January 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Lions are forced to scramble, and they might have to settle

Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell was the first man to interview for the Lions vacant head coaching job. Caldwell took the Colts to a Super Bowl. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

This whole changing-the-culture idea might be more difficult than the Lions imagined. They seemingly had their coach and then they didn’t, and now they’ll have to make a tough call.

They can hire former Colts coach Jim Caldwell, who’s respected by many but doesn’t move the ol’ excitement needle. Or they can wait a bit longer and hope a longshot big-name candidate suddenly becomes viable. Either way, this search took an unexpected twist, and the Lions are scrambling to recover.

Ken Whisenhunt wasn’t necessarily the perfect choice, right up until he took the Titans job Monday night. But he appeared to be the best of the lot, fitting the criteria the Lions craved. Caldwell actually has some of the same important credentials — head-coaching experience, three Super Bowl appearances, extensive work with quarterbacks — in a less-enticing package.

By many accounts, it was Whisenhunt’s job to lose, even if he declined to take it. Now it’s probably Caldwell’s job to lose, although there’s always the chance of one more surprising turn.

If indeed Caldwell gets the job in the next day or two, the Lions can’t expect to win the news conference, which doesn’t really matter. They’ve won them before to no avail. But GM Martin Mayhew will have to explain how the apparent No. 1 choice slipped away, and how the Ravens’ 58-year-old offensive coordinator stepped in.

Caldwell is mild-mannered, not the imposing, fiery leader you’d expect to change the course of a franchise. But then, Jim Schwartz was edgy and aggressive, and as it turned out, too edgy and too aggressive. Caldwell would come with the strong endorsement of many, including Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning, his quarterback when the Colts went 14-2 and lost Super Bowl XLIV to the Saints in 2010.

Dungy's vote matters

Caldwell fits the Lions’ template on paper, but I have no idea if he has the presence to shift a culture and lift a team. I do know this: If you respect Dungy — and Lions fans certainly would embrace him as coach — you at least have to respect his opinion on Caldwell, who was the Colts’ quarterbacks coach and assistant head coach from 2002-08.

The Colts won one Super Bowl in that time, before Dungy retired in 2009. Caldwell was his hand-picked successor and went 26-22 in three seasons. He was fired after a 2-14 mark in 2011, when Manning was out for the year.

“I already had told Martin Mayhew that Caldwell is a great match for a team that has the personnel of being capable of playing in the Super Bowl,” Dungy told ESPN. “Jim made Peyton Manning an even better quarterback — look at the numbers and wins —and I think he can do the same for Matthew Stafford.”

One reason the Lions fell apart and fired Schwartz is the same reason their job was deemed so attractive — Stafford’s unrealized potential. That wasn’t enough to lure Whisenhunt, who has family ties in Tennessee.

Mayhew talked about changing the culture of the Lions, whose negative history always seeps through the walls, no matter who’s in charge. The Ford family knows all about it, and over time, Bill Ford Jr. is determined to alter it. He has talked extensively with Dungy — who doesn’t want to coach — and the Lions respect Dungy’s input.

Hiring Caldwell would be a risk, but he’s an offensive guy, a quarterback guy and an experienced enough leader to not be intimidated by a puzzle no one has been able to solve. If it’s Caldwell — or less likely, Mike Munchak — the Lions can’t expect a giddy reaction. But they’d be getting someone with notable accomplishments, starting 14-0 his first season as head coach in Indianapolis and nearly winning it all. He took over as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator late last season, in time to help Joe Flacco lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl title. This season, Baltimore’s offense slumped to 29th, and there were reports Caldwell would not be back.

Could Caldwell help fix Stafford’s turnover woes? That’d be the plan, because by the end of last season, Stafford was so emboldened by Schwartz’s reckless aggressiveness, accountability was gone.

Tough reputation

The Lions only interviewed candidates with NFL head-coaching experience, and I understand why. From Marty Mornhinweg to Rod Marinelli to Schwartz, they’ve looked for raw assistant gems before, and the job destroys those who aren’t prepared for it. Even experienced coaches such as Bobby Ross and Steve Mariucci were beaten by frustration.

I don’t know how a culture automatically changes, and nobody really does. You can’t talk your way (Matt Millen) or rant your way (Ross) or pound-the-rock your way (Marinelli). But it can’t hurt to hire someone who has been around, and been to the top once or twice.

Obviously, there’s no perfect candidate, unless an off-the-map big name emerges. Vince Lombardi is not walking through that door, and neither is Bill Cowher or Dungy, although the Lions would welcome them if they did. It’s not entirely clear who is walking through that door, but it won’t be the guy everyone expected.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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