Making Peace with Jim Caldwell Staying

Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s still too early to tell, but there is a growing feeling that the Detroit Lions will hold onto Head Coach Jim Caldwell for another year. The Lions finish their schedule on Sunday in Chicago in a battle to determine the third-place team in the NFC North.

Not many saw this Lions team entering the final Sunday at 6-9. I know I didn’t; I projected a 10-6 finish and a playoff berth, and there were some who chastised me for being too conservative in that estimate.

Many fingers, notably the middle one on my right hand, point squarely at Jim Caldwell for the decidedly unsuccessful season. There are very tangible coaching gaffes to point at which directly led to losses:

  • Sticking with the clearly overmatched Joe Lombardi as Offensive Coordinator
  • The numerous 10-men-on-the-field situations
  • Failure to anticipate the Hail Mary in the Green Bay game

There are other quibbles, but those are all grounds enough for my personal enmity and derisive thoughts on his coaching future in Detroit.

I think there is more than enough justification for owner Martha Ford and new team President Rod Wood to kick Caldwell to the curb after two seasons.

Yet I can also find proper reason why the 60-year-old head man deserves another shot. Really.

First is the timing aspect. With no General Manager in place beyond interim Sheldon White, it’s irresponsible to send the coach packing with no idea if he might be a fit. The Lions are indeed looking hard at several GM candidates, but don’t expect one to be hired before Jan. 8th at the earliest.

That means the team would be without both a head coach and a GM at a time when several other teams will have openings for one spot or the other, or both. If Mrs. Ford and President Wood had already decided Caldwell’s goose was cooked, the prudent time to drop the axe has already come and gone.

This leads to the second, and arguably most important, reason to give Caldwell another chance. The competition on the job market looks fearsome this year. At least four openings (Miami, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Indianapolis) are already confirmed, and it seems more than likely the gigs for the Giants, Chargers, Browns and perhaps the Rams, Saints and 49ers will be open no later than Tuesday as well.

That’s a lot of competition. There just aren’t that many great coaching candidates out there, not enough to feel confident about being any more successful with these Lions than Caldwell and his 17-14 record through not quite two seasons. I like Hue Jackson, Sean McDermott and even Mike Shula as upgrades. That’s the list of coaches I feel confident would give this core roster a better chance to win in 2016 than Jim Caldwell.

Don’t try to sell me Adam Gase, whose Bears offense the Lions are about to smother. Chicago played better than expected this year, but it was the defense who rose up. Todd Haley? He makes Jim Schwartz seem cuddly and humble. Josh McDaniels or Matt Patricia? Too much Belichick; give me Eric Mangini before either of them. Sorry, underwhelming retreads like Tom Cable, Doug Marrone and anyone who gets fired this coming week don’t move my meter in the right direction.

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  • There is something to be said for stability. Many players have come out and strongly supported Caldwell, and they do so privately too. The notion the preternaturally calm Caldwell has lost the team is ridiculous. Especially for the players who had to deal with Schwartz, the steady hand and strong sense of team and family has not worn thin one bit. I hear that from agents, from daily team observers and even the sprinkling of players who throw me a bone.

    Keeping Caldwell almost assuredly means Jim Bob Cooter returns as Offensive Coordinator, and that’s a real selling point. A new head coach would be smart to let Cooter sing for his supper, but the reality is the new coach will bring in his own guys. The same is true with Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin, who I strongly suspect will be leaving for a head coaching job of his own (that Eagles job fits him perfectly) in the coming week or two.

    Here’s the thing that ownership will sell us as fans: since the bye in London, the Lions are 5-2 and that includes the first win in Green Bay since the Wayne Fontes glory year. They should be 6-1 but for the absurd Hail Mary. That’s real. What’s also real is that every team that beat them before the bye except San Diego is a playoff team. The schedule legitimately was brutal, and the team responded by playing winning football down the stretch…albeit against weaker competition.

    Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
    Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports /

    Continuity does matter. While the Ford family has valued this too much in the past, organizations with itchy trigger fingers seldom get better. Look at Cleveland or Buffalo or Oakland or Washington (do it again, Jay Gruden) or Tennessee; those teams are consistently lousy in part because of constantly changing systems and philosophies. Contrast that with Cincinnati, where they stuck through an uneven start with Marvin Lewis (16-16 first two years) and are now one of the most consistent winning franchises. Or Pittsburgh, where Mike Tomlin has had some lean years interspersed with his successful ones.

    Detroit has a core roster talented enough to win 2016 playoff games. Plural. Bringing Caldwell back means Stafford gets the same post-bye offense in which he’s been better than Aaron Rodgers. It means Calvin Johnson is more apt to stick around, though I think many (myself prominently included) have oversold his potential departure. Give this offense one more functional lineman and a blocking tight end and it’s potentially as good as any in the NFL not named Arizona. I believe that. I do not believe that is the potential in 2016 with a new coach.

    So I’ll accept the inevitable here. Jim Caldwell won’t be fired this week, and stands a fair chance of returning in 2016. That of course depends on the new GM, but at this point it sure seems like the strong finish bought Caldwell another year.