Greg Eno

Cooter’s magic key with Stafford significantly beefs up his resume

In football on December 6, 2016 at 5:02 pm

Published December 6, 2016

Believe it or not, there was a time when the offensive coordinator of any professional football team was the quarterback.

Oh, he got his guidance from the head coach, for sure, and they worked on game plans during the week, but the playcalling was pretty much done by the man under center.

An exception was the great Otto Graham, the Browns’ Hall of Fame quarterback. In fact, a slight knock on Graham has been that he didn’t call his own plays. Paul Brown, one of football’s great control freaks and innovators, handled that.

Chuck Noll, a Hall of Fame coach, was one of Brown’s messenger guards in the halcyon days of the 1950s. Maybe that’s where Chuck learned his stuff. It was Noll who jogged back and forth from Brown to Graham, delivering the next play.

Graham excluded, the pro quarterback carried with him into the huddle a mind filled with Xs and Os, schemes and formations, and it was he and he alone who told his 10 teammates in the huddle what play was to be run.

This trend went the way of the dinosaur by the late-1970s, when coaching staffs expanded and technology allowed for quicker relay of plays from the press box into the quarterback’s ear. The position of offensive coordinator became a staple on every team’s org chart.

None of this means that Matthew Stafford, or any modern day NFL quarterback, couldn’t be charged with calling his own plays if the need arose. After all, the QB does indeed “check out” of the original play call if he sees something at or around the line of scrimmage and changes things as the play clock winds down.

But the days of quarterbacks being so entrusted are long gone.

Jim Bob Cooter has a name that was at first mocked for its good ole boy sound, but is now being bandied about as a possible head coaching candidate elsewhere in the NFL.

Cooter is the quarterbacks coach who became the accidental o-coordinator when the Lions gave Joe Lombardi the ziggy a year ago October.

Cooter is also the man who seems to have unlocked the mystery of Stafford.

Some things in pro sports can be chalked up to mere coincidence.

But others are clear cases of cause and effect.

There’s a distinct delineation in the status of Stafford pre-Cooter and what he is now, over a year later.

Stafford was always a big numbers quarterback. He could throw for 4,000-plus yards every year without breaking a sweat.

But those big numbers also included the ugly ones too.

Interceptions. Fumbles. Badly thrown balls. Poor decisions.

Those numbers were big as well.

Stafford did his initial maturation under Scotty Linehan, Jim Schwartz’s offensive coordinator from 2009-13. And Linehan deserves credit for turning Stafford from the league’s number one overall draft pick in 2009 with vast potential into a serviceable NFL signal caller.

But the feeling nagged that there was so much more that Stafford could give. He put up big numbers but was he truly an elite quarterback?

The answer had to be no, he wasn’t.

Jim Caldwell was hired as head coach in January 2014 and he brought with him Lombardi, formerly the QB coach of the New Orleans Saints. Lombardi was supposed to be one of the NFL’s younger, up-and-coming offensive minds. And his task was to unlock the mystery of Matthew Stafford—to elevate him to a top shelf pro quarterback.

Stafford played terribly down the stretch in 2013, when the Lions blew an almost sure playoff spot. Frankly, Stafford played Schwartz out of a job.

So Lombardi’s job was to reverse Stafford’s awful trend of ill-timed turnovers and suspect decision making. It was getting to be time for Stafford to make that next step.

But Stafford and Lombardi weren’t quite simpatico.

Stafford was polite in his comments to the press, but it was obvious that he and Lombardi never really jelled, and the Lions’ won-lost record suffered because of it. The Lions, under Lombardi, engaged in a pattycake offense. The rhythm was lacking. Stafford appeared to be suppressed in his abilities.

Enter the good ole boy, Jim Bob Cooter.

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Cooter is the only coach who’s been able to get this much out of Stafford—sans the mistakes.

