The biggest change the Detroit Lions franchise underwent this offseason was on the offensive side of the football.
The team changed coordinators, moving on from Jim Bob Cooter and hiring veteran Darrell Bevell. Detroit aggressively targeted upgrades and depth to its skill positions in free agency. The team even used their top pick in the draft, No. 8 overall, on tight end T.J. Hockenson. It’s very much a new-look offense in Detroit.
The one constant throughout the changes has been quarterback Matthew Stafford, who enters his 11th season in the league. This is the fourth new offense Stafford’s had to learn in his NFL tenure.
“Each system kind of has its unique challenges and ways that it somewhat stresses a quarterback,” Stafford said Wednesday, as veterans reported for the official start of training camp. “Things you really need to be on top of.
“Those things, I think, are different in every system I’ve been a part of. I’ve kind of learned how to figure out where maybe this one is similar to another one in some instances and find ways to make that learning process a little quicker.”
With all the change that's taken place on that side of the ball, the quicker coaches and players acclimate themselves to each other and reach a common comfort level, the quicker the offense can start playing a better brand of football than the one that finished 24th overall, 25th in scoring, 20th in passing and 23rd running the ball last season.
Bevell’s scheme is much different than the previous three he’s had to learn, Stafford said. There’s a lot of things he likes about the offense, and a lot of things he’s still learning and getting used to.
Ultimately, it’s Stafford’s job to be an extension of Bevell on the field. For him to do that, he has to get to a point where he’s as well versed and comfortable in the scheme as Bevell himself. That’s a process that takes time. Limited offseason training program practice and five weeks of training camp isn’t a whole lot of time to accomplish that.
“How quickly you can make that 'change' feel like home and normal and all that, the better,” Stafford said.
Up to this point, Bevell says the install process has been good. He’s been especially impressed with how Stafford’s taken on the challenge of learning a new scheme.
“As I told him, I was really impressed with his offseason,” Bevell said. “He had a lot going on, as we all know – he had some off field things with his family that he had to take care of, but he was really committed to us. He was here. He was putting his time in. He was working hard.
“He really led the way on learning the offense and the verbiage, and getting to know the new language. Sitting in the huddle being able to call it, helping guys when they needed help. I was just impressed with the level of dedication and commitment that he had to us, with the other things he had going on.”
Bevell was referring to Stafford’s wife, Kelly, and the brain surgery she underwent earlier this year to remove a tumor.
Bevell and Stafford are still learning each other. Bevell is finding out what Stafford likes, and trying to put the veteran quarterback in some situations he’s not all that used to to see what sticks and how they can grow together as play caller and quarterback.
“Well I think we’re still learning each other, and it’s no secret as I’ve already said before, things that he likes that he feels comfortable doing I think probably is a better way of saying it,” Bevell said. “Things that he’s not comfortable with, and sometimes those things that he might not be comfortable with is because he hasn’t done them enough.
“And then like sometimes, it’s like ‘I’m not comfortable because I’m not good at them.’ And so we have to be able to grow together and say, ‘Hey I need to push you on this.’ Also I need to be flexible enough to say, ‘Ok, yup, that’s right,’ then we won’t do those things. It’s a give and take, and it’s a learning and growing experience right now.”
View photos of players arriving for 2019 Detroit Lions Training Camp presented by Rocket Mortgage on Wednesday, July 24, 2019 in Allen Park, Mich.
Stafford hopes the offense can pick up where they left off in the offseason program and hit the ground running when the first training camp practice begins Thursday.
Stafford’s coming off a tough 2018 season that saw his numbers dip and wins decline while having to battle through injury and roster shakeup. Last season is very much in his rearview mirror, and he’s looking forward to the fresh start.
Stafford’s been doing this a long time, and knows all too well that a team’s success usually aligns with how the quarterback position is playing.
“By and large you look around the league and the teams that are playing well, playing into the playoffs and going to the Super Bowl, their quarterback is playing at a pretty darn good level,” he said.
“Sometimes quarterbacks have great years and the teams don’t necessarily win as much as others, but that’s a pretty good barometer of how a team is playing if the quarterback is playing well. I expect to come out here and play really well.”