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What Does Joe Lombardi Hire Mean for Matthew Stafford, Lions Offense?

USA Today
Zach KruseSenior Analyst IJanuary 21, 2014

The Detroit Lions are giving quarterback Matthew Stafford all the resources he needs to get a once promising career back on the right track. 

According to Chris Mortensen of ESPN, the Lions are hiring New Orleans Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi to be the offensive coordinator for new head coach Jim Caldwell, who was picked last week to replace Jim Schwartz. 

A former No. 1 overall pick who has regressed over the last two seasons, Stafford will now have two of his most important teachers possessing vast experience with an elite NFL quarterback. 

Lombardi, the grandson of legendary NFL head coach Vince Lombardi, spent the last five seasons working as the position coach for Drew Brees in New Orleans. Caldwell spent 10 years and went to two Super Bowls with Peyton Manning as his quarterback with the Indianapolis Colts

The Lions aren't being coy about their desire to revive Stafford's stardom. Nor should they. 

Possibly no factor will play a bigger role in the success or failure of Caldwell's coaching tenure than the development of Stafford, whose struggles down the stretch last season were a major reason why the talented Lions went from 6-3 and front-runners in the NFC North to 7-9 and a complete disappointment.

Over Detroit's final seven games, Stafford completed less than 55 percent of his passes and threw 12 interceptions. His passer rating was just 70.0 as the Lions went 1-6. 

The finish was in stark contrast to his first nine games, in which Stafford threw 19 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. His 94.1 passer rating helped fuel Detroit's 6-3 start, a record that led the NFC North through 10 weeks.

The Good and Bad: Matthew Stafford's 2013 Splits
Cmp/AttCmp %YardsTD/INTRatingW-L
Games 1-9229/37361.4283619/794.16-3
Games 10-16142/26154.4181410/1270.01-6
Totals371/63458.5465029/1984.27-9
Source: Pro Football Reference

Getting more of the good and less of the bad from Stafford will be the task placed upon Caldwell and Lombardi. 

While Caldwell flamed out of Indianapolis without Manning and Lombardi has no NFL experience as an offensive coordinator, the pair should have a wealth of information and teaching points to give Stafford in 2014 and beyond. 

Caldwell, who spent seven years as Manning's quarterback coach and another three as his head coach, has already expressed part of his plan for fixing Stafford. 

Per Peter King of the MMQB, Caldwell wants to get Stafford more consistent in his footwork: 

We have used a set of drills in coaching over the years that I think has added some consistency to all the quarterbacks we’ve coached. The great majority of poor throws—people look at the arm, and that’s important obviously, but I think footwork is the key. I can pull up any game film and show you how our footwork drills help you. In a nutshell, the feet and eyes work together. If I’m throwing in a particular direction, my footwork is pointing in the same direction—directly at the target. We’ll work on it with Matthew, and he will do them flawlessly.

Lombardi's presence will only add to the resources available to Stafford. 

Five years working with a master technician in Brees and directly under a respected offensive mind and play-caller in Sean Payton is worth its weight in coaching gold. 

Over the five seasons with Lombardi as his quarterback coach, Brees completed 68.2 percent of his 3,149 passes for 24,823 yards and 195 touchdowns. All four figures led NFL quarterbacks from 2009 to 2013. 

During that same time span, Brees compiled a passer rating of 102.1—trailing only Manning and Aaron Rodgers—and won 55 games, second only to Tom Brady. 

In 2009, or Lombardi's first season as Brees' quarterback coach, the Saints advanced to the Super Bowl and eventually beat Caldwell's Colts. During that season, Brees completed 70.6 percent of his passes and finished with a passer rating of 109.6, which were both new career highs at the time. 

In the Super Bowl, Brees out-dueled Manning by completing 32 of his 39 attempts for 288 yards and two touchdowns. He finished his postseason with eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions. 

Drew Brees Under Joe Lombardi, 2009-2013
TotalNFL Rank
Completions21471st
Attempts31491st
Completion %68.21st
Passing Yards248231st
Passing Yards/G314.21st
Passing Touchdowns1951st
Yards/Attempt7.97th
Passer Rating102.13rd
Wins552nd
Source: Pro Football Reference

How much Lombardi is to be credited for Brees' ascendancy to the top of the quarterback hierarchy can be debated. Payton, who possesses vast knowledge of offense and quarterbacks, has generally received most of the acclaim for shaping Brees into the elite player he is today. 

However, it was Lombardi's introduction in 2009 that really coincided with Brees taking off. 

