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.
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.