INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Caldwell isn’t interested in labels that are ready-to-wear – and removed just as quickly – and can be pinned on young quarterbacks like the Lions’
It’s the qualities that make a winner that interest Caldwell and have influenced him and how he has built his staff in Detroit. That includes the offense, where Caldwell has hired men from different backgrounds who share a common thread – working with quarterbacks who truly deserve the “elite” label.
The label Caldwell wants pinned on Stafford isn’t an intangible that can be debated about where he ranks with his peers.
“A lot of people want to talk about so many other things that really aren’t that important -- whether or not he’s ‘elite,’ or this or that,” Caldwell said Thursday at the NFL Combine. “That doesn’t matter. We want a championship quarterback.
“It’s what we’re looking for, and I think we have the makings of that. I think you’re going to see Matthew take the bull by the horns and do all the little things that are necessary to get us to keep moving forward as a team.”
Caldwell talked about Stafford being an asset that most coaches don’t have when they take over a new job. Usually, the reason for a coaching change is the lack of a quarterback. In Caldwell’s mind, there is no such void in Detroit.
Stafford has two obvious qualities that cannot be debated – a strong arm and a quick release.
He also has some stats that put him in rare company for a player of his experience level. At the age of 26, he already has 109 TD passes and 17,457 passing yards on his resume. The issues that the critics say still confront Stafford are poor mechanics and poor decisions.
In 2013, Stafford threw for 4,650 yards with 29 TDs against 19 picks. A spate of turnovers in the last six games turned what had been a Pro Bowl-caliber season into one that has put him under the microscope.
Caldwell said he has spoken with Stafford since he was hired. Under NFL rules, Lions players aren’t able to take part in a supervised offseason workout program until April 7. Stafford has been diligent about working out on his own in previous seasons, and there’s no reason to think that will not continue.
“I’ve had an opportunity to look at him, and here’s my assessment of him: I haven’t found anyone that hadn’t been able to correct issues that they had,” Caldwell said Thursday. “First of all, we’re always, each and every guy -- and he’s one of those -- looking for ways to try to improve.
“He’s hungry to improve. I’ve noticed that about him. He’s eager. He’s a willing worker, he’s smart and he has tools. When you find that combination, typically, you’re going to find a guy that does everything it takes to get him in position where he’s a championship quarterback.”
There is a “new staff” versus “old staff” comparison when a franchise changes head coaches, and there is no exception this time as Caldwell replaces Jim Schwartz as head coach.
Caldwell is perceived as the antidote for a Lions team that lacked discipline and relied too much on Stafford’s arm and did not channel his natural ability to make him, and the offense, more efficient. Whether that is perception or reality – or a combination of both – will be confirmed over time.
However, “grind” is the buzz-word among those familiar with Caldwell in terms of how he handles quarterbacks and offenses, and what he demands to build productive units that are fundamentally sound.
Caldwell spent seven seasons as quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis and three years as head coach. In the first nine years, his quarterback was Peyton Manning, the ultimate perfectionist.
People close to the Colts still talk about how Manning had a camera stationed behind him in practice to record every play in his search for the perfect, repeatable throwing motion. It was similar to a golf pro grooving his swing in the practice range.
For his offensive coordinator in Detroit, Caldwell hired Joe Lombardi, formerly quarterbacks coach of the New Orleans Saints, where he worked with Drew Brees.
Jim Bob Cooter is the new quarterbacks coach, replacing Todd Downing, the Lions’ quarterbacks coach the previous four years. Cooter spent three seasons on the Colts’ staff in Caldwell’s tenure as head coach (2009-11) and last year in Denver, where Manning set NFL records for TD passes (55) and passing yards in a season (5,477). The Broncos set the record with 606 points.
Cooter was considered a major asset on the Broncos’ staff for his work in scouting and game-plan production. However, they did not have an opening to make him a position coach and could not match Caldwell’s offer to be quarterbacks coach.
Cooter was a backup quarterback in college at Tennessee.
“I felt I needed a guy that had a real good sense of fundamentals, a real good sense of how to put it all together,” Caldwell said. “They say in our profession there are not a lot of great players in the coaching profession. There are some, but for the most part, most of us are studious and worked hard at it. and that was Jim Bob.
“He was a very, very quality guy in that area, so I thought he’d be a great fit for Matthew.”