Niyo: Caldwell's even-keel approach keeps Lions afloat

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Sometimes it’s what he says. Sometimes it’s what he does. But mostly, it’s that he does what he says, and he means it.

That’s why the players swear by a coach who never curses, and why the Lions still get fired up about following their stoic leader, no matter what the fans might think of Jim Caldwell or how the media grapples with him.

It’s also part of the reason why, at least in some unseen and soft-spoken ways, the Lions are in the position they’re in now, in first place in their division and playing well in December — something that rarely happened before Caldwell arrived in Detroit.

Say what you will about some of the Lions’ early-season problems — issues that got lots of folks fired a year ago in Allen Park — but in Caldwell’s three seasons as head coach, his teams have compiled a 15-5 record in the second half. The previous three years under Jim Schwartz, they went 6-18 beyond Week 8. And it was the manner in which those teams threw away opportunities — Matthew Stafford committing turnovers, his teammates’ recklessly making mistakes and a more volatile coaching staff unable to stop the hemorrhaging — that ultimately led to Caldwell’s hiring in January 2014.

Not surprisingly, then, as the Lions get ready to host the Bears this weekend, with a chance to solidify their standing atop the NFC North and move another step closer to hosting their first home playoff game in nearly a quarter-century, the talk has turned once again to their head coach.

The coach whose hiring was initially panned as a second choice, and praised soon after his first season, as the Lions’ 2014 turnaround included a return to the playoffs. The coach whose fate was all but sealed after last year’s disastrous 1-7 start, a frustrating stretch of football that sent the men who’d hired Caldwell — team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew — packing. The coach who seemed like a lost cause again earlier this fall, especially after an embarrassing loss at Chicago in Week 4 left them 1-3 and put Caldwell squarely on the “hot seat” once more.

Keeping his cool

Not that he felt the heat, necessarily, or would let it show if he did.

“In this business, you’re always on the hot seat,” said Caldwell, who at 61 is in his 40th year of coaching. “I don’t care what your record is. It’s what have you done lately, you know?”

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Yeah, we know, though that hasn’t often been the case with the pro football franchise here in Detroit. And yes, I know, Caldwell’s shortcomings as a coach — from stubborn loyalties and conservative play-calling to serious clock-management gaffes — aren’t easily dismissed, nor should they be.

But what the Lions are doing lately — and with surprising regularity, given their history — is not simply in spite of their coach, either, any more than it is to spite their critics.

“Satisfaction doesn’t come from showing people, ‘Hey, we can do this,’” Caldwell said, when asked about that this week. “That doesn’t stimulate me at all. …. I get no satisfaction because, number one, I don’t pay any attention to it. Matter of fact, I don’t hear it. All we’re concerned about is what we can control.”

And it’s that measure of self-control, embodied in Caldwell’s typically measured responses to just about everything — Thursday’s petty sparring match with an ESPN reporter notwithstanding — that has his most important constituency — the players — singing his praises.

How much does Caldwell have to do with what the Lions themselves are doing right now?

“A ton,” said Stafford, whose is arguably the biggest reason Caldwell is here and perhaps the main reason he might stay. “He’s got his hands on everything. He’s the guy leading our team meetings every week and (making sure we’re) understanding what the purpose and the goal of that week is. Setting the standard for us, and as far as a temperament goes, it rarely ever wavers. We understand what’s expected of us, and we go out there and try to accomplish that.”

That accountability — the trait so many insisted was missing with this team — has manifested itself in the Lions’ resilient play this season, most notably with seven fourth-quarter comeback wins. But also in the way they’ve played, tied with New England for the league lead in fewest turnovers (eight) and second only to the Giants in the NFC with the fewest penalties since September. After a shaky, injury-hampered start, the Lions’ have rallied defensively, too, not allowing more than 20 points in a game since mid-October.

Motivational speaker

Caldwell, a voracious reader who often cites leadership books and the like, was quick to credit “productive paranoia” for some of that success last week. And that’s now part of the routine for his players as well, as he sprinkles his locker-room speeches with all kinds of motivational mantras.

“Too many to count,” laughed Stafford, who has been the pet project for much of that paranoia the last three seasons. “He for sure has dropped that one on us, he brings it up in team meetings. It’s a great one, when you think about it. In this league, everybody says winning masks a lot of things, and it’s true: You’ve got to dig deep and find, ‘Where were we poor even though we won the game? Find a way to get better.’ And that’s something he’s instilled in us.”

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And as one of the team’s veteran leaders, it’s Stafford’s job to pass that on to the younger players on the roster, of which there are many more than when Caldwell arrived. A few weeks ago, for instance, it was safety Glover Quin hammering home another of Caldwell’s favorites — “Opportunities multiply as they are seized” — before the home game against Jacksonville.

Tight end Eric Ebron, the much-maligned former first-round pick, did just that on the late winning drive and afterward shrugged, “I guess when you start putting the heat on us, man, we start playing better.”

They do, it seems, the coaches included.

“But to see guys taking on Coach Caldwell’s message, it really shows how we’ve bought into his way of doing things,” said Don Carey, the Lions’ special-teams ace who started his career in Jacksonville but has spent the last six years in Detroit. “And it’s working for us. …

“He takes a different approach to the game. But because he’s that calm, level-headed guy at all times, he always keeps the main thing the main thing. And when players see a guy like that, and when the older guys explain to the younger guys, ‘Hey, it’s not like this every place,’ it makes you want to play for the guy.”

It’s why the veterans vouched for him at the end of last season, when his job was in limbo with a new front office coming in, and why they’ve rallied behind him again this fall when other teams — other Lions teams, certainly — might’ve folded.

How they finish this season still remains to be seen. Bob Quinn, the new GM, will have a decision to make again when it's over, as Caldwell's initial four-year contract only runs through 2017. But until then, the players will have their say on the field, and if it's anything like what they're saying now, that’ll speak volumes.

“In my mind, if Coach Caldwell leaves, I’m like, ‘Where are we going? Because I want to go, too,’ ” Carey said. “Seriously, he’s that type of coach.” @John_Niyo

Bears at Lions

Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit

TV/radio: CBS/WJR

Line: Lions by 7

Series: Bears lead 97-71-5 (Bears 17-14, Oct. 2, 2016)

Did you know? The four-game winning streak by the Lions is their longest since 2014, when they had two. A victory over the Bears would give them their first five-game winning streak since they started 5-0 in 2011.