During his first three seasons with Payton and the Saints (2006-08), Brees posted a total passer rating of 93.3. He tossed 46 interceptions—an average of almost 16 a season—and the Saints were a mostly middling team with a three-year record of 25-23. 

That all changed in 2009, when Brees set an NFL record for completion percentage, dropped his interceptions from 17 to 11 and the Saints won 13 of the 15 regular-season games he started. 

METAIRIE, LA - MAY 24: Quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi of the New Orleans Saints works with Sean Canfield #4 during OTA's at the Saints Practice Facility on May 24, 2012 in Metairie, Louisiana.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Might Lombardi be able to pull off the same kind of progression with Stafford?

Since scratching the peak of his potential in 2011, Stafford has become a middle-of-the-pack quarterback who provides flashes of brilliance but also long bouts of maddening inconsistency. 

During that playoff season of 2011, the Lions offense finished fourth in points scored and fifth in yards gained. Stafford was the main catalyst, throwing for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns over a full 16-game season. 

With a rocket right arm, a dangerous set of weapons and the sheer volume of his passing numbers, Stafford had many believing he was on the cusp of achieving elite status. The last two seasons brought those hopes back to Earth. 

Over his last 32 games, Stafford has completed 59.2 percent of his passes with 36 interceptions and a passer rating of 81.9. The Lions' record over that span is just 11-21. 

Below is how Stafford's two-year numbers stack up with the rest of the qualifying NFL quarterbacks since 2012:

Middle of the Pack: Matthew Stafford, 2012-2013
TotalNFL Rank
Completions8064th
Attempts13611st
Completion %59.225th
Passing Yards96173rd
Passing Yards/G300.53rd
Passing Touchdowns4911th
Interceptions3636th (t)
Yards/Attempt7.120th
Passer Rating81.922nd
Wins1123rd
Source: Pro Football Reference

The table makes it very clear that Stafford has regressed to a point where the Lions can no longer claim to have a top-10 quarterback. The volume numbers in terms of attempts and yards are still there, but Stafford is just 25th in completion percentage, and only Eli Manning has more interceptions. He's also in the bottom half in passer rating, yards per attempt and number of wins. 

But not all is lost with Stafford, a 25-year-old who the Lions have financially tied themselves to for the foreseeable future. 

Detroit still possesses a wealth of offensive talent that should cater to a physically talented quarterback.

Calvin Johnson is a once-in-a-generation talent at receiver, Reggie Bush and Joique Bell had few rivals in terms of overall production at the running back position and the Lions offensive line improved immensely in pass protection. Tight end Brandon Pettigrew and receiver Nate Burleson are solid complementary options.

Most quarterbacks would do anything to play with such a talented cast.

It's certainly possible that a change at head coach and offensive coordinator will break the deadlock of mediocrity and bring accountability to the quarterback position. Stafford entered the NFL in 2009 and has had the same head coach (Schwartz) and coordinator (Scott Linehan) for all five of his seasons. 

The Lions have to be excited about the attacking potential of a Lombardi-led offense. 

For five years, Lombardi got a first-hand look at how Payton constructed an offense around Brees and a high-volume passing game. He learned how to continually threaten the middle seams and how to involve the backs and tight ends in the passing game. 

Using Payton's system, the Saints became arguably the NFL's best offense. 

Since 2006 (Payton's first season as head coach), New Orleans has finished in the top five of passing yards and passing touchdowns during every season. The Saints have been the top offense four times in terms of total yards (2006, 2008, 2009, 2011). And two additional times, New Orleans has been the top scoring offense (2008, 2009). 

Saints Offensive Ranks, 2009-2013
Total YardsPointsPassing YardsPasser Rating
20091st1st4th2nd
20106th11th3rd10th
20111st2nd1st2nd
20122nd3rd1st8th
20134th10th2nd3rd
Source: Pro Football Reference

Rob Ryan, the Saints' current defensive coordinator, gave Lombardi the highest of recommendations.  

"We’re not allowed to talk to the press, but he’s a (bleeping) great one," Ryan said, via Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. "You can use that.”

Vince Lombardi would probably appreciate Ryan's distinct and honest description of his grandson. 

But he'd also know that Joe Lombardi's work is just beginning. To become great, much, much more needs to be accomplished. 

His first task as the Lions' offensive coordinator will be working with Caldwell to help Stafford—who was once one of the game's up-and-coming young quarterbacks—reverse his career path. If Stafford rediscovers his 2011 form and the Lions finally make good on their wealth of talent, Lombardi will have begun carving out his own legacy in the NFL coaching ranks. 

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