Wojo: Caldwell earned enough trust for another shot

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

The players wanted him back. The owner wanted him back. The coordinators and the rest of the coaching staff wanted him back.

Jim Caldwell

Jim Caldwell is back as Lions head coach, and it’s not hard to figure out why. This was a prudent first move by new GM Bob Quinn, and it also happens to be the right move.

I’ll say it again — I thought Caldwell earned a third season, and not just because he rallied a broken team to a 6-2 finish against lesser competition. He earned it because his strong connection with his players, especially a revitalized Matthew Stafford, and the high quality of his coordinators added value to his position.

By giving Caldwell time, Quinn buys a little time, and he immediately started using it Friday. He hired another former Patriot, Kyle O’Brien, as director of player personnel, fired a longtime scout and will continue to revamp the dusty personnel department. Frankly, that’s as important as naming a coach.

No one is waving banners about this, either. Caldwell’s job was justifiably in jeopardy after the 1-7 start, and it’s not like he’s being given a contract extension. His job could be right back in jeopardy next season. But I’m sorry, the Lions aren’t in position to be discarding a coach who’s 18-15 with one playoff appearance here.

Anyone better?

If there was some tremendous candidate available — like who? — Quinn could’ve justified a change. But think about this: If you’re a respected coaching prospect, do you really want to step into a situation where the previous coach was adamantly supported by so many people, including the two most important players, Stafford and Calvin Johnson? Johnson is contemplating retirement, and while Caldwell’s return probably doesn’t change that, it might at least give Johnson pause.

I don’t believe Martha Ford required Quinn to keep Caldwell, mainly because I don’t think it ever got to that point. She strongly voiced her appreciation of Caldwell as a coach and a man, so would a 39-year-old first-time GM really want to ignore that? And if Quinn did want to push it, push it for whom?

Niyo: Lions' roster remains Quinn's biggest challenge

Take a look around the NFL at some of the uninspiring hires — Ben McAdoo, Doug Pederson, Dirk Koetter. The Patriots coordinators, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, who supposedly would’ve considered following Quinn to Detroit, don’t have impeccable credentials. McDaniels was 11-17 in a brief stint in Denver and Patricia has never been a head coach. Would it even make sense for a first-time GM to hire a first-time coach?

This is the appropriate move because it’s logical, not reactionary. Oh, at some point after he gets settled, Quinn will have to be reactionary and forceful. It might even come after next season, if the Lions don’t progress beyond 7-9.

There were just too many unknowns to make the leap now, and continuity can be helpful. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter extracted the most-efficient performance of Stafford’s career the final eight games, when he threw 19 touchdown passes and two interceptions. If Caldwell went, I assume Cooter would go. Now that Caldwell stays, I assume Cooter stays, although that still must be worked out.

Same thing with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who interviewed for several head-coaching jobs. What he did with the Lions this season, despite losing stars Ndamukong Suh and DeAndre Levy, was almost as impressive as directing the second-ranked defense the previous year.

The Stafford Factor is the biggest, by far. No, he has not established himself as a championship quarterback, but he was more comfortable and coachable the second half of the season. We can gripe all we want about Stafford’s flaws, but the talent is obvious, and Cooter is capable of tapping into it.

If Caldwell was fired, Stafford would have to start over in a new offense. And any time you think it might be good for the Lions to go in a different direction with a new quarterback, close your eyes and envision Brian Hoyer in a playoff game.

Player's coach

And then there’s the Calvin Factor. Caldwell’s return doesn’t mean Johnson suddenly will come racing back, although it can’t hurt. Johnson, like many of his teammates, raved about Caldwell and how much he enjoys playing for him. But by all accounts, Johnson’s possible retirement has more to do with the physical beating he has taken over the years.

It may not be completely reflected in the record, and that horrid Hail Mary defense in the loss to Green Bay will outrage fans forever, but Caldwell has built some equity here. He’s also been more demanding than his calm demeanor suggests. He did fire coordinator Joe Lombardi at midseason, albeit a bit late. And he did bench Stafford in the loss to Arizona, which riled the quarterback, and perhaps inspired him.

If the 6-2 finish didn’t matter in the standings, or to some fans, it mattered to the new guy in charge.

“Not only did (Caldwell) lead the Lions to the playoffs his first season,” Quinn said in a statement, “But when you look at how the players responded the second half of last season, under difficult circumstances, it’s clear to me that this team believes in him and responds positively to his leadership.”

Quinn had said he’d take a little time to get to know Caldwell and render a decision, and it took about four days. But really, the evaluation went back farther, to what he saw on the field and heard from players. In the absence of a tantalizing outside candidate, and in light of Stafford’s rebound, this was the wise call.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/bobwojnowski