Wojo: Playoffs or not, could Jim Caldwell go?

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

The Lions could be playing themselves into some major drama. And then running smack into a major dilemma.

They could finish 10-6 and still miss the playoffs — the most likely scenario with two games left. And if it happens, the debate will rage. How do you fire Jim Caldwell after a respectable 10-6 season? Well, how do you keep Jim Caldwell when the Lions lost to almost every good team they played and blew a shot at the playoffs?

This will be the first huge test case for second-year GM Bob Quinn, and it’ll be fascinating to see if he’s prepared to put his strongest stamp yet on the franchise. I still think he’ll lean toward a coaching change if the Lions miss the playoffs, and he should, because there’s a frustrating repetitiveness to the team’s deficiencies.

Martha Ford publicly supported Caldwell when Quinn was hired, and some interpreted that as a mandate to keep the coach. If it was — which is questionable — I doubt it is now. Caldwell’s contract extension reportedly is guaranteed for only one season (through 2018), so there already was hedging after last year’s 9-8 mark, including the 26-6 playoff loss at Seattle. And while it’s not common for an NFL coach to get fired after a winning season, it’s far from unprecedented.

More: Lions film review: 10 observations vs. Bears

Before we start gnashing, let’s see if the 8-6 Lions indeed win out, at woeful Cincinnati and home against Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers. If they do, and Atlanta (9-5) loses its two tough games – at New Orleans (10-4), home to Carolina (10-4) – the Lions nab a wild-card spot, and the dilemma dims. If they reach the playoffs for the third time in four seasons under Caldwell, he deserves to stay, barring an absolute embarrassment in the playoff game.

But the Falcons and the rest of the NFC aren’t exactly cooperating. Atlanta nipped Tampa Bay Monday night, which dropped the Lions’ playoff chances — according to statistical models — to about 14 percent. Various three-team scenarios are in play, but suffice to say, the Lions need help, and they need it because they squandered almost all their chances against contenders.

Falcon crestfallen

It’s amazing that Ten Seconds of Infamy could decide so many fates. The moment the Lions lost that fateful game to the Falcons, 30-26, at Ford Field on Sept. 24, you suspected it would haunt them and does it ever. Golden Tate scored the apparent winning touchdown on a 1-yard pass from Matthew Stafford, but it was overturned on replay, and the NFL’s 10-second runoff ended the game.

More: Lions' Darius Slay receives Pro Bowl invite

It was an unintended consequence of a poorly designed rule that’s supposed to prevent teams from stopping the clock when out of timeouts, but the officials halted it, not the Lions. If Tate was immediately declared short, the Lions would’ve had eight seconds to run another play. Instead, the rule took away the touchdown and the final snap.

Should those 10 seconds be added to the 10 potential victories and help preserve Caldwell’s job? Tempting to make the argument, but no.

Sorry, but the Lions had six plays inside Atlanta’s 20 in the final 34 seconds, and Stafford threw two incompletions from the 1 before Tate’s catch. Just as they had numerous opportunities at home against Carolina after digging a 27-10 hole. Just as they took 16 snaps inside Pittsburgh’s red zone but settled for five field goals in a 20-15 loss.

The Lions dropped every home game against a contender, and their only notable victory was 14-7 at Minnesota. The Vikings were battered at the time, but since have recovered under Case Keenum and rolled to the NFC North title. They were the team that stepped into the void after the Packers lost Rodgers, and they beat the Lions 30-23 at Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day.

More: How the Detroit Lions can make the playoffs

The Lions had too many other chances to lament 10 missing seconds, and to Caldwell’s credit, he doesn’t complain about calls or critics. That’s actually what bothers some fans, that he appears too placid, too deliberate. He has mishandled some in-game situations, including his failure to call a timeout when the Lions had only nine players on the field against Baltimore.

Quinn surely will evaluate the in-game mishaps. He’ll also consider how Caldwell runs a drama-free team that plays hard to the end almost every game and every season. The Lions are 35-29 under Caldwell, including 0-2 in the playoffs, and for a historically awful franchise, his record easily outperforms the past.

Peak potential

But there’s a plateau, and he might not be able to surpass it. At some point, backing into the playoffs isn’t enough. The perfect example will be on the opposite sideline in Cincinnati, where Marvin Lewis is expected to be done after 15 seasons with a 123-112 record, 0-7 in the playoffs. Ultimately in this league, you have to win when it counts more.

Under Caldwell, the Lions are 4-25 against teams that finished with winning records, 31-4 against teams .500 or below. That’s a staggering split, and it suggests Caldwell and his staff are getting what they can out of the talent, but not doing enough creatively or strategically to exceed expectations.

This is Quinn’s issue, too, because it’s unconscionable he hasn’t provided the pieces for a running game to complement Stafford. He miscalculated on his backs, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, and has struggled to build an offensive line, although injuries are part of it. When Quinn is busy assessing Caldwell, he has to be honest about his own performance.

More: Lions' rookie crop paying early dividends

There are notable cases of winning coaches getting dismissed, including Lovie Smith by the Bears after a 10-6 mark in 2012. The Broncos fired John Fox in 2014 after a 12-4 season, then won the Super Bowl under Gary Kubiak.

There’s no guarantee a new coach would make an immediate difference, but if you’ve determined Caldwell has taken the team as far as he can, there’s no reason to stand pat. Unfortunately, there isn’t exactly a batch of hot candidates, with Quinn’s Patriots connections — Matt Patricia, Josh McDaniels, even Texans coach Bill O’Brien — among the possibilities.

Competition for a new coach could be fierce, with five or six openings. On the positive side, you’d think a vacancy on a 10-6 team with Stafford at quarterback would be attractive to top candidates. On the flip side, for all his productivity, Stafford isn’t the easiest talent to harness, and a new coach would be under intense pressure to win immediately.

The Lions are feeling that pressure right now, and before real debates can begin, they need to get to 10-6 first. If they do, it would be noteworthy, but probably not enough.

Lions at Bengals

Kickoff: 1 Sunday, Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati

TV/radio: Fox/760

Records: Lions 8-6; Bengals 5-9

Series: Bengals lead 7-3 (Bengals 27-24, Oct. 20, 2013)

Line: Lions by 5