Jim Caldwell spent a season and a half defending his struggling offense, telling anyone who’d listen not to believe what they were seeing with their own two eyes.
But with time running out on this season – and maybe his tenure as Detroit Lions coach – Caldwell made sweeping changes to his offensive staff Monday, firing offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and offensive line coaches Jeremiah Washburn and Terry Heffernan hours before the team boarded a flight to London.
Quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter will take over as the Lions’ play caller beginning with this week’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Wembley Stadium, and tight ends coach Ron Prince is now coaching the offensive line.
“We just were not productive,” Caldwell said. “That’s the key.”
The moves came about two hours after Caldwell, under heavy questioning following another miserable loss, said he did not plan to make any immediate changes to his staff.
He said he re-evaluated the offense’s performance, and notified players of the moves during a mid-afternoon meeting.
Along with Cooter and Prince, running backs coach Curtis Modkins will take on the added responsibilities of running game coordinator and assistant special teams coach Devin Fitzsimmons will work with tight ends.
Caldwell said he made the decisions without consulting with owner Martha Ford, but added, “I’m sure they’re supportive.”
The Lions averaged just 20 points in 23 games with Lombardi as their play caller, and were one of the least productive offensive teams in the NFL this year.
Despite a cast of talent that includes Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate and Eric Ebron, the Lions rank 20th in total offense, lead the league in turnovers, rank last in rushing and have the second worst scoring margin in the NFL (minus-61 points) this year.
In Sunday’s 28-19 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the Lions gave up seven sacks and scored their only points in the final 35 minutes on a safety the Vikings willingly took when they were punting out of their own end zone with 59 seconds to play.
At 1-6, the Lions have the worst record in the NFL.
“Anytime guys are let go it’s a tough situation,” Stafford said. “You feel a certain amount of responsibility as a player cause you’re the guy, especially at the quarterback position, you’re 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.”
Stafford, in particular, seemed to regress under Lombardi’s command, with the deep passing game becoming less a part of the Lions’ offense and the team relying more on short crossing routes.
Stafford denied that he had any disconnect, and said he spoke with Lombardi shortly after the firings.
“I think Joe’s an extremely talented coordinator,” Stafford said, “Obviously. Some of the stuff that we had was great. Like I said, I have a ton of respect for him. Just wish I could have played better and helped us win more games.”
Like Lombardi, who was hired after seven seasons as a quarterbacks coach and offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints, Cooter has never called plays at the NFL level before.
Just 31, the former Tennessee quarterback is widely respected for his football acumen to the point that the Lions denied the Chicago Bears permission to interview Cooter last winter.
Caldwell described Cooter as “bright and smart” and said he “adjusts well.”
“The big thing is to be productive on a continuous basis,” Caldwell said. “Every game requires something just a little bit different and the thing you have to understand, too, and I know you all do is you can’t change an offense in its entirety in two days time or a week’s time. So it’s going to take obviously some adjustments along the way here.”
Stafford said he plans to spend a significant amount of time with Cooter over the next few days to figure out how the Lions offense will change over the next nine games.
“We’ll have to see how much we can change, if we change anything,” he said. “I’m not sure with that yet. Like I said, it’s very early in the process right now.”
While several teams have made coaching changes after bottoming out in London – the Miami Dolphins fired Joe Philbin and replaced him with former Lions tight end Dan Campbell earlier this month and the Oakland Raiders fired Dennis Allen after their London trip last year – Caldwell said decided to make the move before traveling across the Atlantic for simple reasons.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” he said. “We’re running out of time.”
Asked if he feels time is running out on his own tenure with the Lions, he said getting ready for the Chiefs is his only concern.
“I don’t feel any different than I did like I told you in 1979 (when I started coaching),” Caldwell said. “It’s a day-to-day business. It always has been, always will be. We get into this business because we don’t mind that, we can handle that. It’s not a big issue for us.”
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Contact Dave Birkett: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.
Who’s in and out
The offensive coaching changes announced by Lions coach Jim Caldwell on Monday — four hours after saying no changes were planned:
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi
Offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn
Assistant line coach Terry Heffernan.
QB coach Jim Bob Cooter is the new offensive coordinator.
Running backs coach Curtis Modkins is also the new run game coordinator.
Tight ends coach/assistant head coach Ron Prince is the new offensive line coach.
Special teams assistant Devin Fitzsimmons is the new tight ends coach.
A struggle to score
The Lions’ offense never clicked under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. The offense’s rankings out of 32 NFL teams over two seasons:
2014 points per game: 22nd
2015 points pergame: 25th
2014 yards per game: 19th
2015 yards per game: 13th
2014 rush yards/game: 28th
2015 rush yards/game: 32nd
2014 pass yards/game: 12th
2015 pass yards/game: Seventh
Detroit Lions Matthew Stafford is sacked by the Minnesota Vikings Eric Kendricks in the fourth quarter of the Vikings 28-19 win on Sunday, October 25, 2015, in Detroit. Julian H. Gonzalez/Detroit Free Press