The Detroit Lions are still working to figure out their offensive identity with Calvin Johnson in retirement.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — His tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter stood before a group of reporters and summed up the OTA press conference experience quite well.
“I’m glad to be here in front of you guys talking about almost nothing.”
NFL teams love keeping their secrets, and this time of year might fall behind only the draft as when things are most hush-hush. So even if the Lions knew exactly what their offense was going to be in the post-Calvin Johnson era, they probably wouldn’t tell us right now.
In truth, though, they do not have all of those answers. Not yet.
“[We want to be] efficient and successful. I mean, whatever that means,” Cooter says. “That could be throwing the ball. That could be running the ball. That could be fast, slow, you know, any adjective ... but whatever it takes for our guys to win. That may be scoring a lot of points, some games it’s not. Sometimes you’ve got to play a little slow, you’ve got to help the defense out.
“At the end of the day, flexible, adaptable, able to do whatever we need to do to help our team win games.”
That explosion of buzzwords is no different from what one would hear out of pretty much any summer mini-camp. Even those teams returning most of the pieces from successful offenses—think Pittsburgh or Carolina or New England—will spend July, August and even September trying to figure out their plan of attack.
Detroit’s timetable could be extended even further. Replacing Johnson, a Hall of Fame contender and arguably the second best player in franchise history behind Barry Sanders, obviously comes with a few challenges. The Lions also have been without projected starting running back Ameer Abdullah (shoulder) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (knee) for the entirety of their off-season workouts to date, compounding the problems. Free-agent addition Jeremy Kerley (undisclosed) and Corey Fuller (foot) have missed time, too.
So, the exact identity of this offense? It’s gonna be awhile.
“I think you’re working towards it, to be honest, most of the year,” says journeyman tight end Matthew Mulligan, a player with 19 career catches who may wind up as No. 2 on the depth chart behind Eric Ebron. “I think you understand your core group of plays that you run that you do really well, but for us defining an offense ... I don’t necessarily know that it’s our mentality vs. defining our job, what we have to do. Once you can do that, you can put everything else together and start defining us as a club.”
The latest indications that Detroit’s plan is still a work in progress came this week, as GM Bob Quinn signed veteran receiver Andre Roberts and brought the even-more-experienced Anquan Boldin in for a visit. Roberts amounts to a depth signing—he will compete for the fourth or fifth WR job, possibly with a kick return role.
The flirtation with Boldin carries more intrigue. The 35-year-old is no longer a Pro Bowl-level player but he remains productive, finishing last season with 69 catches and 789 yards on a miserable San Francisco offense. If added, he likely would claim a top-three spot, alongside incumbent Golden Tate and newcomer Marvin Jones.
Either way, Tate and Jones will be expected to carry much of the load in the passing game. The continued progressions of Ebron and dynamic RB Theo Riddick, who caught 43 balls a year ago, also are essential.
In theory, the Lions have the parts to make their offense difficult to defend this season. Tate has averaged 94.5 catches over his two Motor City seasons, even excelling during the rare times Johnson was out of the lineup. He, Marvin Jones, Riddick, T.J. Jones, Abdullah and even Ebron are versatile chips capable of making plays from various spots on the field.
“Just to see everybody having different attributes and providing different zings to the game, it’s exciting,” Marvin Jones says.
Losing Johnson robbed the Lions of their big-play, superstar option, but Cooter should be able to keep the opposition guessing a bit by interchanging the remaining playmakers.
“The reality of this business is every year is a new year, you know?” Cooter says. “You’ve got new people around you, we’ve got new coaches, we’ve got some new players. ... The pressure’s not going to bother me from that perspective. I’m more worried about how we handle it and how we learn the system as we’re putting it in right now, and as we get to training camp how we start executing it.”
The Lions’ offense took off over the 2015 season’s second half, shortly after Cooter was promoted to O.C., replacing the fired Joe Lombardi. After an embarrassing 45-10 loss to Kansas City in London (a mere six days after that coordinator swap), Detroit proceeded to win six of its final eight games, averaging better than 26 points per outing. QB Matthew Stafford delivered some of the best ball of his career during that stretch—in Weeks 12–17, Stafford had 17 touchdown passes and just one interception.
Of course, on the receiving end of six of those TDs—and of 88 completions and 149 targets season-long—was Johnson. The dynamo known as Megatron was Stafford’s safety net, a receiver the gunslinging quarterback did not hesitate to look for, in all situations and even against double or triple coverage.
“It’s different,” Cooter says. “I mean, [Johnson was a] great player, it’s been said by 100 guys in 100 newspaper stories—I’ve read them all I think. It’s going to be different, but that’s the NFL. There are good players, there are great players, there are guys you guys haven’t heard a lot of that come and go every year, and they all have an impact on our team.
“Calvin’s no different. He’s an excellent player, but we’re going to go out there, we’ve got a bunch of good players, we’re going to go out there and try to score a bunch of points and win games.”
How that happens, whether the Lions commit to be a run-heavy offense or look to spread the field with five athletic pass catchers or fall somewhere in between, is a riddle for the moment.
“We’re putting in a lot of things,” Cooter says, “and sometimes it’s important to get all that stuff taught and get reps out here before you figure out what you’re good at, what you’re not that great at, what you like, what you don’t like. So, we’re still kind of in that process, but at the end of the day we’re going to try to do what our guys do best.”
And what is that? No one is sure ... or, more accurately, no one’s sharing. Eventually, though, the Lions will have to provide those answers.
“Internally, we know what we have,” Marvin Jones says. “Everybody will have to wait and see what happens when live bullets are there.”