- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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Jeff Nowling could look at a piece of paper now, stare at a road sign with numbers in the distance and for a second, his mind flips back to college. To his time at Mercyhurst, where he played for a young offensive coordinator named Joe Lombardi, who taught those same receiving route trees stuck in his head a decade later.
Lombardi is with the Detroit Lions now, getting his first shot at coordinating a pro offense. But his first job running an offense came at a small Division II school in Pennsylvania.
“Constantly, I’d see numbers and automatically go back to the offense that we ran,” said Nowling, a receiver and quarterback for Lombardi at Mercyhurst. “The way that he taught, he’s a smart guy so he did a good job of explaining things and breaking things down and also showing things in the big picture and how they related to one another. He was a very good classroom teacher.”
Less than a decade ago, Lombardi stood in front of those players and started teaching what he wanted out of his offense. He would run a pro style system, one that Nowling said would look similar to the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ instituted by the St. Louis Rams.
The faces in the room looked back. They were excited. But there was also the question of whether or not they could actually run what their coordinator wanted. This wasn’t the NFL. This was Mercyhurst, a school without Kurt Warner or Isaac Bruce or Torry Holt or even reasonable facsimiles of them.
“Ran everything from the 22 personnel, 11 personnel,” Nowling said. “A lot of different formation packages. Very complex passing tree. There was a lot to know. It was very involved in pass protection. There was a lot in the hands of the quarterback.
“It was very high level for what you would think at a Division II school. We had an opportunity, at times, to show what we could have been with better personnel at every position, we could have had a lot more success.”
While winning records eluded Lombardi at Mercyhurst from 2002 to 2005, it did set up everything that was to come. Even as the team struggled, Lombardi showed both his knowledge of football and his ability to connect with players. It was those things, things Lombardi carried from the lower levels of college football to the NFL, that told Nowling back then if Lombardi got a shot in the NFL, he’d be successful.
“His amount of knowledge that he already had, any amount of time spent with a very respectable, high-level coach like Sean Payton, I’m actually surprised it didn’t happen earlier,” Nowling said. “The time I spent with him and how much he knew about the game already, being with a good, solid coaching staff like that, winning a Super Bowl, it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
Lombardi broke into the NFL right from Mercyhurst as an assistant with Atlanta, but it was in New Orleans, where he was an offensive assistant and then the team’s quarterbacks coach, where he began to gain even more notice.
Working with Drew Brees and helping him win a Super Bowl and to become one of the league’s elite quarterbacks will do that. But it was more how he treated Brees and the other Saints quarterbacks that stuck out than him refining Brees’ talent.
It was the respect he gave the players in his room and that he treated them like adults instead of overgrown children that stood out.
“He’s very calm and real intelligent,” said Mark Brunell, who played for Lombardi for two seasons in New Orleans. “Very cerebral and not one that’s going to yell at you. He’s one that’s going to discuss it with you. He won’t say that’s not good enough and really get after players.
“He’s going to say, ‘Matthew (Stafford), what did you see? Why did you make that decision? And this is the direction that we need to go with this play.’ It’s very one-on-one. He never really got out of balance. He was very level-headed and I think a lot of guys, myself included, really appreciated that approach.”
It is a similar approach to how Caldwell is often described. Cerebral. Always in control. And considering the importance of the relationship Caldwell and Lombardi have to have with their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, it is paramount that the three can work together.
It is going to be that trust and comfort the three have -- and perhaps more specifically Lombardi and Stafford -- that will determine how successful they all are in Detroit. Brunell isn’t concerned about the comfort level. He wishes he had played for Lombardi his entire career and called him “ideal.”
That ideal could also lead to more being expected of Stafford than ever before because he’ll hold Stafford to the same type of standard he had for Brees, who Brunell called one of the most professional men he had been around on and off the field.
“One of the most impressive guys I’ve been around. That’s really the standard, unfortunately for Matthew, it’s a very high standard of which he expects Matthew Stafford to get to,” Brunell said. “And so he can go and they’ll watch a lot of Drew Brees cut-ups in that system.
“He’ll show Matthew, this is what it is supposed to look like, this is how you approach the game. This is how you make that read. The best thing that Joe brings with him is that experience coaching one of the best in the whole game.”
Now he has to try and turn Stafford into that quarterback with potential to one progressing to reach it. To do that, he’ll pull on everything he has learned in the past to help his future.