Wojo: Despite Lions' win, no road back for Jim Caldwell

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Jim Cooter on the sidelines.

Detroit — The atmosphere was surprisingly festive as if there was still a prize worth taking, or a point worth making. The large crowd cheered as the Lions hit big plays and hammered the depleted Packers, 35-11, in a finale that almost looked like it mattered.

But this was as far these Lions would go, and probably as far as Jim Caldwell can take them. To the precipice, but not back to the playoffs. To a modest 9-7 record, not to serious contention. GM Bob Quinn was hired two years ago to get the Lions off the treadmill, and since then, they’re 18-15, and it’s time for something different.

Quinn should replace Caldwell, and according to several reports, he likely will. Caldwell’s tenure here has been numbingly repetitive — feasting on weak teams, falling to good ones — and the Lions aren’t better now than they were in Caldwell’s promising first season in 2014, when they were 11-5. Caldwell is not the singular reason the Lions blew the latest prime chance, but eventually, the head coach bears the prime responsibility.

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If this was Caldwell’s first or second season and the Lions finished with a sweep of Green Bay and a 5-1 record in their division, you might think the program was growing. But after four seasons, the Lions must know what they have in Caldwell – a solid coach but not a game-changer – and what they must do.

Caldwell is expected to meet with Quinn in the next day or so, and if the GM truly has autonomy, I expect he’ll make a change. If Quinn and owner Martha Ford are serious about raising standards here, they need to judge Caldwell not against previous Lions coaches – his 36-30 record (0-2 playoffs) holds up nicely there — but against the Lions’ peers.

There will be a lot of coaches fired in the NFL, so the Lions should move decisively. Quinn has given no clues about his thinking, although the report that Caldwell’s contract extension was merely for a year is a sign of muted commitment. Hunting for clues in Caldwell’s demeanor is a fruitless endeavor.

Keeping it cool

When the game was over, Caldwell walked slowly off the field and gave a quick wave to the fans as he reached the tunnel. The man’s strength with his team — calm stoicism — sometimes is viewed as a weakness by the public, especially when the Lions start poorly or lack urgency. But he has never complained about perceptions or campaigned to keep his job.

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“Have you ever heard me defend or anything?” Caldwell said. “Not to anybody. I don’t make any excuses. That’s just not the way I live my life. So we go out, we do what we do, let everybody make an assessment from there. The real assessment is wins and losses, that’s the key.”

Asked what he was most proud of during his four seasons, he said, “I’m not done yet, so we’ll see.”

Asked if he expected to meet with the media Monday, he shrugged and said, “I have no idea.”

Perhaps he’s resigned to his fate, and there’s little left to say or do. Perhaps he’ll make a case with Quinn behind closed doors. Most likely, Caldwell, a man of immense faith, will let his work speak for itself, even though there’s considerable ambiguity in it.

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He admitted it last week after the Lions’ crushing 26-17 loss at Cincinnati, which knocked them from playoff contention, when he said, “We’re just a little bit above average, and a little bit above average is not good enough.”

He wasn’t interested in revisiting that debate Sunday, and I get it. He’s been answering questions about his future for weeks, and has handled it with equal parts grace and frustration.

The problem is, every positive number can be readily countered with a negative one. His Lions are 32-5 against teams that finished with losing records, and 4-25 against winning teams. They just posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1994-95, yet haven’t won a playoff game since the 1991 season.

The Lions have the type of durable, strong-armed quarterback most teams crave, but haven’t maximized Matthew Stafford’s talent and don’t have unlimited time to do so. Their running game was awful, last in the league, although that falls on Quinn, big-time. Largely because of injuries, the Lions used 11 offensive line combinations this season, and Stafford was sacked a career-high 47 times.

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Other teams have overcome larger issues. The Vikings lost their starting quarterback and running back, but won a huge game here on Thanksgiving and rolled to the division title. The Packers lost star Aaron Rodgers and remained in contention for a while, but were a shattered shell Sunday.

Caldwell is an impressive 16-8 against NFC North opponents, yet the Lions’ division-title drought reached 24 seasons. All these contradictions, all these inconsistencies, became a referendum on Caldwell and his staff. Going forward, they become a referendum on Quinn, but before he can be fully judged, he has to be able to hire his own coach.

Player respect

Golden Tate, who caught a 71-yard touchdown pass and joined Marvin Jones as a 1,000-yard receiver, understands both sides of the argument. Like every player questioned, he stands up for his coach.

“It’s a business, man, and if you don’t win enough, someone’s gotta make changes,” Tate said. “We don’t know what’s gonna happen. But I’m all for coach Caldwell — love playing for him, enjoy who he is as a person, and I trust him. But Bob Quinn’s got a job to keep too, right? So I do get that as well.”

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Ziggy Ansah, who continued his recent sack tear with three more — finishing with 12 in a contract year — was equally supportive of Caldwell, saying “I wouldn’t trade him for nobody else.”

The thing is, players can love their coach and play hard for him, and still recognize deep down that something isn’t quite working. The Lions played unfettered against the Packers, capped by a trick play on a two-point conversion. Tate threw to Stafford for the conversion, and Stafford celebrated by heaving the ball into the upper deck.

Was the boisterousness a show of support for Caldwell? Sure, but players also understand the reality of the record.

“I think everybody in that locker room really loves coach Caldwell,” Stafford said. “Love playing for him, and he’s done a great job for us.”

You can see why players enjoy him. Caldwell seldom publicly criticizes players and never makes it about himself. Asked again and again about his job, Caldwell smiled and said he just wanted to go home and eat some black-eyed peas with his grandkids.

Soon, his coaching fate will be revealed, if he doesn’t know it already. If Quinn has determined Caldwell, 62, can’t get the Lions any farther, he needs to fire him, and I suspect he will. If that happens, I suspect Caldwell will understand it.

“You guys focus in on the wrong thing often times — it’s not about me, it’s about our team,” Caldwell said. “It’s about our players. It’s about our fan base, our ownership, about winning the championship here. Those are the things that matter. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”

Faith and fates are about to collide, and Caldwell will stand on his record and the direction of the team. It is shaky ground, to say the least.