Lions’ Jim Bob Cooter a star on the rise

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Jim Bob Cooter drew high praise from Peyton Manning.

It’s amazing how circular things can be sometimes.

Even before Jim Bob Cooter was playing a combination of linebacker, defensive end and quarterback for Lincoln County High School in Fayetteville, Tennessee, former Lions offensive coordinator Tom Moore was developing the foundation of the scheme Cooter would utilize in Detroit two decades later.

While he hasn’t had anywhere near the success of Moore’s high-scoring teams, the 32-year-old Cooter has emerged as one of the NFL’s rising coaching stars, playing a key role with the 6-4 Lions, who sit in first place of the NFC North heading into a Thanksgiving showdown with the Minnesota Vikings.

In 1995, Moore, a football-lifer currently working for the Arizona Cardinals, was handed the reins to the Lions’ offense. That group went on to churn out the most yards and second-most points in the NFL.

Moore capitalized on outstanding talent at the skill positions, and squeezed a career-best season out of quarterback Scott Mitchell. The Lions won their final seven games to finish 10-6, but were dismantled by the Philadelphia Eagles 58-37 in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

“We had three excellent wide receivers,” Moore said. “We had Herman Moore, Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton, a tight end (David Sloan) and a great running back, one of the greatest of all time, Barry Sanders. We said, ‘Well, let’s line up with three wide, a tight end and a running back and see what they do and then get to the best play, run or pass, to attack the defense.’ ”

Moore wasn’t done developing an offense now employed by Cooter.

Swept out with the firing of coach Wayne Fontes one year later, and after a one-year pit stop in New Orleans, Moore landed in Indianapolis the same year the franchise drafted quarterback Peyton Manning.

Working with quarterback coaches Bruce Arians and Jim Caldwell, as well as offensive line coach Howard Mudd, Moore’s offense ranked in the top five in yards and scoring the better part of the next decade.

“Of course, anything you do with the offense, you’re doing what your quarterback does, to take advantage of his skills and his ability,” Moore said.

And Moore had a great one in Manning, the No. 1 overall pick out of Tennessee in 1998.

Mastering Moore’s scheme, Manning won four MVP awards in Indianapolis and led the franchise to the Super Bowl twice, winning the championship in Feb. 2007.

Coached Manning

Cooter arrived in Indianapolis in 2009, the year of the Colts’ second Super Bowl appearance.

Born and raised in Fayetteville, Cooter opted to walk-on at Tennessee instead of potentially starting for a smaller school.

Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter on the sidelines.

“He walked on at Tennessee and never really showed he was going to be an SEC quarterback, but he was always first in line, busting his butt, smart as whip, and was around some really good teams,” former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said.

“He is a brilliant guy. He could have been a doctor, lawyer, private equity guy. He could have done anything he wanted to do, but he wanted to coach.”

Most people who have been around Cooter bring up that intelligence. Despite scoring in the 98th percentile on his ACT in high school, he was disappointed and took it again, scoring a 34 (out of 36) the second time around.

“You didn’t have to tell him very much and he had a mastery of it,” high school coach Louis Thompson said. “If you explained an offensive play to him, he’d have it down a lot quicker than the other guys. You usually only had to tell him one time.”

Fulmer started giving Cooter some coaching tasks as a junior, small jobs like relaying signals from the sideline to the field. Shortly after the quarterback’s eligibility expired, Fulmer hired Cooter as a graduate assistant.

“Jim Bob was as bright and articulate as anyone and was really important to our success, even as a graduate assistant. He was great with film study,” Fulmer said. “I prided myself on being the guy to turn the lights off, and hell, he’s still there.

“Jim Bob was as good breaking down the other team as he was at knowing our offense,” Fulmer said. “He would find the weaknesses and our tendencies. He was just fantastic at that sort of thing.”

When Fulmer was forced to resign in 2008, he went to work helping his assistants find other positions. Cooter was interested in going to the NFL and Fulmer knew just the spot. He placed a call to Caldwell, who had recently been promoted to head coach in Indianapolis.

“When I had chance, I told Peyton, ‘I know what you’re like and I know what this guy is like and you’ll love having him help you prepare,’ ” Fulmer said. “Coach Caldwell gobbled him up.”

Cooter was a willing student in Indianapolis. Mudd said the young assistant was interested in all aspects of the offense, wanting to know everything the team was doing.

As Fulmer predicted, the pairing with Manning was a perfect fit.

“I always like coaches and players who can see things in their mind and you don’t have to write it down on a board,” Manning said in an email. “You can talk about the defense or talk about the route combination, whatever it is.

“I always used to have those conversations a lot with Jim Bob. We didn’t have to write anything down. We could talk about it because we both could see it in our heads. That, to me, was always a sign that I was talking to a guy who had a great football mind.”

Cooter spent three years in Indianapolis before Caldwell’s staff was let go after the 2011 season. He went on to Kansas City for one season as a quality control coach, reconnected with Manning in Denver in 2013 before Caldwell hired him to coach the quarterbacks in Detroit.

But through those travels, it was Moore’s offense that stuck with Cooter. When he was promoted to offensive coordinator last season, he and Caldwell went directly to that well.

“There are new plays, nuances, tweaks and adjustments that develop over the years, but the core of (our offense) is what the Colts were doing back then,” Cooter said. “And the stuff Howard Mudd and those guys were doing up front, we’ve tried to do some of that here.

