In the middle of December, a headline splashed across ESPN's NFL page with an intriguing question:
"Could Jim Bob Cooter become a head coach soon?"
That was 2016.
The Detroit Lions, with Cooter as their offensive coordinator, were rolling, winners of five in a row to boost their record to 9-4. Matthew Stafford was carving up opposing defenses. Questions were being asked, both in Michigan and nationally, if Cooter could be in the mix to become one of the NFL's youngest head coaches.
A year later, the Lions averaged 25.6 points per game – seventh in the NFL – but head coach Jim Caldwell was fired after the 9-7 Lions missed the playoffs. Cooter interviewed for Detroit's head coaching position, which went to former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. He was retained on staff as offensive coordinator in 2018, but the Lions slipped to 25th in the NFL in scoring. Detroit parted ways with him after the season.
And all of a sudden, two years after his name was thrown around as a head coaching candidate, a rising 30-something offensive mind was out of a job.
But every experience Cooter had before, during and after his time in Detroit brought him to where he is now: A trusted voice for Colts head coach Shane Steichen as an offensive coordinator once again.
"Jim Bob has been phenomenal for me and this offense," Steichen said. "The preparation that he puts in on a weekly basis getting this unit ready to play has been tremendous. He turns over every rock. Great discussions during the game plan meetings. He does a great job with the offense during the week. He's been phenomenal.
"Fortunate to have him and shoot, I think it's only a matter of time until he gets a shot to be a head coach here soon."
Cooter's first NFL job was as an offensive assistant with the Colts in 2009. A former backup quarterback at the University of Tennessee, Cooter spent two seasons as a graduate assistant with the Vols before making the jump to the NFL, where he began working with another Tennessee guy: Peyton Manning.
Along with former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Tom Moore, wide receivers coach/offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen and offensive line coach Howard Mudd, Cooter considers Manning one of the most important influences he's had in his career.
"As a young coach, to come into that situation really set you up for the potential to put together a pretty good career as a coach because you're going to learn so much," Cooter said. "You sit in the back of a meeting room with Peyton Manning and you start talking about protections and you start talking about routes, you start talking about progressions and defensive coverages — you better learn a lot. And I think I did. I got good notes out of those situations that I think, long term, made me a better coach."
Cooter has made it a point to take notes everywhere he's been, jotting down things he's learned from folks he's worked with over the years. All those coaches have had an influence on Cooter, but they don't come from a single coaching tree: In Indianapolis, Cooter worked with Caldwell, Moore, Mudd and Christensen, among others.
Then he spent a year in Kansas City as a quality control coach, where he worked with then-Chiefs wide receivers coach Nick Sirianni under then-Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, both of whom are now NFL head coaches.
Cooter re-united with Manning for a year with the Denver Broncos, where he learned from head coach John Fox and offensive coordinator Adam Gase. As quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator in Detroit, Cooter again worked with Caldwell and developed offenses for another established veteran quarterback in Stafford.
After his time in Detroit ended, Cooter was re-united with Gase with the New York Jets, where he served in a new role for him – running backs coach – for two seasons. In 2021, Cooter took a step back from on-field coaching and served as a consultant with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he again worked with Sirianni and linked up with offensive coordinator Shane Steichen.
And in 2022, Cooter was brought aboard by Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Pederson as passing game coordinator, where he worked with the former Super Bowl-winning coach as well as offensive coordinator Press Taylor.
Through those stops, Cooter took notes on offensive philosophy, scheme, leadership – anything he could soak up, he wrote down, knowing it'd make him a better coach. And as he forged on following the end of his first stint as offensive coordinator, those notes proved invaluable to his own personal development.
"There's a lot that coaches get better throughout their career," Cooter said. "It's something I think I've tried to do a good job over the last four or five years and been put in some different roles, which have ultimately been really beneficial for me seeing a different side of the game.
"Being a running backs coach and diving in a little deeper into the run game and some of the techniques, specific things of the game that maybe I hadn't dove into as a quarterback coach or an offensive coordinator at that time. And then being able to get in Philadelphia and watch those guys do their work while I was helping, but I wasn't hands on active and was able to take that sort of 10,000-foot view and improve and get better. And maybe make a few of those notes as the career moves forward."
