Niyo: Caldwell’s future with Lions on the line

John Niyo
The Detroit News
“You better find a way to win or you’ll be looking for another job. That’s our business,” said Jim Caldwell, who is in the final year of his contract.

Allen Park — Jim Caldwell has been coaching football for 40 years, so by now he knows the drill.

And as he begins his fourth season as the Lions’ head coach, not to mention the final year of his contract in Detroit, he knows where the questions are headed even before they’re finished.

Asked Friday about what he thinks it’ll take to earn an extension and remain in Detroit beyond this season, he quickly interjected.

“It hasn’t crossed my mind,” Caldwell insisted. “I don’t worry about it. I don’t think about it one second. My primary focus is two things: my men and my mission. That’s it. That’s it. End of story.”

But don’t you …

“Nope,” he interrupted again. “No, I don’t.”

The line of questioning continued for a several minutes, but Caldwell wasn’t having any of it. And when someone wondered aloud if that might be part of the secret to his longevity in this business — he’s preparing to kick off his 17th season in the NFL after more than two decades as a college coach — the 62-year-old Caldwell shook his head once more.

“No,” he said. “A lot of people have a different approach than I do, and they still have been able to coach a long time. So, I think you better be good at what you do. You better find a way to win or you’ll be looking for another job. That’s our business. That’s the fun part of it, if you ask me. That’s the challenge.”

And that’s the bottom line for the Lions as they begin the regular season Sunday at Ford Field against the Arizona Cardinals. For all the talk of building with this franchise — from the refortified roster to the newly renovated stadium — it’s about strictures as much as it is the structure.

Time to 'prove it'

Sure, the Lions have made the playoffs in two of Caldwell’s first three seasons in Detroit. But they’re also celebrating the 60th anniversary of their last NFL title — the second-longest championship drought in the league — and have just one playoff win to their credit since 1957. They’re the only non-expansion team to play through the entire Super Bowl era without reaching the title game, and it has been more than a quarter-century since they last hosted a playoff game.

Throw in the current state of Detroit’s other major professional sports teams — with the Tigers in full rebuilding mode and the Red Wings and Pistons stuck in limbo — and, well, it’s safe to say patience is running thin.

“I’m ready to win, and I’m ready to win now,” receiver Golden Tate said. “And I know this city has been waiting a long, long time.”

Likewise, they all know the window of opportunity in the NFL opens and closes on a moment’s notice. So while everyone has noticed the moves that general manager Bob Quinn made in his second year on the job — making a splash in free agency to shore up the Lions’ offensive line, revamping the linebacker corps through the draft, and finally locking up Matthew Stafford on a long-term deal — what truly will get everyone’s attention is what happens next.

No one in management has said explicitly that the Lions need to make the playoffs again — or possibly more — for Caldwell to stay on. But it almost goes without saying, doesn’t it?

“I feel that we’re a better team than we were a year ago, we’re a deeper team than we were a year ago,” said Caldwell, who is 27-23 in his tenure in Detroit, including a pair of first-round playoff exits.

Injuries provide the annual caveat, I suppose. The schedule doesn’t offer the same break it did a year ago, either. But Caldwell — the first Lions’ permanent coach with a winning record since Joe Schmidt (1967-72) — is quick to note this league really doesn’t allow for excuses: “We can talk about it all we want, but you have to go out and prove it as well.”

'You've just got to win'

It starts with quarterback Stafford, obviously. Now the NFL’s highest-paid player after signing a five-year, $135 million extension last month, he’s coming off one of his best seasons, a year in which he led an NFL-record eight game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime and was even being mentioned as an MVP candidate in early December.

But the Lions’ late-season skid, which coincided with Stafford dislocating a finger and tearing ligaments in his throwing hand, put a damper on that. And though the Lions still backed into the playoffs, the questions remain about just how far he can lead this team.

“And I know that,” said Stafford, who is 48-48 as a starter since 2011 — same as the Giants’ Eli Manning — but winless in three playoff appearances. “I’ve felt that way for … going into my ninth year now. There’s no ifs ands or buts about it, the quarterback in this league is an extremely important part of the team.”

There’s more to it than that, of course. But Stafford, like Caldwell, looks at this current roster and sees the playoff potential. There are some dynamic weapons on offense, including a backfield tandem — Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick — that’s finally healthy again. There’s also more speed on defense, and better depth across the board.

Yet looks can be deceiving. Lions fans know that all too well. So do the players in that locker room, the ones who’ve adopted Caldwell’s even-keel, no-nonsense approach. They know what’s at stake. They also know they can’t let it distract them.

“I love Coach Caldwell,” Tate said. “I trust him in every aspect. I love his coaching style, I love his personality. So for me personally, I want to do well to help him stay. …

“But I think for all of us to stay safe, you’ve just got to win games. This league right here is ‘What have you done for me lately?’ That’s the league. That’s the scary part about it. But it is what it is. So the quick fix is to win games, and that’s what we’ll do.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo


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