“You’re constantly evolving,” Cooter said. “You’re always trying to do what’s best. Even since I’ve been in the league, there were different coverages that were played a lot more in 2009 then there are now. You’d have plays that were really good against those coverages and we’ve had to phase them out and get different core plays for the way guys cover today. And I’m sure in six years, all those old plays come back. That’s just how it works in this league.”

Detroit’s foundation

So what is the foundation of Moore’s offense?

He explains.

“The big thing was to trying to pre-read the defense and get the best possible run or pass against that defensive front and coverage,” Moore said.

Matthew Stafford throws a pass with Jim Bob Cooter looking on.

“It was trying to get to a situation where we didn’t have dead plays. We were always looking, reading and scheming to get the best play to that defensive look, to get the best pass pattern to apply to that particular coverage, or get a pass pattern if you weren’t sure about the coverage where you could go with your progression reads and know exactly where to go once they declared themselves after the snap.”

Mudd, who is thrilled to learn Cooter has embraced some of his offensive line philosophies from Indianapolis, has kept close tabs on the coaching prodigy.

Mudd had been watching the Lions before Cooter’s promotion and the retired offensive line coach was stunned by the number of unblocked pass rushers getting through to quarterback Matthew Stafford. When Cooter was elevated to coordinator, Mudd wasn’t surprised to see that was one of the first things the Lions cleaned up.

“He settled that thing down really quickly,” Mudd said. “Sacks went down, I believe, and quarterback hits went down dramatically. There were way fewer free runners, people that are not blocked coming free at the quarterback.”

Mudd said that was job one for the quarterback in Indianapolis, identifying the unblocked man before the snap. When Manning was a rookie, Mudd said the coaching staff spent hours upon hours working with the young quarterback, making sure he could identify who would be unblocked and how to address it.

Once the quarterback identified the problem, he has three options.

“You can throw a sight adjustment, you can redirect the line or redirect someone to pick up the unblocked man, or you can change the play,” Mudd said.

A sight adjustment is when the quarterback and receiver alter a route based on a blitz. If the unblocked man rushes, the quarterback and receiver must be on the same page.

As for changing the play, Stafford often has a second option at the line of scrimmage. He perfectly utilized an audible in the team’s Nov. 6 victory against Minnesota, identifying blitzers up the middle prior to the snap and checking to a draw for running back Theo Riddick, who gained 42 yards.

It shouldn’t be surprising, but like most offensive schemes, it largely boils down to whether the quarterback can consistently execute within the system.

“The biggest thing you’ve got to have, and (Stafford) has it, and Peyton was great at it, you’ve got to recognize and recall,” Moore said.

“You have to recognize what they’re doing and recall what you’ve been taught. Once you recognize it, you’ve got to process it. This is what I see, what does that mean? The third phase is application. You recognize it, you process it, now what’s my application, the process to get to the pass that will have success against that particular defensive look.”

Creative twists

The offense has understandably evolved a great deal since Moore implemented the first version in Detroit. Some of the changes have been dictated by shifting defensive trends, some by personnel.

Cooter is highly collaborative, which has led to some of the creative twists you’ve seen on Sundays, namely busting Lions wide receiver Golden Tate out of his slump by working him out of the backfield.

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“All our offensive position coaches have a hand in the game plan, and many of those ideas have come out of those meetings, whether it’s coming up with a unique way to get a guy the ball, or we have a play we like and we want to maximize it,” Cooter said. “If you close your mind and do what you do, don’t adjust, don’t adapt, don’t consider ideas that might be better, you’re really hurting your team.

“Sometimes you have to override yourself, but the policy has to be getting your best plays on paper and get your best players to do it.”

Cooter, an avid sports fan, also studies coaches from other sports. He’s always looking for inspiration, whether it’s Xs and Os or how to better lead and motivate his players. He’s a huge fan of Gregg Popovich, who has led the San Antonio Spurs to five NBA championships.

All totaled, it’s resulted in an offense that’s buoyed the Lions this season, but still has plenty of room to grow, as shown in a stagnant performance in last Sunday’s win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Lions are far from the offensive juggernaut that the Colts were at their peak. Through 10 games, the team ranks 25th in yardage and 17th in scoring. But there are underlying statistics that show the team is playing with a high degree of efficiency.

Stafford’s numbers speak for themselves. He’s completing 67.8 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. The Lions are scoring on 41.7 percent of their possessions and nearly a quarter (22.9 percent) of the team’s drives are 10 plays are longer. The team is also converting 42.9 percent of their third downs.

On the flip side, there are areas needing immediate improvement. There have been far too many dropped passes, the offense goes three-and-out 26 percent of the time and there have been an inordinate amount of negative plays, especially in the run game.

It’s still a work in progress for Cooter and company, but he’s confident improvement is coming.

“I think we’re getting a better feel for our own guys and we hope that increases our output going forward,” he said. “Our end goal is to win the game. So far we’ve won more than we’ve lost, but there’s plenty we can improve.”

For now, improving Detroit’s offense is Cooter’s sole focus. But at this rate, he appears to be on track for a head coaching job, perhaps sooner than later. At 32, he’s one of the league’s youngest coordinators, but those who have coached with him believe it’s the inevitable destination.

“You knew Jim Bob was going to be great and the sky was the limit for him as a coach,” Moore said. “He’s going to head coach in this league one of these days.”