Lions coach says dismissal of Joe Lombardi, Jeremiah Washburn and Terry Heffernan was his decision.
Allen Park — The Lions showed how potent their offense could be in the first 14 minutes of Sunday’s loss, scoring touchdowns on the first two drives against the Vikings.
For the rest of the game, the Lions proved they couldn’t maintain that high level of play, and after 23 games in which most of the explosive potential came in mere glimpses, coach Jim Caldwell decided it was time to change the man in charge of the unit.
The Lions fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, 44, on Monday, just hours after Caldwell had said changes were not imminent. After a 1-6 start, it was clear Lombardi’s scheme was a key factor in the treacherous start.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Caldwell said in announcing the firings on Monday. “We’re running out of time.”
The team dismissed line coach Jeremiah Washburn and assistant offensive line coach Terry Heffernan, too. The Lions allowed seven sacks and 13 quarterback hits Sunday in a 28-19 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, and in addition to quarterback Matthew Stafford frequently having little time to pass, the team ranks last in rushing in the NFL.
Washburn, the son of longtime NFL defensive line coach Jim Washburn, had been on the Lions' staff since 2009. Heffernan was with the team since 2013 after working at Wayne State from 2007-12.
“(Washburn) was our head dog, the one that led us, and we failed on being able to produce for them,” offensive lineman Manny Ramirez said. “This is how he provided for his family, and we kind of hurt him in that. Now, he’s gone.
“It sucks, especially when you have somebody that’s always been there for you. I built a strong relationship with (Washburn) from the first go-around here and not to see him here anymore, it hurts.”
Caldwell said the decision to fire the three assistant coaches was his, and he pointed to the lack of productivity on offense as the reason he made it. He said he did not consult with ownership before reaching his decision and told the players in a team meeting Monday afternoon.
“Because we just were not productive,” Caldwell said of why he made the decision. “That’s the key.”
With Lombardi out after less than two seasons, the Lions promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter, 31, to offensive coordinator, the first time he’ll hold the position in the NFL. He’ll also call the plays.
Cooter was an offensive assistant with the Colts in 2009-11, the Chiefs in 2012 and the Broncos in 2013 before coming to the Lions this season.
Running backs coach Curtis Modkins, who previously worked as offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, received a promotion to run game coordinator, too.
“I think he’s very capable,” Caldwell said of Cooter, “and certainly with Curtis as the running game coordinator as well. Those two guys will be able to work things out. Jim Bob’s very bright and smart and he adjusts well.”
QB Matthew Stafford feels certain amount of responsibility for offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's dismissal.
The Lions also will move assistant head coach Ron Prince, a former head coach at Kansas State, to offensive line coach after he spent the previous two seasons working with tight ends.
“He’s a very good offensive line coach (and) has a real wide breadth of knowledge of offensive football,” Caldwell said of Prince.
Special teams assistant Devin Fitzsimmons will move to tight ends coach.
It’s unclear how the offense will change under Cooter’s leadership, but Caldwell and Stafford expect things to look different. Neither Caldwell nor Stafford would provide specifics on what led to Lombardi’s downfall, but Caldwell said Stafford’s relationship with Cooter could help ease the transition.
Although some fans might rejoice over the decisions made Monday, Caldwell was quick to note how devastating the news is for the men involved and their families.
“Not a good day,” Caldwell said. “It’s a tough day.”
The Lions rank 20th in yards and 29th in points per game despite having talented playmakers like Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Eric Ebron, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick. Stafford has also regressed overall as a player the past two years despite the Lions hiring Lombardi — as well as Cooter and Caldwell — to help improve his game after working with Saints star Drew Brees the previous seven years.
Although the Lions went 11-5 in 2014 in the first year under Caldwell and Lombardi, the offense was problematic during the season that resulted in a first-round playoff exit. The Lions ranked 19th in total offense and 22nd in points per game despite having a similarly talented team with a more veteran offensive line.
Stafford said Lombardi is a talented coach and is upset he didn't have a chance to help Lombardi thrive.
“Anytime guys are let go it’s a tough situation,” Stafford said. “You feel a certain amount of responsibility as a player because you’re the guy, especially at the quarterback position, ultimately out there pulling the trigger getting us wins and losses and helping us move the ball. And I just didn’t do a good enough job of that.”
The Lions are due to fly to London Monday night for Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Although Monday’s firings signal a monumental change, there’s no telling if falling to 1-7 could force the front office or ownership to continue altering the coaching staff.