Under Cooter, Stafford is flourishing. The QB doesn’t turn the ball over. He’s thrown just five interceptions this season. He doesn’t fumble. He’s making smart decisions on the field.

Stafford is playing with confidence, control and efficiency never seen before in Detroit by a quarterback.

This isn’t a coincidence that it’s happening under Cooter.

Cooter has unlocked the mystery of Matthew Stafford. He alone can put that on his coaching resume. It’s something that ought to bring forth job offers in the future—whether as head coach or coordinator elsewhere.

No coach has been able to get out of Stafford what Cooter has been able to, in the quarterback’s eight years in the league.

Cooter and Stafford lost Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson to retirement, but it hasn’t mattered. In fact, I submit that Johnson’s retirement has benefited Stafford. No longer do Stafford or Cooter feel that they need to involve Johnson at all costs.

No receiver should be the franchise player, anyway—even one as gifted as Johnson.

Without Johnson, Stafford can be allowed to freely spread the football around. And Cooter doesn’t have to answer questions like “Why don’t you target Calvin more?”

Cooter has managed to succeed where coaches before him have failed. He’s managed to get the most out of Matthew Stafford, while at the same time cutting down severely on the silly mistakes and ill-timed turnovers that have torpedoed the Lions’ chances in the past.

Cooter is the only man who’s been able to pull this off.

No wonder his name has become more than something to snicker at.


Boldin’s bear trap hands on verge of making the playoffs yet again

In football on November 29, 2016 at 11:10 pm

Published November 29, 2016

The playoffs seem to follow Anquan Boldin, no matter where he’s played in his 14-year NFL career.

The playoffs even found him in Arizona, of all places (2008), back when the Cardinals were lock step with the Lions in terms of franchise ineptitude over the past half century. Not only did the ’08 Cards make the playoffs, they came within one amazing Santonio Holmes catch away from winning the Super Bowl.

The playoffs then followed Boldin—the 36 year-old receiver who still has a bear trap for hands—to Baltimore, where he made three post-seasons while a Raven, including a Super Bowl victory in 2012-13.

Then Boldin was a 49er in 2013 and—you guessed it—he made the playoffs again.

And these haven’t been token appearances. No one-and-dones for him.

Boldin has been in the playoffs five times with three different teams and in those five years he’s played in 14 games, all starts. He has 68 playoff catches for 1,033 yards and eight touchdowns.

Nothing to sneeze at.

Funny how Boldin always seems to make his way into January and February games, eh?

The allure of the playoffs, which to a player like Boldin is akin to an intoxicant, is partially what drove him to sign with the Lions over the summer in a one-year deal for which GM Bob Quinn must be duly recognized.

Now, it must seem odd to Lions fans that a player of Boldin’s stature would sign in Detroit for a chance at playoff glory, but it is what it is.

Clearly Boldin knows a playoff team when he sees it, since he’s played on a bunch of them.

And what he saw back in July, when he inked the deal with the Lions, led him to say this.

“I like the direction I feel this team is headed,” Boldin said after his first practice with the team. “Good young talent and guys that are hungry. Just watching the last eight games of the season last year, I felt like this team would be in a position to compete this year.”

Boldin was referring, of course, to last year’s 6-2 finish after a brutal 1-7 start that led to the firing of President Tom Lewand and GM Marty Mayhew.

Boldin also said that his familiarity with Lions coach Jim Caldwell—who took over the Ravens’ offensive playcalling late in the 2012 season—factored into his decision to sign on the dotted line.

Boldin, at 36, isn’t the explosive receiver he’s been in the past. Frankly, he’s a possession guy now—and a damned good one.

Lions QB Matthew Stafford must look at Boldin and see him encased.

“Break glass if you need a first down.”

Boldin is averaging just 8.2 yards a reception this year on 48 catches. His longest play has been 29 yards. But he still has two of the strongest hands of any receiver in the NFL. He never catches passes while wide open. In fact, it seems as if Stafford only throws to Boldin if the general vicinity is filled with defenders.

