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O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Stafford supports coaches

The face of the Lions' future, if not the face of the franchise, has spoken – loud, clear and without equivocation.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford came out strongly in favor of the Lions retaining the two members of the coaching staff who had the most influence on his performance in a season in which he moved higher in the pecking order of his contemporaries.

For reasons that have more to do with the team's success than his own, Stafford wants Jim Caldwell back as head coach, and also Jim Bob Cooter back as offensive coordinator. Stafford left no doubt about his feelings when asked about the future of the two men after Sunday's season-ending 24-20 victory at Chicago.

Stafford does not have the only strong voice in the Lions locker room. Calvin Johnson ("I love him") and Glover Quin both came out strongly for Caldwell in their comments last week.

The end of the NFL's regular season is the beginning of the firing season for NFL executives and head coaches, and the Lions could be in the market for change on both fronts.

For sure they're searching for a new GM, after firing Martin Mayhew in November and replacing him on an interim basis with Sheldon White, the director of pro personnel.

It's not certain if the Lions will be in the market for a new head coach.

Team president Rod Wood said after Sunday's game the Lions were beginning their search "in earnest" for a new GM. He also reiterated that the next GM can pick the head coach.

This week's Monday Countdown weighs player comments – Stafford's in particular – and other circumstances about hiring a new GM and the impact on Caldwell in what promises to be one of the most critical decisions in franchise history.

There's also a look at Megatron's future in Detroit, obvious holes in the roster that need plugging, and one not surprising look at a trend that has had a deep and lasting negative impact on the roster. Hint – it's the draft.

We start with the roller-coaster ride of the Lions in 2015 that is unprecedented in their last half century, Wood's statement about the franchise Sunday, and Stafford's comments on Caldwell and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter:

1. A foursome: The Lions' 2015 season stands alone for the impact of four elements.

Never in the last 50 years have the Lions started with a half season of failure (a 1-7 record), ended it with legitimate optimism (a 6-2 record in the second half), endured so much upheaval (the midseason firing of three assistant coaches, team president Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew) and began the offseason with such a high level of uncertainty (the GM search, and its impact on the head coach).

That's a lot of turmoil for a franchise to endure in a span of 17 weeks – from opening day in San Diego to Sunday's finale in Chicago. For the Lions to come through it in the second half with a 6-2 record and two three-game winning streaks is remarkable.

Nobody could have predicted that turnaround – especially starting the second half of the season against the Packers at Lambeau Field.

2. State of the team, president's view: Whoever is hired as general manager does not face the rebuilding project that Mayhew undertook when he was named interim GM in 2008 and permanent GM in 2009. The Lions were 0-16 in '08 and 2-14 in '09. That's 2-30 over two years.

The Lions are 18-14 the last two seasons under Caldwell. They've had faults, but they're competitive for the most part.

"I said this the first day, I don't think this is a rebuild," Wood said Sunday, referring to his comments at his introductory press conference on Nov. 21. "I still feel that way."

Change is a constant in the NFL, for good teams and bad and everyone in between.

Change in the roster is coming, and it's needed in spots.

In either free-agency or the draft, the Lions need to upgrade the offensive line, add a stout defensive tackle and a linebacker with range, a safety for depth and a No. 3 wide receiver with speed.

On the offensive line, it could be two tackles, or a combination of a tackle and an interior lineman – guard or center. Whatever the combination is, the blockers have to keep the pass rush off Stafford and give the running backs a running start.

3. Backing Caldwell: Stafford was one of only two Lions who spoke at the podium in Sunday's postgame press conferences. The setting alone added heft to his comments.

Does he want Caldwell back?

"Absolutely, no question," he said.

If asked by management for his opinion, would he give it?

Yes, he would.

Next, a trickier question. If he's not asked, would he volunteer his opinion?

"I'll try," he said.

"Good question," he said as he departed the podium.

Three questions, three opportunities for wiggle room – and three direct answers in support of Caldwell.

"He's a great coach, and a really good man," Stafford said. "You don't start 1-7 and come back 6-2 if you don't believe in your coach. We definitely do."

