Lions GM Martin Mayhew, left, and President Tom Lewand, right, introduce head coach Jim Caldwell. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Detroit — He sounded different and looked different, with poetic energy in his voice and experience in his face. Jim Caldwell stepped to the podium in Ford Field and forcefully shattered outside perceptions of him, which wasn’t difficult for a man clearly confident with who he is.
That’s good, because for his next act, all he has to do is shatter perceptions of a franchise that has wandered for decades, without any idea who it is. Caldwell displayed impressive charisma Wednesday, and by the time he was done talking, it was easy to see how he went from a suspected fallback candidate to the Lions new coach.
Team officials didn’t even spend much time insisting Caldwell and Ken Whisenhunt were both No. 1 choices, and frankly, it doesn’t matter anymore. Caldwell appeared different than portrayed, more than the genial coach who won with Peyton Manning and lost without him. And while words uttered in January mean little in September, the power of conviction is what Caldwell sold, and what the Lions craved.
“You get a sense he’s a very different kind of person than we’ve had here before, with a different kind of leadership capability,” Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. said. “He’s very calm, very measured, but has a real fire burning inside him. You also heard him talk about penalties, turnovers, the importance of discipline. There are no guarantees in life, but I’m very comfortable we got the right guy.”
GM Martin Mayhew and team president Tom Lewand echoed those words, while knowing similar things have been uttered before about a new Lions coach. There’s a reason the hiring has been praised nationally and viewed skeptically here, where fans and media are predisposed to expect the worst. There’s no sense pretending we know how Caldwell, who turns 59 today, will do with a team that possesses talent, but lost its way under Jim Schwartz and quarterback Matthew Stafford.
If Caldwell truly is different than the Lions’ recent line of first-timers — beyond the fact he’s the team’s first African-American head coach — we’ll know pretty quickly, because nobody is talking about long-term projects, and no one should. As he spoke with a fervor befitting a wise preacher, Caldwell hit all the poignant notes, occasionally quoting from the Bible.
Speeches don’t win games, but for those worried the new coach would be uninspiring, he was exactly the opposite. He talked about confidence and humility, and how he’d approach the task of fixing Stafford’s game. He said he’d already been in contact with several Lions players, and he listened to them as much as he spoke.
“They believe and I believe, the time is now,” Caldwell said. “Not two years or three years from now, or down the road somewhere. But right here, right now. … Do you believe in providence? I certainly do. I think there’s a reason why I’m here, and without question, it’s to win a championship.”
The Lions would just like to start with a little NFC North division title and see where they can go from there. But nobody was ducking anything Wednesday. I expected Caldwell to be agitated and maybe offended he’s been branded a football caretaker, with a 26-22 record in three seasons as the Colts head coach. But one benefit in hiring an experienced coach who has been to three Super Bowls (two as an assistant) is that he doesn’t really care if anyone minimizes his impact.
That’s important, because the Lions’ stated goal is to change their culture. They interviewed Caldwell first, but admittedly liked Whisenhunt a lot. Mayhew said he knew all along Tennessee presented strong competition for Whisenhunt, so Caldwell was never far from his mind.
Of course, it was hard to be far from his mind when people kept calling to endorse Caldwell. Mayhew laughed as he told of the time he was at home and saw a number he didn’t recognize pop up on his cellphone. It was Peyton Manning, who was preparing for a playoff game but had something to say.
“He said, ‘I can talk to you as long as you want or as short as you want, but I want to tell you about Jim Caldwell,’ ” Mayhew said. “The main thing he talked about was what a great teacher he is, how good he is with fundamentals.”
The 15-minute chat resonated with Mayhew. Here’s a GM hunting for ways to instill credibility in a forlorn franchise, and one of the best quarterbacks of all-time was insisting Caldwell was the guy to do it.
Tony Dungy did the same thing, and so did others. The Lions had to determine if the endorsements were real, or merely friends supporting friends, but the sentiments kept repeating themselves. Ford Jr. said he didn’t know what to expect, but the more they talked, the more they liked.
“It’s interesting, but the image that has been written about him is very different than the individual I saw,” Ford Jr. said. “Every coach, I’d assume, expects to win right now. But most of them won’t put themselves on the line and say it. He did.”
The Lions are standing on the line with him now. There was a bubbly energy on the stadium field, and we’ve seen that before when a new guy arrives. Naturally, it begged the question, one more time.
How is Caldwell different?
“I think this guy has a very steady hand, very even-keeled, highly, highly football intelligent,” Mayhew said. “One area we’ve fallen down a bit is accountability. When mistakes are made, there have to be repercussions, whether fines, or benching, or suspension. I think he has what it takes to change our culture.”
It takes something different, that’s for sure. Hopefully, Caldwell’s impassioned eloquence is not the only thing different about him.