January 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Martin Mayhew gambles on Jim Caldwell as Lions coach

Other names were still out there, big names, small names, recognizable names. If the Lions wanted to wait a bit longer, they could have.

Martin Mayhew didn’t want to wait, and wasn’t concerned about a public-relations battle he couldn’t win. So the question isn’t just whether you believe in Jim Caldwell as Lions coach — he isn’t a popular pick among fans — but whether you believe in the judgment of those who pushed for him, and risked their reputations to do it.

That includes Mayhew and former Colts coach Tony Dungy, who advised the Lions extensively. It includes former players, current players and NFL people, who strongly endorsed Caldwell.

Others in the Lions organization craved a bigger splash, and according to a league source, one name was high on the list — Jon Gruden. The Lions explored the possibility right up until Monday night, when they got indications Gruden was intrigued, but not enough to leave the broadcast booth.

When Caldwell is introduced today — the first African-American head coach in Lions history — there will be plenty of questions about backup plans and spotty records. The job was Ken Whisenhunt’s if he wanted it but he headed to Tennessee instead, where he has more ties. The Lions would be wise not to waste much time disputing it because they’re not going to win over anybody unless they win games, and they know it.

Mayhew and Dungy ratcheted their push for Caldwell with William Clay Ford and Bill Ford Jr., and in the process, Mayhew put his standing as the Lions’ leader to the toughest test. It looks like an underwhelming hire, from Caldwell’s age (he turns 59 Thursday), to his modest 26-22 record as Colts head coach, to his 2-14 final season in Indianapolis.

But I’d be careful making rash judgments or underestimating a coach who may be mild-mannered and soft-spoken — like Dungy — but is highly respected around the NFL for his meticulous work with quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning. Caldwell will dissect Matthew Stafford’s footwork and turnover tendencies. He spent time with Stafford during his visit here, and although it wasn’t part of the interview process, Caldwell was thorough in his analysis and tape breakdown.

Telling past

As always with the Lions, perceptions are shaded by their horrid history. You can focus on Caldwell’s performance as Ravens offensive coordinator this past season, when they finished 29th in total offense. Or you can look at his performance the previous season, when he took over as coordinator and helped shape Joe Flacco, who guided the Ravens to an improbable Super Bowl title.

Caldwell won one Super Bowl as assistant head coach with the Colts, and nearly won another after he replaced the retired Dungy. If the Lions are as talented as some believe and ready to win immediately, Caldwell has experience with that type of pressure. He inherited a 12-4 Colts team in 2009 and started 14-0, eventually losing in the Super Bowl to the Saints, 31-17. Along with his Ravens tenure, Caldwell has coached in three Super Bowls and been on the winning team twice.

By the time Caldwell is introduced, the Lions will have rallied support for him. Current players Reggie Bush and Joique Bell quickly Tweeted out positive reactions and Ndamukong Suh is believed to be a booster. Shortly after the news broke, Dungy sent out this Tweet: “I’m excited for Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions. I think he’s going to flourish under Jim Caldwell. Lions will be a playoff team in ’14.”

Make no mistake, if the Lions could have landed Dungy, they would have done it. But he has family and broadcast obligations and isn’t interested in a return to the grind. Neither, apparently, is Gruden, although the Lions talked with him several times.

It doesn’t really matter if you respect Caldwell’s credentials, or if the media respects his credentials. It matters that the players respect him, and that’s likely an asset. He was Dungy’s anointed successor and was 24-8 as Colts head coach before the 2-14 season, when Manning was sidelined the entire year after neck surgery.

Was the Colts’ success due more to Manning than Caldwell? Of course. But Manning praises him, and after Caldwell took over the Ravens’ play-calling duties late last season, Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes and 0 interceptions in the playoffs.

The Lions lacked discipline under Jim Schwartz in pretty much every way you can define it — penalties, turnovers, off-field troubles. Schwartz was the young, feisty guy brought in to stir things up. Caldwell is the older, calm guy brought in to settle things down. With his experience, he has a chance to gain respect that Schwartz couldn’t. And while the dynamics of having a black head coach might not matter to some people, race can be a factor in the locker room.

Could the Lions have waited, knowing Caldwell would still be available? Sure. And perhaps they could’ve delved deeper into Gruden’s status, or other candidates. But if Mayhew only gets to hire one more coach — after five years as GM, I’d say his job is squarely on the line — he was going to hire someone he wanted, and someone he knew wanted to be here.

The Lions have landed bigger names before, and failed. They’ve landed smaller names before, and failed. In this case, there was no surefire candidate. Caldwell will get the bulk of the scrutiny and the Fords will get the brunt of the criticism if it doesn’t work. But this is Mayhew’s move and Dungy’s guy, and if you’re desperate for reasons to trust it, that’s where you start.


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