Niyo: We’ll wait to see if Lions finish saved Caldwell

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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Chicago — Nothing has changed.

That was the word from Rod Wood, the new team president, following the end of the Lions’ regular season Sunday.

But plenty has changed already this season for this franchise. And while neither owner Martha Firestone Ford or her new front man would say so after a season-ending victory at Soldier Field, there’s a strong sense that the Lions’ second-half turnaround — and a 7-9 finish after a 1-7 start — will spare head coach Jim Caldwell a change of address, at least for one more year.

The Lions’ top brass insisted again Sunday that’s not necessarily the case, as Ford told reporters, “I haven’t gotten that far yet,” when asked about Caldwell’s fate and Wood reiterated the team plans to hire a new general manager and let him make the call.

“Nothing’s changed,” Wood said in a brief question-and-answer session outside the visitor’s locker room Sunday. “We’re going to let the GM make that decision.”

That’s the way it should be, of course. But whether that’s really the way it will be, we’re about to find out, as the Lions plan to begin interviewing candidates — including interim GM Sheldon White — for their top personnel job this week.

Caldwell himself offered no hints Sunday as to his own expectations, saying he’ll keep his conversations with ownership private and he’ll keep working “until I’m told differently.”

“Whoever gets the job will make a determination on where things go from here,” Caldwell said. “Plain and simple. I don’t have anything to do with that.”

But to hear his players talk, he did have plenty to do with this team pulling itself out of a death spiral at midseason. The low point came in that embarrassing display in London, a 45-10 loss to Kansas City that precipitated the firings of president Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew during the bye week.

“It was ugly at the break,” safety Glover Quin said.

“But you don’t go 1-7 and come back and go 6-2 if your team doesn’t believe in the coach,” added Matthew Stafford, whose performance since the bye — completing 70 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and two interceptions under newly promoted coordinator Jim Bob Cooter — played a huge role in that turnaround.

Stafford, Calvin star as Lions finish strong

Ironically, it was Stafford’s play down the stretch in 2013 — a 54 percent completion rate with 13 TDs and 15 turnovers — that helped seal Jim Schwartz’s fate. That, and the fact that there wasn’t a genuine backing from the bulk of the roster for the head coach.

This time, though, the head coach truly has the players’ respect. Calvin Johnson, whose future with the Lions shouldn’t be in doubt despite a hefty salary — the Lions should have $30 million or more in cap room, regardless — has been uncommonly outspoken in Caldwell’s defense. So has Stafford, who on Sunday called him a “great coach and a really good man.”

“It starts at the top,” Stafford said. “He’s done a heck of a job this second half of the season, holding everybody together. The message hasn’t changed.”

Stafford said he’d share those feelings with management if asked, “Absolutely, no question.”

And if he’s not asked?

“I’ll try,” he added.

But I think it’s safe to say he already has, as have most of the rest of the Lions’ team leaders. Now, how much weight that carries, it’s hard to say.

Ending definitely helps

Wood wouldn’t weigh in on that topic Sunday.

“Obviously, we like winning better than losing,” he said, though he did add the 6-2 finish affirmed his belief “that we’ve got talent.”

“As I said the first day, I didn’t think this was a rebuild,” Wood said. “And I still feel that way. So we’re very pleased with the way the season ended, and hopefully we can continue that momentum into the offseason with the general manager in place and build on it for next year.”

Caldwell, who still has two years remaining on his contract, ends his second season in Detroit with an 18-14 regular-season record, the best two-year stretch for the Lions in the last 20 years, since Wayne Fontes won 19 games and made the playoffs in 1994-95.

That’s hardly a lofty standard, but it’s worth noting, nonetheless. Because with this franchise, everything is relative, isn’t it?

Also worth noting: Ernie Accorsi, the former GM hired to lead the Lions’ search as a consultant, was in a similar spot a few years ago with Carolina. The Panthers fired their GM early in 2012 as they got off to a 1-6 start, and after hiring Dave Gettleman as the new boss there, they kept second-year head coach Ron Rivera, whose team rallied to finish 7-9 that winter. Carolina has won three straight division titles since and owns the NFL’s best record this season heading into the playoffs.

Future awaits

Don’t think that hasn’t come up in discussions as the team spent the last month vetting possible GM candidates, while quietly mulling Caldwell’s future.

The timing certainly would seem to be in Caldwell’s favor here, as well. With as many as seven or eight NFL teams looking for new head coaches this week, the Lions would have plenty of competition — and a late start — in what really is an underwhelming pool of candidates.

And frankly, while it’ll appear as if the Lions are forcing a head coach on prospective GMs — and maybe they are — it can be viewed in a different way. Throw an extra year on the new GM’s contract and, quite frankly, it’s buying him time to see just what he has as he begins reshaping the team, from the coach to the quarterback to the aging star receiver and on down the roster.

That won’t satisfy a disgruntled fan base any more than this losing season did. But if nothing has changed from the Lions’ standpoint, why should that, right?

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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