By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – As the Detroit Lions conduct their search for a new head coach, many have suggested that whoever takes over the job needs to be able to work with quarterback Matthew Stafford or bring in a coordinator or position coach who will do so.
Stafford, 25, signed a three-year, $53 million extension in July, but his numbers have steadily declined over the past three seasons. His 2013 passer rating ended up at 84.2, 19th in the NFL, and only five other quarterbacks threw more interceptions than Stafford, who tossed 21 picks. His completion percentage of 58.5 is 30th of 37 quarterbacks with the requisite time in games. Essentially, he fell quite short in 2013 of the promising glimpse he showed in 2011.
The quarterback himself does not think he needs outside help, telling reporters that he would probably not be willing to work with a passing coach in the offseason.
“It’s not something that I feel would be my style or beneficial to me,” Stafford said.
Contrary to Stafford, DetroitLions.com writer Mike O’Hara, who talked with 97.1 The Ticket on Thursday, said what a coach can do to make Stafford more effective should be a major consideration.
“He’s going to be the quarterback of the Lions for a long time unless he completely implodes and plays his way out of the position, but you’re talking about a two- or three-year proposition,” O’Hara said. “Everyone will tell you that Stafford has a world of ability, he’s a worker, he’s a good guy, he’s good in the locker room.
“What the next staff has to do is treat him more as a player and not as an equal,” O’Hara continued. “You’ve got to ride your quarterback a little bit harder than you do other players, and I don’t think they did that. Now I don’t think Stafford’s the kind of guy who bucks authority and asks for favors. I know this – he’s the first guy there, last guy out. There’s no doubt about that.”
O’Hara, who used to write for the Detroit News and who has covered the Lions since 1977, sees a parallel between the situation of the Lions and that of the Indianapolis Colts about 10 years ago.
“Look at when Tony Dungy took over in Indianapolis,” O’Hara said. “The first thing he told Peyton Manning was, ‘Look, you can’t throw 23 interceptions, 25 interceptions and us win,’ and they were coming off a 6-10 season, it was Manning’s fourth year in the league, and he just wasn’t the same guy.
“It wasn’t overnight, but with Manning he slowly reversed that trend,” O’Hara added. “Instead of being plus one or two touchdowns-to-interceptions, then he was plus nine, I think it was, and then – boom! – he took off to become what he is now, and I think the same thing’s true with Matthew Stafford. Now they’ve got to add some assets there. They don’t have a second receiver, let alone a third or fourth. They’ve got to find one in the draft, they’ve got some people to resign and all of that, but you’ve got a ton of ability to work with.”
As far as who could do for Stafford what Dungy did for Manning, O’Hara believes it will be San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who was head coach of the Arizona Cardinals from 2007 to 2012.
“Whenever the San Diego Chargers are eliminated from the playoffs, and that could be this weekend, I think Ken Whisenhunt will be someone [the Lions] talk to very hard, very pointedly and very directly,” O’Hara said.
In Whisenhunt’s six seasons as head coach of the Cardinals, the team won two NFC West championships, advancing to the Super Bowl in 2008 and to the second round the following year. Whisenhunt also piloted the Cardinals to a pair of 8-8 seasons and a pair of 5-11 seasons.
Prior to his stint as head coach, Whisenhunt had won acclaim for the job he did as offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he worked under Bill Cowher from 2004 to 2006. The Steelers lost in the AFC championship game in 2004, won the Super Bowl in 2005 and went 8-8 in 2006.
In each of those most recent stops, quarterbacks appeared to benefit greatly from Whisenhunt’s presence.
In Whisenhunt’s first season with the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger won Rookie of the Year, recording a 66.4 completion percentage and a 98.1 quarterback rating.
At Arizona, Whisenhunt’s tenure coincided with that of veteran quarterback Kurt Warner, who had been demoted in favor of Matt Leinart. In 2008, Warner got the starting job back and turned out a Pro Bowl season. In the next two seasons, Warner turned in two of the most productive years of his career, with improved passing yardage and better completion percentages.
Whisenhunt’s first season with San Diego is not yet complete, but Phillip Rivers has shown significant progress as well. His completion percentage is 69.5, and he has 32 touchdowns (one of the highest totals of his career) and 11 interceptions (one of the lowest totals of his career). His passer rating is 105.5, also one of the best of his decade in the league.
If the Lions want a head coach that can coach up Stafford, Whisenhunt may indeed be the man for the job.