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Jim Caldwell: QB Stafford already 'better than he was at the end of last year'

Matthew Stafford looks to build on the success he had under OC Jim Bob Cooter in the final eight games of last season, when he threw 19 touchdown passes and two interceptions. AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- In the midst of what appeared to be chaos on the outside, Matthew Stafford found stability and consistency as a quarterback.

At least, that’s what the Detroit Lions hope.

During the team's tumultuous 2015 season, Stafford had the best stretch of his career. Over the last eight games of the season, he produced like a top-10 quarterback and looked like the player the franchise hoped he would become when the Lions took him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft.

How he did it was the biggest thing, learning new elements of the offense weekly after quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter replaced Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator hours before the team left for London in Week 8.

And as strong as Stafford finished, Lions coach Jim Caldwell made somewhat of a bold statement Thursday when he discussed the start of the 2016 season and how much his quarterback knows about the offense he's about to run.

“Matthew is better than he was at the end of last year right now,” Caldwell said. “I continue to say that I think he’s certainly going to continue to improve.”

Caldwell implied that Stafford understands Cooter’s offense better now that he has had a full offseason to learn it, as opposed to the piecemeal installation that took place over the second half of last season.

Under Cooter, Stafford threw 19 touchdown passes and two interceptions in the final eight games of last season. He completed 70 percent of his passes with a QBR of 73.1 -- better than Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.

“Obviously, we put it in kind of during the bye week last year, had three days or four days of practice, whatever it was,” Caldwell said. “It has changed through this offseason and [Stafford] had the ability to kind of tear it down and start again from scratch with Jim Bob and [quarterbacks coach Brian Callahan] and all those guys.

“I think just the comfort level with what we’re trying to do, what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Cooter gave Stafford some offensive input, although the mind meld between coordinator and quarterback that started during the 2014 season has led to a good amount of play understanding and agreement. It led to a comfort level for everyone involved, although there is still a lot of learning going on.

“There’s a lot of plays in this offense,” receiver Golden Tate said. “A lot of different plays that are run off the same routes. There’s going to be more opportunity, I think, the way Jim Bob has it set up ... he’s going to utilize what we do best. Put us in positions to do well, and that’s exciting.”

All of it -- from Stafford’s continued knowledge to Cooter’s play-calling acumen -- sounds good in theory. But Stafford and the Lions know they have to carry their talk onto the field.

A year ago, Detroit's offensive players touted how familiar they were in the second season of Lombardi’s offense. Then it all unraveled and the Lions were offensively inept for the majority of the first half of the season, leading to Lombardi’s firing.

The Lions are being a bit more realistic this year -- Stafford, Caldwell and Tate all said they are still learning and improving -- but the team clearly has a better base to work with now, considering the progress Stafford has shown.

The question for Stafford has always been consistency. He has shown flashes of becoming a top quarterback in the past with his arm strength, ability to lead late-game comebacks, and statistics when the Lions were forced to throw often early in his career. But for every good stretch Stafford has had, he has countered with one almost equally as rough, with bad mistakes and costly interceptions. Last season was a prime example of that, as he and the Lions struggled early in the season -- leading to his benching during a Week 5 blowout loss to Arizona.

That was a coordinator ago. Now, they are focusing on the future, and both Stafford and Caldwell know the quarterback has to be better than he was.

“Every day I’ve seen him get better and better and better," said Caldwell. "We had a chance last week -- with the quarterbacks in and had some rookies in -- to see him operate, and you can see he’s a bit more comfortable.

“We’re still adding new things as we go along. It’s an offense that has a wide breadth to it, so that will certainly go on all through training camp.”

How he and the Lions pick up the offense during camp will give an indication of whether the consistency Stafford found late last season will finally stick around for good.