MOBILE, Ala. -- Bill Johnson's first exposure to Joe Lombardi came eight years ago, when the two worked together with the Atlanta Falcons.
Johnson was the Falcons' defensive line coach at the time, and Lombardi was in his first year in the NFL, as a quality-control assistant, after spending four seasons running the offense for tiny Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania.
A tight end as a player at Air Force, Lombardi had the background and bloodlines to be a great coach -- his grandfather is the legendary Vince Lombardi, the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named -- but Johnson saw something more.
Lombardi, 42, was an "excellent" teacher, Johnson said, and after the two reunited in New Orleans in 2009, with Johnson running the Saints' defensive line and Lombardi in his first season as Drew Brees' full-time quarterbacks coach, Johnson was convinced that Lombardi was destined for bigger things.
The Detroit Lions hired Lombardi as their new offensive coordinator on Tuesday, ending a weeklong search for the final key component of new coach Jim Caldwell's first staff.
"They're getting a good coach," Johnson told the Free Press after Senior Bowl practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. "A guy that's truly ready to do it. He's been exposed to some good football and some good offense, been around Sean Payton and Pete Carmichael, Drew Brees. I think he'll bring a lot to the table. He's a smart guy."
Said Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan: "We're not allowed to talk to the press, but he's a (bleeping) great one. You can use that."
Lombardi had an impressive interview with the Lions earlier this week, and his hire continues the organization's ongoing effort to give beleaguered quarterback Matthew Stafford everything he needs to succeed.
Caldwell spent seven seasons as Peyton Manning's quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis and three more as the Colts' head coach, and Lombardi has worked closely with Brees since he arrived in New Orleans in 2007.
Brees led the Saints to a Super Bowl victory in Lombardi's first full season as his position coach, and this year, he became the first quarterback ever to throw for at least 5,000 yards in three straight seasons.
Known for his football acumen, high energy and straight shooting, Lombardi will work closely with Stafford in Detroit.
The first overall pick in the 2009 draft, Stafford is considered one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL, but he's coming off back-to-back down years and has had to answer repeated questions about his mechanics and erratic footwork after his own 5,000-yard passing season in 2011.
This year, Stafford threw 19 interceptions and struggled down the stretch as the Lions lost six of their final seven games.
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said Monday, "There certainly has to be some work done" straightening out Stafford's game, but he insisted there's nothing wrong with his quarterback's confidence.
"I don't think his confidence has probably fallen very far," Mayhew said. "You think about it, Week 9, his numbers were outstanding. We were winning, we were playing really well. Didn't finish up the second half of the season the way that we expected to and things that we wanted to do, but there are a lot of moving pieces to that. It's not all on Matthew. So I've been in contact with him several times since the end of the season, and he sounds pretty confident to me."
Caldwell kept Lombardi's candidacy under wraps Monday, even though the Lions already had extended him an offer, but he said he wanted his coordinator to be innovative and able to "implement and execute a variety of different schemes."
Johnson said he expects Lombardi's offense in Detroit to resemble a Saints offense that has ranked in the top six every year since 2007.
"I'm proud for him, first of all, and second of all, I think he'll bring something fresh to the table and I think with the pieces they have over there, I think they'll do well," Johnson said. "Listen, they're getting a good coach that's smart, that's ready, and I think he'll bring some new things and I think the quarterback and receivers will really be excited about it. And I think he understands protections really well, which I think that's important."
Lombardi's wife, Molly, hails from Bay City.
"Huge congratulations to Joe Lombardi," former Saints quarterback Chase Daniel tweeted this morning. "Coached me up for 4 years in Nola...really knows his stuff & will do great things in Detroit."
For now, it remains unclear who will call plays for the Lions next year.
Caldwell left open the possibility that he would do so during his introductory news conference last week.
"We're going to take a look and see exactly what we want to do in that particular area," Caldwell said. "Here's one thing you can guarantee, that I'm going to have, obviously, some input in that area. I'm going to be involved deeply in that area, and certainly, with the quarterbacks as well."
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