2014 NFL Coaching Changes: Detroit Lions

John Tuvey, @jtuvey

If you’re a glass-half-full person, you see Jim Caldwell as the coach who took Tony Dungy’s talented Colts team to a Super Bowl, or the coordinator who took over play-calling duties in Baltimore and spurred Joe Flacco to a sterling postseason—and the Ravens to a Lombardi Trophy.

Of course, this being Detroit there are plenty of glass-half-empty people who see Caldwell as a 37-year coaching vet who rode Peyton Manning’s coattails to a Super Bowl and was exposed as nothing special in his first full season of play-calling in Baltimore—not to mention the guy the Lions settled for after Ken Whisenhunt opted for $1 million more per season in Tennessee.

What all parties can agree upon is that Job One for Caldwell in Detroit is getting maximum productivity out of franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford. And to that end Caldwell certainly seems like a shrewd choice to replace Jim Schwartz.

For starters, personality-wise Caldwell is the diametric opposite of Schwartz. He’s a high character guy who the Lions hope can rein in some of the, uh, discipline issues on their current roster. He received a ringing endorsement during the interview process from former boss Tony Dungy, and Manning has credited him with fine-tuning his quarterbacking skills during their decade together in Indianapolis.

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Caldwell also came to his interview prepared, having watched every pass Stafford threw last season and armed with a detailed plan for how he would correct the Lions’ quarterback’s issues. Noted for his film dissection with Manning in Indy, perhaps Caldwell can bring some of that magic to Motown—or at least the mojo that helped Flacco run the table and get paid in Baltimore.

While Caldwell takes the macro view in Detroit, he’ll leave the playbook and the play-calling to offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi—Vince’s grandson and, for the past five seasons, Drew Brees’ quarterback coach in New Orleans. Lombardi has indicated that the Lions’ new playbook will look much like the Saints’ playbook, which certainly isn’t a bad thing.

And while it’s fun to picture Reggie Bush in the Darren Sproles role—at least the one Sproles had prior to this year, before Pierre Thomas took a bigger bite out of his touches—it won’t necessarily be a complete overhaul. The Lions kept running backs coach Curtis Modkins on staff, and Lombardi noted that Modkins was “doing some really creative things here I’m sure we’ll incorporate.”

The Lions also kept line coach Jeremiah Washburn around to continue the development of what is becoming a solid offensive line.

“Some of the things [Detroit] did in protection that we didn’t do in New Orleans are pretty exciting,” Lombardi said in a published report. “You’re going to see some differences, but the playbook that we’re starting from is the same playbook; it will certainly be very similar.”

The development of Joseph Fauria is another intriguing storyline, especially if he’s handling the Jimmy Graham portion of the playbook. And Calvin Johnson… well, he’ll get at least a chapter or two of the playbook just for him, whether it comes from the Saints or not.

Ultimately Detroit’s offense hinges on Stafford, and Lombardi has some ideas of his own to help in his development.

“I was a little encouraged after watching that this was not an interception machine,” Lombardi said in a published report after watching film of all 19 of Stafford’s picks from 2013. “By no means is [Stafford] the perfect quarterback, but he’s smart, he works hard, and he’s talented.”

This will be Lombardi’s first go-around at calling plays at the NFL level, but he doesn’t seem overly concerned. He’ll have Caldwell to lean on, for one thing, and his time with Sean Payton in New Orleans has prepped him for the task.

“It’s always a collaborative effort,” Lombardi said in a published report. “I think a lot of the play calls get done during the week in game planning. No matter who’s calling plays, certainly a lot of suggestions are being made on game day.”

No question there’s talent on the Lions offense. Caldwell and Lombardi both bring solid pedigrees to the table, suggesting they have the means to extract productivity from that talent. And if they can develop Stafford into something resembling either Manning or Brees, there’s a ton of fantasy upside in Detroit as well.

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