January 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Lions have only themselves to blame for fan reaction to Jim Caldwell hiring

Allen Park — The last head coach left town cursing the fans on his way out the door, or so it seemed. Now as his replacement lands in Detroit, it appears a good many of those same fans are cursing his arrival.

Only the Lions could pull a switcheroo like that, promising a culture change and proudly delivering a public-relations fiasco, at least based on the initial reaction.

Jim Caldwell, the latest coach to lease office space in Allen Park, can thank his bosses for that. And the media, too, obviously.

But the bottom line with this newest hire — the 26th head coach in franchise history, and 16th, including those with an interim tag, of William Clay Ford Sr.’s 50-year tenure as owner — is that none of that really matters.

Because the same standard would’ve — or should’ve — applied regardless of whom the Lions brought in: Win now, or be gone.

And that goes for all them this time, not just the 58-year-old Caldwell, who has to know he’s walking into a hornet’s nest with a fan base that’s buzzing for all the wrong reasons.

The Lions made it official Tuesday, trumpeting Caldwell’s arrival in advance of this afternoon’s press conference.

“On behalf on my entire family, I want to express how thrilled we are with the appointment of Jim Caldwell as our new head coach,” Ford Sr. said in a statement. “We believe Jim is the right man to lead our team and deliver a championship to our fans.”

A championship. That’s the promise, same as it ever was. But these Lions insist they’re different, and they’re ready, poised to win “immediately” with a roster that’s more than capable. So the consequences for failure had better be different this time, too.

'A very specific plan'

When the Lions fired Jim Schwartz two weeks ago, fresh off another late-season collapse and one last sideline embarrassment at Ford Field, they bragged their coaching vacancy was, in the words of team president Tom Lewand, “one of the most, if not the single-most, attractive” opportunities in the league.

Yet somehow one prime candidate, Lovie Smith, headed directly to Tampa Bay without stopping for an interview in Detroit. And of the handful the Lions did arrange to meet with formally, the presumptive favorite left a private plane waiting in Detroit and jumped instead at the Tennessee Titans’ offer Monday.

More money — an extra $1 million annually, ESPN reported — and likely a greater say in personnel, along with better roster flexibility given the Lions’ salary-cap crunch, undoubtedly helped sway Ken Whisenhunt’s decision. The former Arizona Cardinals head coach cited chemistry, geography and philosophy — he’s a Whiz, all right — as a few more reasons Tuesday in Nashville.

But if the Lions insist on disputing the notion Caldwell was their second choice at today’s introduction, they’ll have only themselves to blame if no one really believes them. Because part of the problem with the vow of silence the front-office decision-makers took five years ago when they were promoted at the end of the Matt Millen era is that it allows others to speak for them. And make no mistake, a chorus of voices around the league this past week had Whisenhunt pegged for Detroit.

I did find it interesting, though, that it was Ford Sr. — and not his son, vice chairman Bill Ford Jr., or Lewand — who was quoted in Tuesday’s release. The Lions’ 88-year-old owner hasn’t spoken publicly at any length since June 2009, not long after he’d hired his last head coach.

At the time, he told a group of three of us in his office that, unlike previous hires, he was “rock-solid” about this one.

“If Jim Schwartz doesn’t work out, you can blame me 100 percent,” Ford Sr. said.

That alone doesn’t explain why Martin Mayhew, entering his 13th season with the franchise and his sixth as general manager, got another shot to get it right in 2014. But it probably played some small part in it.

And while Ford’s statement Tuesday went on to “commend Tom and Martin on the thoroughness of the coaching search,” it has to be their last kick at this plan, doesn’t it?

“We had a very specific plan and profile for our next head coach,” the owner added, “and I am convinced that we found that man in Jim Caldwell.”

To be fair, he’s not the only one. While Caldwell’s hiring is getting panned locally, he does boast 30-plus years of coaching experience, including a three-year stint as Tony Dungy’s hand-picked successor in Indianapolis. Caldwell led the Colts to the playoffs twice — and to the Super Bowl in February 2010, one of his three trips to the title game in the last eight years — before a 2-14 finish in 2011 without Peyton Manning led to his dismissal.

Dungy was among those lobbying hard on Caldwell’s behalf to land another job this winter, particularly in Detroit, where he spoke to Ford Jr. on Monday. Dungy, a first-ballot finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year, cites Caldwell’s track record as a quarterbacks coach — something the Lions valued greatly as they try to harness Matthew Stafford’s talent — as well as his leadership and communication skills.

And that certainly meshed with what the Lions said they were seeking in a new head coach: An experienced, well-respected coach who could tie up the Lions’ loose ends.

'A great listener'

Jeff Saturday, a former Pro Bowl center for those Colts’ teams under Dungy and Caldwell, who spent a decade there in all, has raved about his even-keeled approach for years.

“We could always talk through things,” Saturday said. “He’s a great listener and he likes to take in as much information as he can, then make a decision.”

If that sounds a bit like Mayhew — and it does — it’s probably no accident. The GM-coach relationship with his first hire was a rocky one, at times, and if this is Mayhew’s mulligan, it’s no surprise it produced the “anti-Schwartz.”

It’s also worth noting the historical significance here, as the Lions — fined $200,000 for violating the Rooney Rule a decade ago — become the second team in NFL history to be led jointly by an African-American GM and coach. Scoff at that if you want, but when roughly 80 percent of your roster is black, it does mean a little something.

So does this, however. Mayhew insisted he wasn’t going to “pigeon-hole” himself in this coaching search. But in the end, that’s exactly what had to happen. Whisenhunt, Caldwell, it really didn’t matter. Whomever the Lions hired, it was always going to be this regime’s Plan B. And this time, they’d better hope they got it right.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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Jim Caldwell led the Colts to the playoffs twice — and to the Super Bowl in February 2010. He returned to the Super Bowl last year as Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator. / Rob Carr / Getty Images