Detroit Lions: Is Jim Caldwell Still the Answer?


Oct 11, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell looks on during the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at Ford Field. The Cardinals won 42-17. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve seen a sandstorm of comments on social media begging the question – why doesn’t Caldwell take over as playcaller? Others ask a more broad-reaching question, i.e., is Jim Caldwell still the right man for the job in Detroit.

The answer to the question on playcalling is easy enough to answer. In asking whether any person is up to a particular task we have but to chronicle how they performed similar duties in the past. Past performance indeed is a predictor of future successes or failures.

The short answer to the question of whether the Lions are better off with Caldwell as playcaller over Lombardi is a resounding no! Jim Caldwell is not versed enough in the Gulf Coast Offense to serve as an effective playcaller in that scheme. As bad as it may seem, unless the Lions are willing to scrap the install of Sean Payton’s offense Joe Lombardi is the only one person currently in the Lions employ qualified to run that offense.

Additionally, the data suggest Jim Caldwell may not be as gifted an offensive mind as we once believed. Please understand I have been a staunch supporter of Jim Caldwell. I wanted him to be the Lions’ choice at head coach above Ken Whisenhunt. At the end of an 11-win campaign in 2014, I felt pretty sure of my evaluation.

Today, my position on Caldwell has softened. The offense’s lack of productivity in Detroit is reminiscent of how Baltimore’s offense looked when Caldwell was running the show. In fact, the only time Caldwell’s offenses looked good was when he was in Indianapolis with a healthy Peyton Manning.

There’s no mystery behind why the Colts Offenses looked so good while Peyton Manning was healthy.

It’s well documented Colts Owner Jim Irsay made it clear when Tony Dungy was hired that the Colts Offense needed to remain as it was before the new regime was installed. When Dungy retired and handed the reigns of the team over to Jim Caldwell the offensive system Tom Moore and Peyton Manning created continued with little to influence from Jim Caldwell.

Here is how the Colts Offense fared when Caldwell had to lead the team without Peyton Manning.

Total Offense30th
Rush Offense26th
Pass Offense27th
Redzone Offense27th
Scoring OffenseTied for 28th

Oct 11, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) gestures against the Oakland Raiders at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

No one can underestimate the value of a Peyton Manning. Manning is a once in a generation talent who has been the face of the NFL for more than a decade. While I’m not sold on Peyton’s ability to rise to the moment in playoff situations, there’s no denying that he is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the position. With most of Colts roster intact Caldwell could only manage two wins with a team that had won at least ten games in each of the previous nine seasons. Obviously, Peyton Manning hides a ton of deficiencies, but to go from being a Superbowl contender with Peyton Manning to laughing stock without him makes a compelling case for the assertion the Colts’ offensive success had more to do with Manning than Caldwell.

When Caldwell was fired in Indianapolis the Baltimore Ravens presented Caldwell with an opportunity to serve as an assistant to their offense. Looking to add a spark to his team Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh fired his offensive coordinator and promoted Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator. Although Caldwell had enjoyed a long and distinguished career, 2012 would be the first time he actually called plays in the NFL.

ESPN’s Michael Rothstein performed a brilliant statistical analysis of Caldwell’s time as an offensive coordinator in Baltimore. Here are his findings extending back to week 15 of 2012 through week 17 of 2013.

Total Yards608126th
Completion Percentage58.7%22nd
Yards Per Rush3.432nd
First Downs35521st

The data above paints the picture of an offensive coordinator who was not very successful during his stint in Baltimore. That reinforces what Colts fans saw of Caldwell when Peyton Manning was lost to injury during the 2011 season.

Oct 11, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) points to the crowd after the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Ford Field. The Cardinals won 42-17. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Shifting our focus to Caldwell’s latest team – the Detroit Lions – we are starting to see his reputation as an offensive guru may have been greatly exaggerated. Before Jim Caldwell arrived the Detroit Lions offense had been one of the most explosive in the NFL. It wasn’t efficient and turnovers were certainly a problem, but Calvin Johnson was setting NFL records and the team could score at will against any defense the NFL could throw at them.

Caldwell’s arrival signaled the end of the offensive dominance the Lions had demonstrated with such pride prior to his arrival. In its stead was a conservative approach that has led to such offensive futility the Lions rank at or near the bottom of the league in every significant offensive category. Take a look at the offensive numbers since Caldwell became the team’s head coach.

YearTotal OffenseRush OffensePass OffenseRedzone OffenseScoring

For unique perspective, instead of showing how Caldwell’s offenses compare to the better offenses Detroit fielded under Linehan, I wanted to show how this team’s offense stacked up to the one that took the field a year after the 2008 winless campaign.

YearTotal OffenseRush OffensePass OffenseRedzone OffenseScoring

While the passing and redzone offenses of today are better than the one the team fielded in 2009, the 2009 version of the team rated better in rushing and scoring offense. Total offense was a wash. What’s most disheartening about it all is the Lions have exponentially improved their offensive roster since 2009. Very few coaches in the league would be able to do as little as Caldwell and Lombardi have done with the wealth of resources this offense has at its disposal.

I want to believe in Jim Caldwell because I have no desire to live through yet another rebuild.

I want to believe in Jim Caldwell because he seems like a very nice man who is a great mentor to the players.

I want to believe Jim Caldwell (and his staff) because I still believe Matthew Stafford can become great.

I am ashamed to admit I am having a crisis of conscience because of what I see on Sundays, read about on Mondays and have researched on my own. For the first time since he was hired I have to admit I have serious reservations about Jim Caldwell and his ability to lead this offense.

What say you Lions fans? Is your faith in this coaching staff unwavering or do you have reason to doubt as well? Let me know on Twitter. My username is @dmacali818.

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