Niyo: Lions' Darrell Bevell confident his offense will be 'advantage' this season

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Maybe it’s the old quarterback in him. Or maybe it’s the nearly quarter-century he has spent as football coach, from tiny Westmar University in LeMars, Iowa, to his current role as an NFL offensive coordinator in Detroit.

But one of Darrell Bevell’s greatest gifts, it turns out, is his ability to forget.

“My wife will attest to this, but I have this ability just to flush things,” Bevell said Wednesday, laughing, as he and the Lions wrapped up an offseason that was unlike any I can recall. “I think she calls it ‘purge and dump.’”

Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and quarterback Matthew Stafford speaking on the field at Lambeau before playing the Green Bay Packers last season.

So if you ask him what he remembers about the NFL lockout that shuttered the league for an entire offseason in 2011, he’ll happily report: File not found.

Still, when pressed, Bevell will explain why he thinks this time around is bound to produce better memories.

He was a newly-hired coordinator in Seattle when the lockout forced the league to go dark in 2011 from mid-March until the start of training camp. Pete Carroll, in his second year as the Seahawks’ head coach, also had brought in a new run-game coordinator in Tom Cable. And working with Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback, Bevell’s offense struggled out of the gate, eventually finding some traction with a more run-oriented attack featuring Marshawn Lynch but still finishing in the bottom third overall in the league as the Seahawks went 7-9.

A year later, though, with rookie Russell Wilson at quarterback backed by one of the NFL’s best run games, Seattle went 11-5 and won a playoff game.

And as he now enters Year 2 of calling the shots for Matthew Stafford & Co. in Detroit, Bevell — in his third stint as a coordinator following successful stints with the Seahawks and Vikings — certainly understands the intrinsic value there.

 “First of all, just going into the second season, with the foundation of what we’re trying to get done under our belt, I think that helps us,” Bevell said. “Initially, when we talked about this (offseason) going virtually, I wouldn’t have thought that it’d go as well it has gone. I thought it was gonna be a real stale environment to teach in and communicate in, but I think we’ve done well with it. …

Darrell Bevell

“The communication has been great. It has been clear, it has been clean, and I think we’ve been able to make some headway. Going into this second season, I like where we’re at.”

Where it goes from here isn’t entirely clear, of course. The league’s offseason officially concludes next week, but there’s some uncertainty about when training camp will begin later this summer. There have been rumblings about possibly having players return to team facilities early for an extended training camp — that would require changes to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement — or perhaps eliminating one or two preseason games to give teams more time to get players acclimated to on-field work in August.

But either way, the Lions figure to have a bit of a head start — maybe even an “advantage,” as Bevell described it — when the time comes to put on the pads.

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That’s because more than half the teams in the NFL will begin play this fall with either a new starting quarterback or a new offensive coordinator or play-caller. It’s at least 17 teams, by my count, and the Lions, notably, are not one of them.

Not only is Bevell back, but so is Stafford, the veteran quarterback who was thriving in the new coordinator’s scheme last fall before a back injury sidelined him at midseason. Stafford ranked in the top five in the NFL in passing yards, touchdowns and QB rating through eight games, as Bevell emphasized Stafford’s play-action ability and revived the Lions’ downfield passing attack. He’s also surrounded by the same core group of running backs, receivers and tight ends, albeit with a couple playmaking additions — most notably D’Andre Swift — via the draft.

“It definitely helps us having all those skill guys back, and having Matthew back healthy is obviously a huge deal for us,” Bevell said. “I think he’s really chomping at the bit to get back with this teammates, get back out there on the field and continue this thing and start winning a bunch of games. There’s no question in my mind that he’s really excited to do that.”

Stafford, who returned to the Detroit area with his family this week, said as much last month when he spoke with reporters. He said he’d already had a chance to hold some informal workouts with the likes of Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola, as well as Swift and another rookie, receiver Quintez Cephus, once quarantine restrictions were lifted this spring.

Darrell Bevell and Matt Patricia talk in 2019.

"Definitely, I feel like it's a positive for us as a team and for myself,” he said. “When I get out there and throw with those guys, when I get chances to work with them, I feel like I can teach them as good as our coaches can on what we're looking for and what they need to do. That's an advantage for us. Now let's just hope that shows up on Sundays."

If there’s an area of concern — aside from the Lions' revamped defense, that is — it’s where everything really starts on gameday in the NFL. The Lions will have at least two new starters on the offensive line this fall, with free agent Halapoulivaati Vaitai expected to replace Rick Wagner at right tackle and both guard positions “up in the air,” as Bevell put it Wednesday. No position group gets more out of the offseason work in OTAs and minicamp than the linemen, and the Lions may be counting on an early contribution from one of their rookie guards, Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg.

 “You always like those five guys to be working together as much as they can,” Bevell said. “The right hand needs to know what the left hand is doing. … There’s great communication going on in the meetings. But playing next to a guy and getting used to how they come off a twist or how they hit a combination, those are things you can’t replace.”

Neither is the experience they all gained last year, though. And that’s what they’ll lean on for now, as they try to build on what really was the bright spot for the Lions in last season’s dreary 3-12-1 finish.

More: Matthew Stafford will be better than Aaron Rodgers in 2020, analyst predicts

“I think one of the biggest ones that probably hit me was, you know, we’re always talking about finishing,” Bevell said, when asked about the self-assessment he and his offensive staff went through following his first year in Detroit. “We had 10 games where we had the lead going into the fourth quarter and we had another game where we were tied in the fourth quarter. I think that tells you were doing some good things. We were in a lot of games, but we weren’t able to finish those. …

“So we’ve got to pick it up, we’ve got to finish. That’s something we preach all the time. And I think that’s probably one of the biggest takeaways.”

And for now, all things considered, that’s not a bad place to be starting.