Boldin is never open, per se, because his routes don’t last long enough to give him a chance to get open. But Stafford still slings him the ball, and Boldin keeps catching it.

It’s something that Boldin has been doing since 2003.

His first NFL game came at Ford Field, while with the Cardinals. The Lions won, but Boldin torched them for 10 catches for 217 yards and two touchdowns.

But for as good as Boldin has been in the regular season (over 1,000 catches for over 13,000 yards), it’s in the playoffs where he’s made the most hay.

Boldin entered 2016 ranked in a tie for 11th all-time in playoff receptions and 12th in playoff receiving yards.

He could move way up in both categories if the Lions make a playoff run this year.

When Quinn signed Boldin to help allay the loss of Calvin Johnson (along with the earlier signing of free agent Marvin Jones Jr.), I thought it to be a brilliant, under-the-radar move. You can’t lose when you bring in someone with Boldin’s pedigree, especially if the dude can still play, which he could.

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Boldin was warmly greeted by Lions owner Martha Ford when he signed in July, and with good reason.

It was smart and savvy for Quinn to snap up Boldin for a mere one year commitment. Whether Boldin returns to the NFL in general, or to the Lions specifically, in 2017 remains to be seen. But right now, Boldin is every bit a key cog to the Lions’ surprising 7-4 start as anyone on the roster, with the exception of Stafford.

Boldin’s yards per catch is the lowest in his career, by far. But the way that offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and Stafford use Boldin doesn’t call for the big play. Cooter especially knows that Boldin simply can’t be that explosive guy anymore, so why force it?

Still, Boldin has six TDs in 2016 with five games to play. His 1:8 TD catch-to-receptions ratio is by far the best in his career, tied with his 2008 season, when he caught 11 touchdown passes among his 89 receptions.

Last year, for example, Boldin caught 69 passes for the 49ers, but only four hit paydirt. That 1:17.5 ratio is more than two times worse than this year’s mark.

Cooter and Stafford have Golden Tate, Jones, Andre Roberts and tight end Eric Ebron—who’s coming into his own in year three—to handle the downfield stuff. Stafford has to heave the ball to find those guys.

But with Boldin, Stafford doesn’t need to throw the ball further than five or six yards before making the connection, usually for a first down to keep drives alive. And, like I said, Boldin is never open in the classic sense.

He’s never open, but his hands are so strong, it doesn’t matter. Boldin makes catches under pressure and heavy coverage as if the footballs are babies being dropped out of a burning building.

The playoffs keep finding Anquan Boldin, no matter where he plays.

Even a star-crossed franchise like the Lions looks to be ready to keep that trend alive.

Pistons’ move back to Detroit is fine, as long as the team wins

In Basketball on November 23, 2016 at 7:27 pm

Published November 23, 2016

So the Pistons are going to give Detroit another shot.

The first one clanked off the rim.

It dawned on me that not only are we rearing a generation of millennials who don’t remember when the Pistons played at Cobo Arena, a lot of them don’t even recall the team’s time in the Silverdome. Truth.

The Pistons, to them, are the Palace, and no place else. Of course, nothing happened before they were born anyway, don’t you know.

Forget the days in the cavernous, ill-suited Silverdome, where the temps were chilly, the lighting was awful and the roof occasionally leaked. A couple times the roof gave in entirely, and the team had to play elsewhere, like at Joe Louis Arena—even back at Cobo on one occasion.

No, this isn’t about the Silverdome years (1978-88), when the Pistons would sometimes get shoved out by a motocross or a monster truck show or a concert. All those mini-evictions led to owner Bill Davidson to say screw it, I’m going to build my own basketball Palace.

The Pistons have long been the vagabond team in town.

They came to Detroit in 1957 from Fort Wayne, and in those days they shared Olympia Stadium with the Red Wings, who weren’t exactly benevolent landlords. The Pistons were treated like a redheaded stepchild, which led to owner Fred Zollner moving the franchise to shiny new Cobo Arena in 1961.

