The Manning Offense Went Extinct When Peyton Retired. Could It Rise From The Ashes In Detroit?
When Bob Quinn was hired as the General Manager of the Detroit Lions last January, it was speculated by many that Head Coach Jim Caldwell was a lame duck, or at the very least, on the hot seat. At the time, Caldwell was coming off a disappointing 7-9 campaign, one that resulted in several key Lions figures being sent to the headsman. After a disastrous 1-6 start, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who was once billed as the man behind the curtain in New Orleans, was ousted. Just a week later, Millen-era hangers-on President Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew joined their former colleague in the unemployment line.
Following the bye week, Detroit finished the second half of the season with a 6-2 record. Interim Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter had performed admirably and franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford played lights out. There was cause for optimism, but not enough to temper speculation that Caldwell, a Mayhew hire, was a placeholder for a Bob Quinn candidate. This grim prognosticating intensified when the team got off to a 1-3 start in 2016. The prevailing notion was that the writing was on the wall for Caldwell.
Many theorized that one of the New England coordinators – either Josh McDaniels or Matt Patricia – would take the job and reunite with Quinn in Detroit. Others thought that Jim Bob Cooter, who had developed rapport and chemistry with Stafford, would be promoted internally. After a 1-4 start, yours truly penned a scathing hit piece on Caldwell and suggested the team poach Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards. (Spoiler alert: it hasn’t aged well.)
But, Bob Quinn works in mysterious ways and Caldwell ultimately kept his job. It could be argued that in finishing 9-4, Caldwell saved his job. But if Quinn’s intent from jump street was to bring in his own guy, he may as well have canned Caldwell following the 1-3 start. Fans were calling for the embattled coach’s head, and Quinn could have effectively bought himself a ‘transition year’ by firing Caldwell.
It has been very evident that Quinn has a clear vision of how he wants to build the team. What’s gone unnoticed by myself and others is that he has an equally well-constructed plan for how he wants to build the coaching staff. Quinn has commissioned only a few hirings to date, but there’s a consistent theme among the offensive coaching staff, and Brian Callahan is the most telling of these hires.
A former colleague of Cooter’s in Denver, Callahan was hired as the quarterbacks coach last off-season. The link to Cooter is obvious, but it goes deeper than that. Caldwell, Cooter and Callahan handle Stafford more than any other coaches on the team. What do they all have in common, besides the fact that all their last names start with a C? Check out some of the stops on their respective résumés, and it becomes obvious:
- Jim Caldwell – former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-2011
- Jim Bob Cooter – former offensive assistant of the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-2011, former offensive assistant of the Denver Broncos in 2013
- Brian Callahan – former offensive assistant of the Denver Broncos from 2011-2015
Yet again we, as fans, have gotten it wrong. Quinn isn’t looking to attract Bill Belichick disciples.
He’s collecting Peyton Manning acolytes.
In a 2015 tweet, Ian Rapoport speculated that the firing of Lombardi (and the subsequent promotion of Cooter) portended the incorporation of concepts from some of the Manning offenses over the years. A variety of factors have slowed the implementation of such a system, but incremental progress has been made.
Expect the #Lions new offense under Jim Bob Cooter will look more like Caldwell’s in Indy with Manning, more like Adam Gase’s in Denver.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 1, 2015
Cooter was thrown directly into the fire when he was promoted to interim offensive coordinator at the midway point of the 2015 season. It’s very difficult for a coordinator to install their schemes halfway through the year, so the Lions were stuck running the playbook of the coach they had just fired. In Week 3 of the 2015 preseason, Cooter held a press conference. He said he “reinstalled” the offense and “changed some of the verbiage,” thereby introducing his own offense for the first time. The coach remarked that the offseason gave them time to work on introducing the no-huddle, saying it’s something “[they] worked on all offseason.” However, the coach declined to elaborate on whether they would run out of the no-huddle predominantly in 2016. “Sometimes we play fast, sometimes we don’t,” he said, “Sometimes we’re in the huddle, sometimes we’re out of it.
“Whatever we think is best, we’re going to do that.”
During the preseason, Detroit practiced running a lot of up-tempo and hurry-up – both hallmarks of a Manning offense – through the first few games. In the first two exhibitions, the first team offense ran out of the no-huddle 62% of the time, a huge increase over the 7% mark in 2015, per Kyle Meinke of MLive. Stafford praised the changes, saying, “The faster you can push the tempo…it just makes it more stressful on the defense.”
Alas, that approach wasn’t in the cards for the team in 2016. As the season wore on, it became increasingly apparent that the gameplan was to control the clock to keep a defense ranked 32nd in DVOA off the field. This approach allowed Stafford and company to pull off a record eight 4th quarter comebacks – many of which came out of the no-huddle – but it prevented them from playing at the tempo they wanted to.
Another tenet of a Manning offense is complete trust in the quarterback to change play calls at the line. Manning’s pre-snap adjustments are the stuff of legends, so much so that his cries of, “Omaha,” transcended meme status during the 2013 Broncos’ Super Bowl run. The chemistry between Cooter and Stafford has been well-documented, but what was telling was a remark Cooter made in a preseason press conference. “It’s not about what plays I like the best, it’s about the plays the players feel the best about.”
“I’ve learned early in my time that if a quarterback likes a play, he tends to make it work.”
He’s talking, of course, about Manning.
But the Manning offense wasn’t defined just by the no-huddle because it wasn’t limited to the no-huddling, perpetually-audibling Manning depicted in Madden games. In a 2013 article for Grantland, Chris Brown beautifully breaks down the Moore-Manning offense, named, in part, after former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore. Brown noted that the offense used “both a speedy no-huddle…and a regular pace of play.” Sound familiar?
He also details the simplicity of the system, which is primarily run with 11 and 12 personnel, which used just “a small number of plays [which] essentially puts the full offense at Manning’s disposal anytime.” This verbiage was echoed by wide receiver Golden Tate last preseason when he said this about the no-huddle: “We can call literally any play in our playbook at any moment, in the huddle or just by a few signals.” And, like Manning’s team throughout the years, the Lions operated out of either 11 (76%) and 12 (9%) personnel 84% of the time in 2016. With the addition of 2017 fourth round tight end Michael Roberts, that number could even go up in 2017.
Speaking of tight ends, there’s an interesting quote from Manning himself that was referenced in Brown’s article. “So much for us, in what we do, is how do they play [former Colts and Broncos TE Jacob] Tamme,” Manning said, “Some teams treat him like a receiver and some teams treat him like a tight end, so you kind of fit that out, see how they handle him in the formation.”
“He kind of makes them, the way he plays, have that discussion and we see where that takes us.” Eric Ebron fits that mold, and will likely see a much larger role in the offense following the departure of Anquan Boldin.
All the pieces are in place for Detroit, at least on offense. The defense may take one more year to catch up, but when they do, it’ll be a sight to see. Some may find it blasphemous to mention Matthew Stafford and Peyton Manning in the same breath, but it’s not as outrageous as it may seem. Stafford just broke Manning’s single-season record for comeback wins in a season.
He’s also one of only five QBs – Manning, Tom Brady, Dan Marino, and Drew Brees – to ever throw for 5000 yards in a single season. Stafford has yet to ascend to that tier of quarterback, but remember that Manning won his first Super Bowl about a month shy of his 31st birthday. Stafford just turned 29. If the Manning offense makes its way to Detroit soon, something else just might find its way to the Motor City, too.