ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Standing deep in the pocket with a rush closing in on him, Matthew Stafford unleashed a back-foot throw toward the sideline with the ball traveling a good 25 yards in the air.
It was the type of dangerous pass few possess arm strength to attempt. Make it without enough zip and it goes for six points the other way. It is the kind of play new Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is keeping an eye on as he tries to get Stafford back to 2011 form when he passed for 5,038 yards, completing 63.5 percent of his throws with 41 touchdowns.
Stafford, 26 and entering his sixth season, wasn't as good last year but still passed for 4,650 yards and 29 touchdowns with 19 interceptions. He was particularly rough down the stretch as the Lions lost six of their final seven games, blowing a chance to win the NFC North with the Bears' Jay Cutler and Packers' Aaron Rodgers missing significant time with injuries. Stafford had only two touchdown passes and five picks in four December games, all losses.
Now, Stafford is paired with new coach Jim Caldwell, who worked 10 seasons with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, and Lombardi, who spent seven seasons in New Orleans with Drew Brees. The thinking is if a new staff can bring the best out of Stafford, who has a wealth of play-making talent around him, this is it. That has sparked renewed hope for the Lions, who have not won a playoff game since Barry Sanders' third season in 1991.
The Lions paid big to take pressure off Johnson, signing Golden Tate to a $31 million, five-year contract, and bypassed defensive needs using the 10th overall pick on tight end Eric Ebron. The offensive line was improved in 2013, given a major boost by right guard Larry Warford, a 2013 third-round pick. Reggie Bush and Joique Bell provide a versatile backfield.
Stafford has had stretches of excellence and his play has been punctuated by breakdowns in mechanics and confounding mistakes. It's worth wondering if Caldwell and Lombardi have stripped him down and are rebuilding him as a passer or if they're tinkering with him?
"More refining," Lombardi said. "He's had a lot of success. You like the way he throws. Every quarterback is looking to get more consistent. It's just kind of trying to tighten everything up.
"I think a quarterback, for the most part, is ingrained from the waist up. He's been throwing that way for so long. It's all the waist down, just trying to get the footwork right. I may be wrong, but I think that when a guy has been throwing that way for so long, you are kind of fighting uphill to try and change upper-body mechanics."
It would be unfair and inaccurate to pin the Lions' 2013 collapse on Stafford. The defense was atrocious and Detroit gave up the lead in the fourth quarter or overtime in their final six losses. Stafford got a three-year extension with $53 million in new money last summer and is now locked up through 2017 at what will be a bargain rate if he takes off again. He's the future of the franchise.
Caldwell brings a calming presence to the organization, one that lacked discipline in five seasons under ex-coach Jim Schwartz if you use turnovers and penalties as a measuring stick. Caldwell equated emphasizing footwork with Stafford to "learning a new dance step" and the process has been invigorating for Stafford, who is learning only his second system since entering the league. Some routes that were three-step drops in the past are now five-step. The route tree is different. The language and protections have changed.
"It's night-and-day difference," Stafford said. "It's good to pick the minds of people that have been in different systems. It is interesting to hear everyone's take on the quarterback and how it fits into each and every system. I didn't walk into OTAs on day one knowing everything there is to know about the offense. You have to study it and learn. We're not perfect yet. With enough hard work, we can be successful."
The last time the Lions changed head coaches, hiring Schwartz in 2009, it was a complete tear down coming off an 0-16 season. They won just two games the first season but reached the postseason in Year 3 of the program.
"Now it's a matter of getting over the hump," said center Dominic Raiola, the team's longest-tenured player entering his 14th season. "It's not like we have to do anything drastic. There's no rebuilding. We've drafted good players and those players are elite players now. It's realistic to win this division. It's not, 'Well, we're not talented.' Talent is here."
The defense will have to be better and Caldwell is leaning on first-year coordinator Teryl Austin. The Lions signed safety James Ihedigbo and drafted linebacker Kyle Van Noy in the second round. They have questions at cornerback. The hope is Rashean Mathis is still capable in his 12th season and Darius Slay, a second-round pick, must step forward after a disappointing rookie season. It all starts up front, though, and defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are essentially entering contract years.
If it comes together, maybe the Lions are in the hunt in December and not fading away.
"I'm not happy about anything yet," Caldwell said. "And we have a long way to go in all phases. But we have a willing group."