Wojo: Sticking with Caldwell is Lions’ best option

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Two months ago with the Lions at 1-7, Jim Caldwell disputed the notion he was a “dead man walking.” He said it with a quip and reporters chuckled, and then the oddest thing happened.

He actually went out and showed it. Caldwell didn’t earn complete absolution with a 6-2 finish, but he earned another shot. As long as the new general manager agrees, Caldwell should return for his third season.

The 7-9 record wasn’t good enough, and next season should be judged more critically. But the Lions aren’t in position to discard a coach with a winning record (18-14 in the regular season) and one playoff appearance. And here’s the strongest addition to Caldwell’s case: He promoted an offensive coordinator, Jim Bob Cooter, who appears to have unlocked the mystery of Matthew Stafford.

Caldwell again sidestepped questions about his future Monday, saying, “We let the chips fall as they may.” He declined (at least publicly) to play the chips he possesses. But if his firing once seemed inevitable, his return now seems more likely.

Obviously, if the new general manager identifies a prime coaching candidate, he should be allowed to make the move. But the general manager hasn’t even been hired yet, partly because executives on other teams can’t interview until after the season. And with as many as seven or eight head-coach openings around the league, competition will be fierce for, well, who? There aren’t a lot of can’t-miss candidates.

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Caldwell has his weaknesses, most of them related to in-game management. Frankly, playing the wrong defense against Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary pass is a borderline fireable offense.

Caldwell also has strengths, including the widespread support of his players, from Stafford to Calvin Johnson to the last guy on the roster, near as I can tell. Is that the most important quality for a coach? Not necessarily, but in today’s NFL, where the players’ attention spans can be as short as their non-guaranteed contracts, it matters.

Steady hand

It certainly matters when the quarterback connects with the coaching staff. After Martha Ford fired general manager Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand, a week after Caldwell fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, Stafford played as well as he has. During the 6-2 stretch, he completed 70 percent of his passes, with a staggering 19 touchdowns and two interceptions. He finally seemed comfortable utilizing all his weapons, as the Lions became the fifth team in NFL history to have three players with 80-plus receptions – Golden Tate (90), Johnson (88), Theo Riddick (80).

With his second-half flourish, Stafford regained confidence and credibility, and just as important, he regained power. He strongly wants Cooter and Caldwell to return, and two months ago when some debated whether Stafford should be back, it wouldn’t have meant much. It means more now because Stafford represents something most teams crave — a healthy quarterback in his prime who’s just scratching vast potential.

“It’s very difficult to find a guy that’s playing as well as Matthew’s playing,” Caldwell said. “I’m talking about the entire offense, you can tell we had an upward tick and we were trending in the right direction. You also have to keep in mind Jim Bob didn’t have the entire spring to put in the entire package, so there was a lot of learning on the run and it was still effective.”

That’s about as close as Caldwell will get to campaigning for his job, and his low-key manner bothers some fans who want a fiery disposition. I actually respect that Caldwell isn’t whining or spinning. I also suspect he already knows the Ford family admires his steady leadership. The face Caldwell shows the media — placid, polite and stubborn, with occasional jabs of humor — is not the same face he shows his team.

Eventually, this franchise might get to the point where 7-9 is unacceptable, and resiliency isn’t celebrated as a defining attribute. But for a long-scattered team like the Lions, switching coaches and systems too quickly can be just as damaging as waiting too long. Cooter’s system fits Stafford’s aggressive nature, and Johnson showed he’s still a valuable asset.

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Yes, the Lions beat only one team (Packers) that finished with a winning record. But for weary fans who want a clean organizational sweep, don’t lose sight of the issue here. Obsess about a dream coach all you wish, but a general manager that can put together an exceptional front office is the highest priority, by far. Interim Sheldon White will be interviewed but can’t be the guy, with all due respect. And by the time president Rod Wood and advisor Ernie Accorsi land their man, perhaps in a week or so, there might be limited coaching candidates available.

‘Great, great man’

Coaches in tough situations can lose the respect of their team, but you don’t see it under Caldwell, who’s practically revered in the locker room.

“Everyone loves coach Caldwell,” safety Glover Quin said. “He’s a great, great man, great leader, great coach. He does a lot of things for the players, holds everybody accountable.

“He’s honest, and players respect that. I think he has everybody’s support in the locker room.”

And if the Lions’ performance next season doesn’t reflect that, the new general manager then can bring in his own coach. Of course, the Lions have proven the next guy isn’t always better. The last two, Jim Schwartz and Rod Marinelli, got more time than Caldwell so far and neither had a remotely comparable record.

The Lions virtually wiped out their off-field issues under Caldwell. He may be a classic “players coach” who rarely rips his team, but he does demand accountability. He fired Lombardi and he sat Stafford in the second half against the Cardinals, the first benching of his career.

Caldwell hasn’t won enough to be safe, and that’s why there’s such an uproar. But I’d argue two years isn’t enough time to undo all the mistakes around here, including his own. If the second-half success doesn’t warrant Caldwell’s return, Stafford’s revival does.