Joe Lombardi building own NFL legacy

Pete Dougherty
View Comments
Joe Lombardi, offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions and grandson of legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, speaks during A Day for Men at St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere on Saturday, March 29, 2014.

Lombardi is the most famous name in football.

It no doubt opens many doors, though it might also close a few in the coaching world.

But no matter the name's cache, it's awfully hard to argue that Joe Lombardi made it to offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions this year by riding his grandfather's name.

In his first two years as a football coach, Joe Lombardi juggled his schedule so he could fulfill the final two years of his commitment to the U.S. Air Force early each day, then work as a volunteer assistant at the University of Dayton in the afternoons and nights.

From Dayton, Lombardi had assistant coaching stops at Virginia Military Institute (1999), Bucknell (2000), the New York/New Jersey Hitmen of the former XFL (2001) and Division II Mercyhurst (2002-05). He finally broke into the NFL as an entry-level defensive assistant with the Atlanta Falcons in 2006, then worked as an offensive assistant for the New Orleans Saints the past seven years, including as quarterbacks coach since 2009.

That was not a gravy-train ride to the big leagues. In fact, Joe's father, Vince Lombardi Jr., said in a telephone interview this week that his youngest son's advancement was slow and uncertain enough through the lower levels of college football that he considered getting out of coaching to support his fast-growing family.

"It was a long time without him making any money, and the kids kept coming," Vince Jr. said. "I think he had to (think about quitting)."

Joe Lombardi stuck with it, and now, though no one in his family will say it, he's on a trajectory that often gets assistants a shot at head-coaching jobs in the NFL.

As new Lions coach Jim Caldwell's offensive coordinator, Lombardi will call plays for one of the NFL's most-talented offenses. On Sunday at Ford Field, he'll face the Green Bay Packers, the team with which his grandfather made his legendary name, for the first time in his new job.

And though he and his grandfather advanced in their professions because of their coaching acumen on the offensive side of the ball, Joe works in an NFL that couldn't be more different than the Packers' Glory Days in the 1960s.

Vince Lombardi coached when the NFL was a run-oriented game. His last Packers team, which in the 1967 season won the last of his five NFL titles over a seven-year span, had a run-pass ratio of 59-to-41. Today's NFL is a passing game to the hilt. Last season, Joe Lombardi was quarterbacks coach for a Saints team that had a run-pass ratio of 36-to-64.

Caldwell hired Lombardi to bring Saints coach Sean Payton's sophisticated spread and pass-heavy offense to Detroit. The Lions have a talented but erratic quarterback in Matthew Stafford, and some of the best skill-position talent in the game with the league's preeminent receiver in Calvin Johnson, a new No. 2 receiver in free agent Golden Tate, a gifted young tight end in first-round draft pick Eric Ebron, and a big-play wingback type runner-receiver in Reggie Bush.

Lombardi's job is to harness Stafford's arm talent and toughness, and get everything he can out of those skill-position players. The results through two games have tended toward the extremes. In their opener, the Lions put up 35 points, 417 yards and had no turnovers in a win over the New York Giants. Then last week, they scored only seven points and Stafford threw an interception in a loss at Carolina.

Two scouts consulted this week said they don't know Lombardi personally but that in league circles he has the reputation for being a bright, up-and-coming coach. Both have seen video of the Lions and said Lombardi's offense looks similar to the Saints', though it's not a replica. Like Payton, Lombardi likes to change personnel groupings liberally and use players for what they do best, even if some combinations telegraph his likely intentions.

Through two games, Lombardi has used a league-high 70 lineup combinations, and while some of that is because of injuries on the offensive line, he's also used his most common lineup on only 5.22 percent of the Lions' offensive snaps, which is the league low. He likes to mix and match his skill players.

"(Payton's) whole philosophy," Vince Jr. said, "is, 'What does this guy do best? Let's give him the opportunity to do it.'"

Lombardi, 43, broke into the NFL in '06 via a former Air Force teammate who was on Atlanta's coaching staff and arranged an interview with then-Falcons coach Jim Mora Jr.

Mora and his staff were fired after that season. Lombardi caught on with the Saints as an entry-level offensive assistant and became quarterbacks coach in 2009. The quarterbacks job opened when offensive coordinator Doug Marrone became head coach at Syracuse, and quarterbacks coach Pete Carmichael was promoted to offensive coordinator.

This year in Detroit, Caldwell reportedly wanted to hire Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator, but Lazor instead went to Miami to be Joe Philbin's coordinator. Caldwell reportedly talked to at least two other candidates, Lombardi and Cincinnati Bengals quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese, and hired Lombardi.

That the youngest of his three sons went into coaching now seems both inevitable and unforeseeable to Vince Jr.

Vince Jr.'s father dissuaded him from going into coaching, though Vince Jr. eventually worked in football for part of his professional life after earning a law degree. He was an assistant general manager with the expansion Seattle Seahawks, went on to work for the NFL management council in the early 1980s and was a general manager for two teams in the USFL before he left football for a career as a motivational speaker.

Joe played tight end at a high school in Seattle and accepted a football scholarship to the Air Force Academy, where he was a special-teams player as a sophomore and junior, and starting tight end as a senior. Vince Jr. had advised Joe to go into coaching only if he couldn't live without it, and two years into his post-academy commitment to the Air Force, Joe decided he couldn't live without it.

"He really was consumed by football, so I guess it's not a surprise," Vince Jr. said. "But I (still) couldn't see it coming."

Joe's physical resemblance to his grandfather is apparent, though not as strong as Vince Jr.'s. He has nothing like his grandfather's volcanic temper.

"I don't think anybody is like my dad," Vince Jr. said. "You can't be. You can't quite coach that way today. Joe's got some fire in him, he'll chew you a little bit, but that's not his first (impulse). My dad's first reaction was to chew on you. I don't think that's Joe's first. Maybe his reaction would be that, but he catches himself nine times out of 10 and approaches it with a little bit calmer demeanor."

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

View Comments