Allen Park — Every day after practice, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter and the Lions’ signal callers play some type of game, including one recently when they tried to hit the crossbar from varied distances while others pelted them with tennis balls. The prize is the chance to pick the game the following day.
Lombardi, who’s in his first year as an NFL coordinator, brought the competitive concept from New Orleans, where he spent the past seven years as a Saints assistant, and it’s just one way for him to relate to the players.
“I just be myself,” he said.
For Lombardi, family comes first, and before days off, he’s told players of his excitement about tucking his six children into bed. Backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky said he and the coach exchange photos of the food they eat, barbecue in particular. Fullback Jed Collins said Lombardi has given him books to read, both in Detroit and during their four years together in New Orleans.
“We share a common interest in learning new things in life,” Collins said. “He’s kind of a Renaissance man. … I enjoy people like that that make you a little bit wiser through your day.”
Lombardi is calm and collected during practices and meetings, but during downtime, he has no problem showing other layers of his personality, including the ability to make fun of himself.
“He’s always kind of throwing the lob out there of referencing grandpa,” Orlovsky said. “He’ll always kind of be like, ‘Hey, my grandfather made that play up’ or what not.”
Lombardi, of course, is the grandson of Vince Lombardi, and even though he’s related to the legendary coach after which the Super Bowl trophy is named, all of his experiences have led him to this point.
As a player and student at Air Force, Lombardi learned to be disciplined, which is the style of leadership he’s displayed thus far in Detroit. If a player makes a mistake, he waits to confront him individually, which is appreciated.
“He’s adopted the role that he has to be the one leading the charge,” Collins said, comparing him to position coaches who often voice their passion.
Former Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry saw the potential in Lombardi and helped him get his start in coaching, and from there, Lombardi steadily climbed the ranks. After four years as an offensive coordinator at Mercyhurst (Pa.) College, he made the leap to the NFL in 2006.
Because he had been with the Saints since 2007, Lombardi’s offense will have similarities to that high-powered attack, but he said there will be plenty of differences. He’s taken ideas from his fellow assistants, a group that includes running backs coach Curtis Modkins — Buffalo’s offensive coordinator from 2010-12 — and tight ends coach Ron Prince — Kansas State’s head coach from 2006-08.
“I think there’s a significant difference that you’d call this the Lions offense now,” Lombardi said.
Even though he’s taken “intellectual property” from his assistants, Lombardi understands this offense is attached to his name. He admits that trying to involve all of the weapons, specifically All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson, has made him “burn calories.” .
But if Lombardi is stressed at all in his new role, the players haven’t noticed.
“I think he’s a confident guy because he’s prepared,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “We all trust in him and know that he’s going to put us in the best situation to succeed, and there’s no doubt that he’s going to get better as he goes. That’s just the nature of the job.”
Based on the first two exhibition games, the Lions will have an impressive offense this season. Stafford went 11 of 14 for 106 yards and two touchdowns in just four series, and two incompletions were drops by running back Reggie Bush.
In Friday’s exhibition against the Jaguars, the Lions starters will play into the second half, which will give a better indication of how prepared the offense is for the season, but Lombardi will have more to work on no matter how the players perform.
“If we had scored 80 points a game these first two games, I would still feel the same way I feel now like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do it tomorrow and the next day and the next day,’ ” he said. “I’m encouraged, I’m optimistic, but I’ve always got a little bit of that nervous tension.”
In New Orleans, Lombardi was often involved in the game planning with coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. But now, he’ll be the one with final say as he tries to take the Lions offense to the next level and help them reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011 — or farther for the first time since 1991.
“It’s interesting to see a guy transition to the front of the room and be leading it,” Collins said. “He was always a disciplined leader, having a military background, but what I’ve seen is him coming into his own.”
Jaguars at Lions
Kickoff:7:30 tonight, Ford Field
Exhibition records:Lions 1-1, Jaguars 1-1
Line:Lions by 3
Outlook:Quarterback Chad Henne (Michigan) is expected to start for the Jags.