ORLANDO – No offense intended to the Lions’ defense, but Jim Caldwell isn’t hiding his enthusiasm over the offensive talent he has inherited as head coach of the Lions.
Caldwell hasn’t been allowed to talk football with his players since being hired as head coach of the Lions on January 14 because of NFL rules, much less see them in any kind of live drills.
But those restrictions that limit contact in the offseason between coaches and players hasn't restricted Caldwell from getting a line on the talent on offense.
Caldwell summed up his feelings in a session with the media Wednesday morning as the NFL concluded its annual meetings at the Ritz Carlton.
“Oh, man,” Caldwell said. “I’m excited about the group we have.”
The start of the 2014 season is more than five months away, and there are a lot of steps ahead before the Lions play games that count. Players aren’t allowed to start the official offseason conditioning program until April 7, and it’s two weeks after that when they can get on the field to do limited drills supervised by the coaching staff.
But from what he has seen first-hand and from reviewing last season’s games, Caldwell sees talent on every level of the offense with no exclusions – quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end and offensive line.
That doesn’t mean Caldwell will roll out the offense and say “keep doing what you’ve been doing.” The system Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will install is not a carbon copy of what the Lions ran the previous five seasons.
There has been no problem moving the ball. The Lions were third in passing yards and sixth in total offense last year, but they ranked only 13th in scoring with 395 points. Greater efficiency and reducing turnovers should make the unit more effective this year, and that leads to winning more games.
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Caldwell’s answers are the same: Stafford, who is 26 going into his sixth season, has enough talent to lead the Lions to a championship.
Here is the rundown on Caldwell’s comments about the offense, position by position.
Starting – where else? – with Stafford.
Quarterback: Even though Stafford has been the opening-day starter for five seasons, injuries that limited him to 13 games in his first two years put Stafford in the range of his career where Caldwell expects a quarterback to advance his career.
“Through my experience, in years four, five and six is when you really start to see a climb at that position,” Caldwell said. “It takes a while to get it done. For a guy to come into this league and perform at an All-Pro level, right at the onset in pro football is rare.
“Usually when it does happen, it’s with a guy who’s coupled with a team that has a great defense and can run the ball. They don’t put it all on his shoulders.
“Most of the time, though, the guy starts to develop in that four-five-six year range. That’s where he is right now. He’s in that area.”
Stafford has started all 48 regular-season games the last three years and thrown 90 TD passes against 52 interceptions. He had 29 TD passes and 19 picks last year, but 11 of the interceptions came in the last five games in an overall collapse that kept the Lions out of the playoffs.
Caldwell is looking for efficiency in Stafford. Winning games is more important than accumulating stats.
“With all of those things, to know how to win is extremely important as well,” Caldwell said. “That’s the key. It’s a little bit more than throwing the ball accurately. It’s a little bit more than obviously checking into the right play.
“It’s knowing when you’ve got a game in the balance. What to do with the ball. Where to place it safely.
“Knowing when – ‘You know what? Let’s punt this thing.'”
Receivers: It starts with Megatron because of how defenses are stacked to stop him, but it doesn’t end there – also because of the attention he gets.
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There might have been times when the Lions relied too heavily on Johnson’s ability to make catches when double- and triple-teamed – and the Lions still might do that. Johnson is that good, and that dominant.
“There may be some times where we may be guilty of that again,” Caldwell said. “And it might not be him (Stafford). it might be me tellling him, ‘Hey, give him a chance.’
“You’d better find a way to use your best resources. He’s one of those. Obviously, he's been accustomed to making some pretty special catches in tight areas, over guys and things of that nature. You’ve got to give him a chance.”
But Tate will get chances, too.
“With Golden on the other side, now we've got an opportunity to get some pretty good matchups,” Caldwell said. “He’s a guy who can move around. And we’ve got a guy who can get him the ball.”
If there is single coverage to the side opposite Johnson, it’s not automatic that there will be a pass play to that side. It also can open up the running game if the safety rolls to cover Johnson.
“We’ve got a great one on one side who you’re going to have to do something special to stop him, because you’re not going to leave him one-on-one,” Caldwell said. “How you go about doing it is going to open it up for our other guys.
“It could be a running game to that side. And, we have a good solid offensive line, with (Dominic) Raiola leading in the middle.”
“We’ve got a good tight end (Pettigrew) that’s a veteran in the league that can run and catch and can block,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got a tall guy (Fauria) who can get down in the goal-line area. With all that, I think Joe’s going to be pretty good out in the field, too.”