ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) — Hours before leaving for their longest road trip of the season, the Detroit Lions shook up their offensive coaching staff.
Detroit fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and line coaches Jeremiah Washburn and Terry Heffernan on Monday, a day after the team dropped another game in a listless performance against the Minnesota Vikings. The Lions announced the moves shortly before they were supposed to depart for London, where they’ll play next weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“It’s not a good day. It’s a tough day,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “I’ve been in this position myself three times, and it’s happened to me, and it’s certainly not fun.”
Caldwell said the staff changes were his decision, and he had not spoken with ownership.
“I’m sure they’re supportive,” he said.
Quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter is taking over as offensive coordinator, and tight ends coach Ron Prince will now coach the offensive line. Assistant special teams coach Devin Fitzsimmons will now work with tight ends.
The Lions are also giving running backs coach Curtis Modkins the added title of run game coordinator.
Detroit (1-6) lost 28-19 to Minnesota on Sunday, and Matthew Stafford was sacked seven times. Blocking problems have plagued the Lions all season, limiting Stafford’s effectiveness and the running game’s productivity.
It’s been a hugely disappointing start for a team that went to the playoffs last season in Caldwell’s first year at the helm. Detroit has an open date after the game in London, which led to speculation major changes could come then. Instead, the Lions made these moves before that overseas game against the Chiefs.
“We’re running out of time,” Caldwell said.
Lombardi, the grandson of Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi, joined the Lions as Caldwell’s offensive coordinator in 2014. Detroit made the playoffs last season thanks largely to its Ndamukong Suh-led defense. Now Suh is gone, and it’s been harder for the Lions to compete while struggling to score.
Cooter will call plays. Caldwell said he did not consider taking over that role himself.
Caldwell has some experience with midseason staff changes. He was the quarterbacks coach in Baltimore when he was promoted to offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl.
“There are some changes that can be adjusted and we’ll make the ones that we can. It’s no different when I took over play calling at Baltimore, no one expected me to come in and change the entire offense,” Caldwell said. “We’ll make the necessary adjustments according to things that we think we can get accomplished effectively enough to win this next game. Kansas City is our focus.”
Stafford was under constant pressure against the Vikings, and the problems up front clearly go beyond physical mistakes. When a pass rusher comes through completely unblocked, it’s clear there’s some confusion about assignments and the protection scheme.
“At the end of the day, we take a majority of the blame just because of the things that happened,” offensive lineman Manny Ramirez said. “It’s our duty to protect the quarterback and the running backs and be able to give Matt enough time to get the ball downfield or go through his reads at least without getting touched. And we definitely failed at doing that this year. It definitely falls on us.”
Cooter was an offensive assistant for the staff that helped Denver to an AFC championship two seasons ago. He’s been working with Stafford since, but the Detroit quarterback says he’s not sure what to expect in terms of play calling.
“It could be new stuff,” Stafford said. “I’m not sure. Jim Bob and I, we’ll get together and try and figure out what we can do and we’ll go from there.”
Stafford threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2011, his first injury-free season in the NFL. He’s had a hard time approaching those heights since, and on Monday, Detroit’s offensive problems cost three coaches their jobs.
“Any time guys are let go, it’s a tough situation,” Stafford said. “You feel a certain amount of responsibility as a player, because you’re the guy, especially at the quarterback position, ultimately out there pulling the trigger, getting us wins and losses, and helping us move the ball. I just didn’t do a good enough job of that.”