Note: This column was posted on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday morning, the Lions confirmed that Jim Caldwell would return as Detroit Lions coach in 2017.
Allen Park — Jim Caldwell isn’t looking for a public endorsement, it’s not his style. But he deserves one, and speculation about his job status should be over.
Caldwell has done enough to return, taking the Lions to the playoffs twice in three seasons. It’s barely debatable in my mind, but because the Lions stumbled down the stretch — and GM Bob Quinn isn’t commenting until after the season — it’s a question. It shouldn’t be, no matter what happens in the playoff game against the Seahawks.
The Lions are a flawed team and Caldwell has his own flaws, and I’m not here to say he deserves unlimited time. But he’s certainly earned a fourth season and a modest contract extension. If everyone’s being honest, (including Quinn), they’d admit this roster doesn’t have the standard nine-win talent. Vegas odds before the season pegged the Lions as a seven-win team and not much changed, other than Matthew Stafford’s big-play, late-game prowess.
The Lions don’t have a single Pro Bowl player. They’re in the lower half of the league in most notable statistical categories, other than comeback victories. They beat lesser opponents and lost to better ones — 0-5 versus playoff teams — and technically backed into the playoffs. But don’t pretend like they were gifted the 9-4 record that provided the cushion. Washington’s loss to the Giants let the Lions in, but you know what also let the Lions in? Washington’s loss to the Lions in October.
Caldwell said Tuesday he talks with Quinn all the time, but wouldn’t say whether they’ve discussed the coach’s standing, with one year remaining on his contract.
“You know what, it’s not about me,” Caldwell said. “I’m more interested in this team and that focus. Our business is always skepticism and those kinds of things. It’s a challenging business, that’s what makes it fun, you know? It’s not for the faint of heart. You better be willing to take on challenges and understand that you’re expected to win.”
Some fans gripe about Caldwell’s low-key demeanor, but players rave about it. The best thing he does is not overreact or overreach, understanding the Lions’ limited strengths and mitigating their weaknesses with low-risk game plans.
Stafford has had a remarkable season considering the complete absence of a running game, 30th in the league. The only back the Lions really use these days is Zach Zenner. Their leading rusher is Theo Riddick with 357 yards, and he missed the last four games with a wrist injury.
Between the Lions’ 1-3 start and 0-3 finish, Caldwell kept the team tied together, winning eight of nine. He did it despite injuries that led to inconsistent production from his three best defensive players — Ziggy Ansah, DeAndre Levy and Darius Slay. At one point in the 31-24 loss to the Packers, three rookies were playing on the Lions’ offensive line.
Caldwell has weathered plenty, and admittedly, the best trait of a coach cannot simply be a knack for overcoming adversity. Every team suffers injuries, and the Lions actually had the luxury of a healthy Stafford until he hurt his finger.
But let’s not forget what franchise we’re talking about here, and what Caldwell inherited. His .563 winning percentage (27-21) is the highest of any Lions coach with at least two seasons since Buddy Parker in the 1950s. His predecessor, Jim Schwartz, got five full seasons despite a 29-52 record.
Players play hard for Caldwell, who runs a no-drama locker room. And yes that matters, when a coach respects and protects his players. As Quinn remakes the roster — and has done a fine job so far — it’s especially important for the team to overachieve. Comparing the talent level to the 9-7 record, there’s little doubt the Lions have overachieved.
There’s also little doubt their support of Caldwell is real. He has a preacher’s eloquence and a 61-year-old’s wisdom. With the media, Caldwell can be curt and stubborn, and also charming and humorous. He doesn’t court the spotlight, and he empowers his coordinators, Teryl Austin and Jim Bob Cooter, to take charge. Some of the questions about Caldwell’s game management are legitimate, and some are overblown.
“I think everybody in our locker room enjoys playing for him,” Stafford said. “He’s an honest guy, an upfront guy. … I think he’s a heck of a coach. Those decisions aren’t made by me, but I’m sure it’s something you guys love bringing up all the time.”
It’s hard to tell if the speculation is warranted because Quinn is mum. He didn’t hire Caldwell but did retain him last January. Quinn’s New England background automatically makes the Patriots’ two coordinators — Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels — obvious possible candidates.
But if there isn’t a significant upgrade available, why take a shot at an unproven guy? Six NFL coaches already have been fired, so competition will be fierce. And remember, owner Martha Ford backed Caldwell, and it’s hard to imagine that changed with a playoff appearance.
Until Quinn addresses it, speculation will simmer, and Caldwell will remain realistic and unbothered.
“It’s very simple actually, because of the fact that since 1978 when I first started coaching, we coached on one-year contracts,” Caldwell said. “Nothing was ever promised to you. I’ve always been in that mode. I think it was Marty Schottenheimer who got fired at 14-2 (in 2006 by the Chargers). That should tell you the whole story about our business, right? So why worry about it? We’ve got a game to win, plain and simple.”
There’s nothing plain or simple about the coaching carousel in the NFL, and there’s no compelling reason for the Lions to take another spin. Caldwell has done a solid job during a tough transition, and is worthy of a strong endorsement from his boss.
Lions at Seahawks
Kickoff: 8:15 p.m. Saturday, CenturyLink Field, Seattle
TV/radio: NBC/WJR 760
Records: No. 6 seed Lions 9-7, No. 3 seed Seahawks 10-5-1
Line: Seahawks by 8
Next: A Lions victory would send them to Dallas to face the No. 1 seed Cowboys on Sunday, Jan. 15 at 4:40 p.m. in the divisional round.