Allen Park — Jim Caldwell has been here before, trying to steady a wobbling team, clinging to the fringes of hope. It’s all on him, he says again and again, as if that should be comforting for Lions fans.
It’s not. It’s confounding and concerning, and the repetitiveness is alarming. If Caldwell and his ailing quarterback have another comeback in them, it’s difficult to see. And if they don’t, it’s hard to justify bringing Caldwell and his staff back.
Yes, he signed a contract extension before the season, although the terms were never revealed. Honestly, it shouldn’t matter. The latest debacle, a 44-20 loss in Baltimore, dropped the Lions to 6-6, and if they complete the collapse and miss the playoffs, it would be time for a coaching change. GM Bob Quinn should be ready then to bring in his own guy, although it would immediately shift the pressure to himself.
At some point, responsibility has to translate to accountability, and in his four seasons here, Caldwell has been spinning in place. From a terrific 2014 debut of 11-5, the Lions have gone 7-9, 9-7 and now 6-6, and 0-2 in the playoffs. You can tie some issues to injuries, especially during the four-game losing streak to close last season, when Matthew Stafford played with a dislocated finger. Now he has a bruised right hand and is stuck behind a battered offensive line.
But other teams are handling more-significant injuries. The theory was, with the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers sidelined and a weak late schedule, the Lions would churn to a strong finish. The theory is getting squashed with every miserable start – zero first-quarter touchdowns the past four games — and every inexplicable gaffe.
The Vikings have grabbed the NFC North with force. In the race for one of two wildcard spots, the Lions trail Carolina and Seattle by two games and Atlanta by one, but the Falcons and Panthers hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“We’re always tinkering with things, but also, the season’s not over yet, all right?” Caldwell said Monday. “I mean, you guys are talking as if all is lost. That’s the great thing about our game. It’s going to challenge you. It’s not going to be an easy road. And it’s either going to polish you up or grind you down, and it’s our job to make certain we get polished up.”
They look more unpolished by the week. Caldwell’s calm demeanor, as well as his refusal to blame others or make excuses, is admirable. But it’s empty if nothing changes.
In the grand scheme of culpability, you can argue Quinn bears just as much scrutiny, because the Lions certainly don’t have a powerhouse roster.
But he’s been here less than two years and appears to draft decently, although some of his free-agent signings have been questionable.
It’s also staggering he hasn’t put together any semblance of a running game.
The roster is still full of holes, without difference-makers on the defense’s front seven. Until Quinn could rebuild the roster, he needed an experienced coach to provide stability and Caldwell has done that. He’s actually done it well at times, and has reached the playoffs twice.
Going forward, the Lions need more – more innovative coaching, more consistent game-planning. Going forward, the plan can’t be to just keep mounting comebacks. The Lions rally behind Stafford so many times partly because they trail so many times. In the past four games, when desperation should be growing, they’ve been outscored 36-3 in the first quarters.
That’s one ridiculously repetitive problem. Another is in-game confusion, such as the play a week ago when the Lions had 10 men on the field as the Vikings scored a touchdown. They ramped it up against the Ravens when they were caught with nine, and Joe Flacco busted them for a 23-yard completion on third-and-7, setting up a touchdown.
“Completely my fault, got to get it straightened out, not acceptable, horrendous actually,” Caldwell said. “I got to be better.”
He says that a lot, and has talked about altering practice routines to address the slow starts. He took the blame for the “mechanism” that kept the Lions from calling a timeout to prevent the nine-men-on-the field embarrassment.
On a more-talented team, some errors wouldn’t be as noticeable. But the Lions require more precision than perhaps anybody in the league because of their incredible reliance on the passing game. The absence of any power-running threat makes it impossible for Jim Bob Cooter to balance the play-calling, which contributes to the horrible first quarters.
Do the Lions start games emotionally lackluster? Not necessarily. Do 2-yard runs followed by incompletions on obvious passing downs make them look lackluster? Yep.
And then there are the bouts of confusion. In his Monday column, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King chided the Lions for defensive breakdowns and lack of communication. He called them the NFL’s biggest underachievers the past three seasons and wrote they’re “wasting the prime of a franchise quarterback’s years.”
Stafford isn’t blameless here, fumbling twice in Baltimore and getting increasingly loose with the ball. But he also completed a franchise-record 20 straight passes, and he’s the focus of every defense the Lions face.
That hasn’t changed in four years under Caldwell, creating circumstances we’ve seen again and again. Caldwell points to his own 2010 season as Indianapolis coach, when the Colts were 6-6 and won their final four to reach the playoffs, and draws confidence from it.
That’s fine, but it seems like a reach.
“I’ve been 6-6 before and pulled it out,” Caldwell said. “So let’s see where we are at the end. It’s tough, that’s the way this game is. No guarantees.”
That is correct. And there should be no guarantee Caldwell gets another season to try again.