remains.
“By and large, you look around the league, the teams that are playing well, playing into the playoffs, going to Super Bowls, their quarterback’s playing at a pretty darn good level,” Stafford said. “Sometimes quarterbacks have great years and their teams don’t necessarily win as much as others, but that’s a pretty good barometer of how a team’s playing: if the quarterback’s playing well.”