When Cooter arrived back in Indianapolis this spring, he only had minimal experience working with young quarterbacks – a year with Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville and a non-coaching role with Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia were it. Otherwise, the quarterbacks he directly worked with were veterans: Manning with the Colts and Broncos, and Stafford with the Lions.
So as the Colts – with Cooter a key part of the evaluation – began to coalesce around Anthony Richardson as their guy in the 2023 NFL Draft, the new offensive coordinator was tasked with doing something he hadn't yet needed to: Develop an offense for a rookie quarterback.
That task brought Cooter back to some coaching fundamentals. And it worked: Prior to Richardson's season-ending injury in Week 5, the Colts were highly encouraged by the rookie's progress within the offense.
"There are a lot of shortcuts you can take with a veteran quarterback — hey, Matthew Stafford, this is just like such and such you guys ran before we got here, y'all call it this and you ran it like this, and we're gonna shorten that one route by a yard or two, but it's the same thing, read it the same way," Cooter said. 'When you're with young quarterbacks from different backgrounds, different college programs, the shortcuts don't exist.
"You need to flesh out the details in every football play, every progression, every detail — there's a million details in quarterbacking — but you get to start from ground zero, start from first principles and sort of build the information that you're teaching those guys and try to build it in the right manner, which is exciting. Don't skip step two — don't go step one to step three — you gotta hit every single step. Let's not forget about this, because maybe he's never got that rep against such and such a coverage, whereas with an eight or 10-year vet, you can say gosh, this guy knows Cover 2, you never throw it to such and such."
Cooter is the Colts' offensive coordinator but not the play-caller – that role is held on Sundays by Steichen. So Cooter views his job as helping Steichen however he can; the Colts' entire offensive coaching staff has their own specific situational game-planning duties, then comes together to collaborate with Steichen to formulate the week's game plan.
"I think it's the job of our entire offensive coaching staff to support Shane as the play caller," Cooter said. "I've always felt the guy that calls the play, he's really in the action, he's in the game, he's in the moment. We're here to help him. So as we set up our weekly schedule, as we set up the way we gameplan different situations, gameplan different areas, Shane works with us, we work with him in a lot of different areas.
"Ultimately it's going to be his final call — I like play A and B, maybe Shane likes play B, C and D. I might try to get Play A in — I might try to sell it a little bit. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But ultimately, I think the play caller has earned the right to have those plays he really believes in, so it's our job — it's my job as offensive coordinator, and our entire staff is working some facet of this, where we're going to try to flush out as many good ideas as we can, talk about them, and then ultimately we're going to put the best ones on the sheet and Shane is always going to have the tiebreaker being the play caller, which he should."
The Colts' formula is working. Steichen, Cooter and the coaching staff had to tweak some things when Gardner Minshew II replaced Richardson starting in Week 6, and the Colts enter Week 14 eighth in the NFL in scoring (25.0 points/game) and, with a 7-5 record, are firmly in the AFC playoff picture. Minshew said players can tell when their head coach and offensive coordinator are on the same page, and they all see it with the 2023 Colts.
"(Cooter)'s awesome," Minshew said. "He brings a lot of experience, been around some of the great players, too, been here. That man just loves ball. He's all about it. He's seen all the looks, knows all the plays. There's a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge there."
But there's no part of Cooter that's thinking about what may be next beyond, right now, the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 15. Previous success does not guarantee future success. Maybe he'll take a few notes along the way, but there's always a different way to grow an offense or tweak a game plan – and it's Cooter's job to help unearth those possibilities.
"It's an evolving profession," Cooter said. "It's a profession where innovation and creativity are at a premium. You have to do the little things well, you have to do what you're doing at a really high level. But as soon as you have success, you can't stay right there. You gotta push forward the next week or the next year, or the next into the playoffs, you have to push forward, improve, find new areas to attack the defense and vice versa, they're doing that to us.
"But that's one thing I've learned over the past couple of years, just because you're having some success doesn't mean — you do have to push forward, you do have to be creative, you do have to look for different ways to do things."