Wojo: Embattled Caldwell has the Lionized look

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Jim Caldwell

Allen Park — They always arrive with the best of intentions, either unaware of the Lions’ deep dark past, or determined to change it. Like so many coaches and players before him, Jim Caldwell tried, and is still trying, even as the harsh reality dawns on him.

To quote a song from the Lions’ mournful history, another one bites the dust. Oh, Caldwell is still here and apparently will finish out the season, with no word otherwise from ownership. More firings right now, with a 1-7 record, might make fans feel better, but probably wouldn’t accomplish much.

Real change must come at the end of the season, when Martha Ford and her family will decide the fate of Caldwell and GM Martin Mayhew. A complete overhaul should be the only option. But in the meantime, Caldwell is learning what others have learned, that the franchise’s 58-year reign of ineptitude has created an environment so toxic, it can crush anyone.

It will take a forceful leader with strong credentials, someone who knows exactly what he’s stepping into. Because here’s the raw truth: You come here to change a team, and it can end up changing you.

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“Negativity has always been here, from (the media’s) standpoint,” Caldwell said Tuesday. “It’s the first thing I think you notice here. I think I called it the ‘Dungeon of Doom’ when I walk into that room sometimes.”

Let me be abundantly clear. Caldwell wasn’t lashing out at the media, and wasn’t blaming the Lions’ woes on anyone else. I think he confused negativity with pointed skepticism hardened by years of losing, but that’s OK. He spoke openly, even humorously, in a rare display that, frankly, was refreshing. He said the Detroit media was the most negative he’d ever encountered, and considering his coaching stops — Baltimore, Indianapolis, Wake Forest — I doubt he was exaggerating.

Your first reaction: Oh please, the media (and fans) are too mean? What about one measly playoff victory since 1957?!

To be fair, Caldwell took responsibility and said he understands the history, even though he’s been here only a year and a half. In some ways, he sounded like a guy issuing a warning for the next coach, that it’s much tougher than it looks.

And it is, primarily because of the leadership void at the top. If Ford won’t sell the team — and there’s no evidence she will — then the Ford family will have to get lucky finding the next GM, coach and front-office people. Because merely hoping a quarterback (Matthew Stafford), or a receiver (Calvin Johnson), or a running back (Barry Sanders) can lead the way has proven futile.

Caldwell appeared capable when the Lions went 11-5, then lost a heartbreaker to the Cowboys in the playoffs. But even then, they were in a swirl of controversy. Dominic Raiola was suspended for the regular-season finale after a stomping incident. Ndamukong Suh initially was suspended for the playoff game, but it was overturned. In the midst of it all, Suh was smugly dodging suggestions he was about to bolt.

Just as in the previous regime, when Jim Schwartz went 10-6 in 2011 and then plummeted to 4-12, the organization’s culture isn’t strong enough to sustain success. Near the end of his run, Schwartz famously declared, “Don’t say I’m scared, because we ain’t!”

It goes on and on, coaches of questionable ability bringing new ideas and hitting old barriers, hampered by awful talent evaluators, some not even named Matt Millen. There was Rod Marinelli, who branded the media area “the room of stink” during his march to 0-16. There were Steve Mariucci, Marty Mornhinweg, Bobby Ross and Wayne Fontes, who all had their moments of staggering clarity.

Instead of being lionized for turning it around, someone usually ends up being Lionized. Fontes called himself the “Big Buck,” dodging barbs or imaginary bullets. Caldwell had that look Tuesday — bemused and befuddled, unwilling to break.

“Criticism doesn’t bother us, and it particularly doesn’t bother me,” Caldwell said. “If you disagree with me, don’t like what we do, I’m not one that feels like you’re persecuting me. You’ve got your opinion, I’ve got mine. You stir up the fan base because they have an interest in it, they have passion for it, which is good. The negativity part of it, we control that atmosphere. If we allow it in, that’s our problem.”

Lions try to block out fan, media negativity

It’s a nasty cycle, negativity begetting negativity. And when it’s interrupted by a rare playoff appearance, expectations ratchet unrealistically, which causes management to consider its course set, which leads to an entitled and aging roster.

Golden Tate was another who came here brimming with fresh hope after winning a Super Bowl with the Seahawks, and he can scarcely believe what’s happened. After the Lions lost to the Cardinals, 42-17, Tate expressed annoyance that fans booed early and often. The next day, he said he did more research on the franchise’s history and better understood the frustration.

And there was Tate on Tuesday, sitting in front of his locker, trying to convince media (and perhaps himself) that he wasn’t broken.

“I’ve never been a part of something like this, so I’m honestly not sure how to react,” Tate said. “I think I still have the same fierce mentality. Just right now, collectively, it’s not coming around. But I can tell you this, as long as I’m here, I will never have a loser’s mentality.”

As he spoke, it was difficult to tell if he had lyin’ eyes. We’ve heard the words before, and they always seem earnest. Caldwell also talked resolutely, eliciting chuckles from the Dungeon of Doom as he tried to lighten the mood while making a point. He didn’t sound like a man ready to acknowledge defeat, but the Lions’ history is wearing on him, and gaining on him.