4. Quarterback influence: Across the league, quarterbacks reach a point where production and tenure with the franchise combine to give them some say in key decisions. They don't get the deciding vote, but major decisions involving leadership and the offense often get run through the quarterback.

Peyton Manning is a case in point. He was going into his fifth season with the Indianapolis Colts in 2002 when the Colts fired Jim Mora – the head coach for Manning's first four seasons – and replaced him with Tony Dungy.

Dungy retained legendary offensive coordinator Tom Moore, and line coach Howard Mudd. Both had been with Manning since his rookie year.

At the time, Manning was putting up prolific passing stats, and he didn't win a playoff game until his sixth season as a starter. But he was entrenched as the franchise quarterback, and the franchise made sure any moves did not hinder his development.

5. Cooter: If Caldwell is not back, there's a risk – if not a probability – that Jim Bob Cooter is gone after making an undeniable positive impact as offensive coordinator. His first game on the job was the 45-10 wipeout loss to the Chiefs in London that should have been predictable.

Overall, Stafford had a big season statistically, with 32 TD passes against 13 interceptions and career highs for completion rate (67.2 percent) and passer rating (97.0).

In the last eight games – with a bye week that gave him an extra week to reshape the offense – Stafford threw 19 TD passes against two interceptions.

Under Cooter, the offense fits Stafford much like some golf courses fit a player's eye better than others. It's a combination of design, feel and improvisation.

"Jim Bob and I see the offense the same way," Stafford said.

Does he see any reason to break it up?

"I don't," Stafford said. "I've got no reason for you to break it up."

6. Coach connection: Caldwell, Cooter and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin share a similar trait. They make eye contact when they speak to a group. They don't look at their shoe tops. They exhibit an air of command and authority that is crucial in any leadership role.

7. Megatron – mega-game: His overall stats Sunday were impressive: 10 catches, 138 yards and a touchdown.

For the season he was 11th in the league in catches (88), ninth in receiving yards (1,214) and tied for 14th in TD catches (9). And that's a down year for him.

But it isn't total stats that make him so valuable. It's the plays, and his influence on defenses. Here were three that contributed heavily to Sunday's victory:

Second quarter: Lions ball at the Bears' 40, six second left in the half, eight-yard catch with a second left. The gain was just enough to set up Matt Prater for a 59-yard field goal that he would not have made without that catch.

Third quarter: Second and eight at the Bears' 36, Johnson gets behind a cornerback to make a lunging touchdown catch to break a 10-10 tie.

"It was like Calvin," Caldwell said in describing the catch.

Fourth quarter: Third and five at the Lions' 38, 1:36 left – pass over the middle to Johnson, who makes the catch and drives through a defensive back for a six-yard gain and a first down to set up three kneel-downs to clinch the victory.

Add it up: field goal, touchdown, clinching catch.

Those are plays that aren't bought with salary-cap space. They're made on the field, and Calvin Johnson still makes them.

8. Roster rot: That's a phrase I used during Matt Millen's tenure, when high draft picks failed routinely and veteran free agents didn't do much better. There were holes everywhere in the roster.

That is not the case, but too many draft picks who were taken high enough to be starters or quality backups have failed to produce.

Without going into the history of the draft, here are some from recent vintage:

2014: Linebacker Kyle Van Noy, second round: No starts in two years, minimal playing time, one sack in 23 games; Defensive end Lawrence Webster, fourth round: On the game-day active roster for one game as a rookie, a practice-squader in 2015.

2015: Cornerback Alex Carter, third round: injured as a rookie and never active but showed little in practice; defensive tackle Gabe Wright, fourth round on a pick acquired in a trade that gave up a 2016 third-round pick: inactive for nine of the last 10 games at a position that was thin on depth.

That's four players drafted in the second, third and fourth rounds – and one who cost the Lions a third-round pick -- who've made no impact in any role.

9. Bottom line: The negative issues with the Lions the last two years have not been coaching as the staff is presently constructed.

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