But the arena was a mere extension of Cobo Hall proper, which hosted tons of conventions, trade shows and the like. Basketball was an afterthought, and eventually concerts and other special events forced the Pistons to compete for floor space in their supposed “own” arena, when the Hall portion of the complex was deemed to be inappropriate.

Basketball was—and still is—number four in a four-sport town in Detroit, and only the highly curious came to see the Pistons toil in Cobo in the 1960s and ’70s. It didn’t help that the team was rarely competitive in the NBA.

Even stars like Dave DeBusschere, Dave Bing and Bob Lanier failed to move the meter, attendance-wise. A good crowd was around 7,000. A HUGE crowd was around 10 K. But most were in the 2-4,000 range.

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A typical “crowd” at Cobo Arena to watch the Pistons (circa 1973).

Undaunted, owner Davidson was committed to Detroit—sort of. He picked up stakes and moved his team 45 minutes north. The Lions had done it three years earlier, so why not give it a shot?

Davidson knew the Pistons would again be secondary tenants in the Silverdome. He knew that they would be low on the totem pole when the latest rock group came to town or the big motorcycles needed a place to play. But Mr. D was so eager to get out of Cobo—and the city of Detroit—that he made the move to Pontiac anyway.

In the Dome, the Pistons could give away tickets—a ploy they used in the Cobo days as well—and boast of crowds in the 20, 30 thousand ranges. And higher.

The team became successful on the court in the mid-1980s and the Pistons didn’t have to give tickets away anymore. And they, frankly, outgrew the Silverdome.

The Palace was, and still is, a state-of-the-art facility. Other cities have used it as a model for their new arenas. The biggest hook was the placement of some of the power suites at mezzanine level, instead of in the nose bleed section, like at Joe Louis Arena.

I was never one to buy into the theory that if the Pistons were to move back downtown, it would make all that much of a difference for them financially. Detroit is a frontrunner’s town when it comes to pro basketball. If the team is winning, the crowds show up a little bit. But if the product on the court is a losing one, forget it.

I still believe that.

But if the Pistons want to give Detroit another shot, go right ahead. They didn’t have to build their own building this time, so there’s that.

I’m not opposed to the move. The city is vibrant and the corridor where the four teams play is one of the hottest in all of America, when it comes to big cities.

But the Pistons better win.

When the Pistons moved to Pontiac in 1978, the team was headed into a tailspin. They made the playoffs every year between 1974 and 1977, but their last year at Cobo saw a 38-44 record in a season in which the coach got fired. Then the Pistons hired Dick Vitale in May of 1978 and the nosedive continued unabated, with Dickie V greasing the skids.

For a new team moving into a new facility, the Pistons couldn’t have picked a worse time. The 1979-80 Pistons went 16-66. They were awful in their first three years in the Dome, which kept the marketing department hopping. The bleeding stopped when Isiah Thomas and Kelly Tripucka arrived in 1981.

This version of the Pistons are moving back into Detroit at a much better time in terms of the health of the franchise, than when they headed north in 1978. Despite the early stumbling this season, boss Stan Van Gundy has the team on a good track, considering what he took over in May 2014.

But they’d better keep it up.

The move back into Detroit will be a boon, initially. And it should be. The Pistons ought to be congratulated for contributing to the rebirth of the city—as long as we’re not talking about neighborhoods here.

But if they don’t win, the shiniest arena in the world won’t help them.

Fans in Detroit won’t walk across the street to see a losing NBA team. That’s been proven. But they’ll fill Ford Field to see a team that has one playoff win in 59 years. Go figure.

The Pistons are back in Detroit, starting next season. Good for them. Good for the city. Not sure what this means for Palace employees, but there always needs to be collateral damage, I guess, in the name of big bucks.

But the Pistons better win. And keep winning.