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You Either Die A Hero, Or You Live Long To See Yourself Become The Villain.
Jim Bob Cooter is not the man you thought he was, nor is he the man you think he is.
Once billed as the panacea to Detroit’s offensive woes, Cooter is now perceived as a plague that has befallen the unit. In the offseason, followers were singing his praises and raising monuments in his name. Today, fanatics armed with pitchforks and torches are ready to shed his blood. To misquote the late Bill Shakespeare, “Heavy lies the crown,” indeed.
I feel the need to clarify that this is, of course, all hyperbolic. Calling the Detroit fanbase murderous has had literal connotations as recently as the Millen years, and I think his detractors would settle for excommunication in lieu of a beheading.
But, in case the Jim Bob folklore seems like ancient history, allow me to briefly summarize.
After Joe Lombardi was thrown to the wolves by Martin Mayhew, Cooter was named the interim offensive coordinator and resurrected a lifeless 1-6 team. Following the season, I wrote this about the offense under his leadership:
“After their bye week, the Lions looked like a new team, going 6-2 in the second half of the season. Stafford was reborn in Cooter’s offense, throwing for 2179 yards, 19 TDs, and just 2 INTs in the last eight games. He also had a 110.1 passer rating and a 70.0% completion rate during that period, a franchise record for any eight-game stretch. His 32 TDs on the year were the second-highest of his career (41 in 2011), whereas his 13 interceptions were the second-lowest of his career (12 in 2014). He finished in the Top 10 of every major statistical passing category: seventh in attempts, fifth in completions, eighth in yards, seventh in TDs, ninth in passer rating, and fifth in completion percentage.”
For his encore, Cooter helped guide the Lions to 9-7 and a wildcard berth, while Matthew Stafford posted his lowest interception rate in any full season he’s ever played in. Oh, and Stafford also broke the NFL record for most comeback wins in a season – previously held by Peyton Manning – with eight.
This year, the Lions (at 4-3) are once again in the playoff hunt. Stafford is on pace to lower his interception rate from last year. They’re taking more deep shots. They’re moving the ball faster.
And I’m to believe the team should relieve Jim Bob Cooter of his headset?
Get the fuck outta here.
Reconciling the Good with the Bad
Yes, he called some poor games earlier in the year, and the playcalling was very predictable for a stretch. But those issues have since been remedied and the ends ultimately justify the means, anyway.
And the Lions are currently ranked sixth in points per game with 27.1.
But, wait – the team has scored a lot of defensive and special teams touchdowns this year, right?
No matter. The team ranks tenth in the league in offensive PPG with an average of 22.67. Last year, they averaged 21.6 altogether, and 20.25 on offense alone.
And while it’s true that the offense has benefitted from better field position this year, they’ve still had to work for their points. The team ranks 3rd in average starting position this year per Football Outsiders (as opposed to 30th last year) but the disparity between yards earned on scoring drives between this year and last isn’t the chasm you may think it’d be.
According to Pro Football Reference’s drive finder, Detroit has averaged 54.65 yards on scoring drives in 2017, with an average starting point of their own 34.8-yard line. Last year, that figure was 61.67, when the average starting point was their own 28.1-yard line.
While, I won’t downplay the significance of seven yards, you can only work with what you’ve been given. And when the 2017 Lions have begun a drive inside their own 25-yard line, they’ve wound up with points 37.3% of the time.
In 2016, that figure was 37.2%.
They’ve also outperformed their average offensive PPG when matched up against defenses ranked in the top 10 in DVOA. At the time of publishing, the Steelers, Saints, and Panthers are ranked fourth, fifth, and sixth in DVOA, respectively. The Lions have averaged 23.33 offensive PPG against those squads.
So, What’s Gone Wrong?
Now I won’t lie to you, ladies and gentlemen – the offense is down in some statistical categories. They’re averaging 2.0 points per drive this year, down 0.13 from 2016. And that tradeoff is acceptable considering the fact they’re moving the ball more quickly. However, red zone efficiency is also down – from 54.17% to 50%. While not insignificant, are these the abhorrent regressions they’ve been marketed as, or is it more likely they’re standard deviations? And were it not for the single Pittsburgh game, the red zone efficiency would be rather comparable.
This is an evergreen statement, but the Lions have struggled to run the ball this year. Their well-documented run game woes have hurt them in the red zone and in short-yardage situations. And Cooter has been scapegoated for it.
As Lions beat writer Justin Rogers pointed out on Twitter, the Lions have been successful on 3rd down situations – to a point.
The team’s struggles on 3rd & 4 or less probably has something to do with how bad the line has been.
According to Football Outsiders, the team ranks dead last in:
- Adjusted line yards, with 2.92. That’s 0.24 lower than the 31st ranked team, the Bengals, who inexplicably let two very good linemen walk in free agency.
- Power success. They convert power situations at a rate of 33%, which is 9% lower than the 31st ranked team, the Rams.
- Stuff rank. The Lions’ backs are tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage 3% more frequently than the next-worst squad, the Dolphins.
Meanwhile, their adjusted sack rate jumped from 6.2% in 2016 to 8% this year.
That is abysmal.
The Bottom Line
The offensive line, despite the amount of resources Bob Quinn invested in it this past offseason, has gotten worse. That’s largely due to injuries; not only have they been missing key players, but they’ve been unable to develop any chemistry with all the permutations they’ve undergone. Perhaps Cooter could be doing a better job of calling run plays – and there’s some truth to that – but scheme will only get you so far in the trenches.
With all that said, Cooter is not, and has never been, an alchemist. He is an above average, if unspectacular, offensive coordinator. And believe it or not, those don’t grow on trees.
Take for example the respective cases of John Morton and Joe Lombardi. Both are Sean Payton disciples. The former has exceeded expectations in his first year as the Jets’ offensive coordinator. The latter is a demoted washout who’s been reduced to obscurity after crawling back to New Orleans. Finding an offensive coordinator who will be as good, or better, would be a difficult and rather unnecessary undertaking. And firing him mid-season, while the team is in the playoff picture, would be insane.
Matthew Stafford has continued to grow under Cooter’s tutelage. The offense is moving the ball faster and taking more chances – something fans clamored for last year. They’re scoring 2.42 more points a game on offense. Drives of 75 yards or more are turning into points at a marginally higher percentage. They’re punting 2.9% less frequently. All while the offensive line has regressed due to injuries and a lack of injuries. If anything, the offense is actually better this year than it was last year. And if Cooter was supposedly so great last year, tell me again –
Why should the Lions fire him?