Jim Caldwell took over as head coach of the Detroit Lions in 2014, going 11-5 in his first season and 35-28 overall for a .556 winning percentage. He’s the winningest coach in Lions history, but that may be setting the bar too low as he’s yet to win a playoff game in Detroit.
So with Caldwell’s future unquestionably in question, let’s examine both sides of the argument as to whether the Lions should retain or release the veteran coach after this week’s game against the Packers.
Up until last weekend’s playoff-eliminating loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit looked like they were on their way to a 10-win season and as a result, keeping Caldwell after a potential third playoff appearance in four years.
But the Lions came up just short, as they have done quite frequently when it matters most under Caldwell. From the Aaron Rodgers hail mary a few years ago, to the nine men on the field fiasco, there have been some memorable lapses that are hard to ignore.
Still, the Lions have come a long way in terms of professionalism and discipline. The team was a talented, yet sloppy group when Caldwell took over for Jim Schwartz. They had elite talent along their defensive line, with Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford leading the offense.
Instead of being “a play away” all the time as the former coach often said, in 2014 the Lions maximized that talent on their way to the second-highest win total in franchise history. Caldwell’s teams have tended to perform well in late-game scenarios for the most part. The Lions have become a team that routinely can overcome fourth-quarter deficits and find a way to be in any game.
The problem, though, even with all the fourth-quarter comebacks, is that those exciting wins were typically not against the team’s tougher opponents. So the question becomes: what did you expect of this team coming into the season?
Most felt, even with the offensive line additions, that this was between a 9-to-11 win team at best with the schedule they had. Detroit faced seven likely playoff teams, going 1-6 in those games.
Injuries to Taylor Decker, T.J. Lang, Travis Swanson and Rick Wagner absolutely killed the unit’s chemistry and Stafford took a beating. Is this a coaching issue? It is and it isn’t.
Any team is going to hurt losing their best linemen. However, did the team adjust well enough scheme-wise to avoid putting the onus entirely on Matthew Stafford? No, they did not.
So, Caldwell holds some blame for letting Jim Bob Cooter call delays and draws when they were getting zero push up front. As we saw with Minnesota last season, even good teams can’t recover from that many injuries to the offensive line.
It’s safe to say, fans are not happy with the running game, but the quarterback play has gotten markedly better under Caldwell’s leadership. Matthew Stafford has finally seemed to maximize his potential, growing as a leader and clutch performer, while minimizing the high-turnover numbers he was plagued with early in his career.
His four lowest interception totals have all come under Caldwell. This has led to more wins, and a more focused Stafford, who can frequently be seen audibling at the line of scrimmage in a way Peyton Manning used to when Caldwell was his quarterback coach in Indianapolis.
Defensively, the team’s been a mixed bag. When they had elite talent, they were an elite defense — ranked 2nd overall in 2014 — but when they lost Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, it showed. Teryl Austin has done a good job of creating turnovers and getting the team to show up for the majority of his time here running the defense, even after the team lost so much talent up front. The secondary has become bordering on elite, but the rush defense has taken a giant step back.
Too many of the same problems still exist, like an inability to cover the tight end in the red zone. Overall, the Lions defense fell off considerably as the season went on. Haloti Ngata and Kerry Hyder missing the majority of the season really hurt this team in retrospect.
One thing that bodes well for Caldwell is that there are going to be several teams that are looking for a head coach next season, possibly up to twelve. So while Bob Quinn has New England ties to guys like Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, if Caldwell gets fired for going 9-7, those are pretty high expectations for what could be an inexperienced head coach with several other opportunities.
Stafford is in his prime, which makes a potential backward step that much less appealing. Plus, I’ve yet to hear a player say a bad thing about Caldwell, publicly or anonymously, indicating he really does have the respect of the locker room.
Jim Caldwell has been pretty good overall, but for Bob Quinn and the Lions, is pretty good enough?