Caldwell's candor wins over his Lions team

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Under coach Jim Caldwell, Lions meetings are not strictly limited to discussions about football. The first-year coach regularly presents topical, inspirational quotations from a variety of sources, including Plutarch, Sun Tzu, Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Carlyle and Gen. George Patton.

"What we use it for is for information," Caldwell said Wednesday. "We're telling them the same things over and over again that they've heard 1,000 times, just done a little differently so boredom doesn't set in. I get bored."

Coaches can tell their team to take things one day at a time, one play at a time or one game at a time only so many different ways before monotony sets in. Caldwell loves reading and is a fan of history, so when he's not buried in a playbook or watching film, he relishes the opportunity to find thought-provoking items he can relate to football. Players enjoy the added motivation, too, and sometimes they'll even provide Caldwell with quotations he can share with the group.

"I enjoy that aspect of it, but I enjoy winning more than that," Caldwell.

And because winning, above all else, is the most important task for this Lions team, it is in uncharted territory compared to most of the recent teams in the franchise's beleaguered history.

On Sunday, the Lions (11-4) will play the Green Bay Packers (11-4) with an opportunity to win their division for the first time since 1993, nine years before the NFC Central became the NFC North.

Caldwell has already become the third coach in Lions history to lead his team to the playoffs in his first season, joining George Wilson in 1957 and Bobby Ross in 1997. Now, the Lions will try to finish 12-4 for the first time since 1991, which would earn them a first-round bye in the postseason.

The 1991 season has plenty of significance as the Lions prepare for this game. That was also the last time they won a game in Green Bay and the only other season in the Super Bowl era they won a postseason game.

But, as has been the case for the previous 15 games, Caldwell's message hasn't changed this week.

"We approach it just like we do any other game, to be honest with you, and I think that's all you can do," he said. "It's not the Super Bowl. You have to look at it for what it is and you have to go out and be ready to play well regardless."

Caldwell the recruiter

Many of the free agents the Lions signed this year drew interest from other teams last March, but plenty of them cite Caldwell as a primary reason for coming to Detroit.

After signing a five-year, $31 million deal, wide receiver Golden Tate said the more time he spent with the staff during his visit, the more he saw what he could add to this team. Tate is fourth in the NFL with 96 receptions, leads the Lions with 1,286 yards and has been without a doubt the top offensive playmaker this year.

Strong safety James Ihedigbo said Wednesday he remembered his meeting with Caldwell like it was yesterday.

"Him telling me the fact that he didn't just want me here, but he needed me, he needed my style of play, my expertise in terms of being in these type of playoff-situational games, all that," said Ihedigbo, who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens when Caldwell was offensive coordinator in 2012. "And I just know the type of man that he is that I wanted to be here, so we made it work."

The Lions signed Ihedigbo to a two-year, $3.15 million contract, a value considering he has 67 tackles, seven for loss, four interceptions, eight pass break-ups, two sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery despite missing the first three games of the season.

Darryl Tapp signed a minimum-salary deal to join the Lions in his ninth NFL season and said Caldwell's coaching history, including two Super Bowl wins as an assistant and a loss as head coach for the Colts in 2009, played a role.

"Just the way he approached things, you could tell he had a common spirit, which commands respect among guys," Tapp said. "And he has a track record, a given track record from being in Indy and being in Baltimore. That stuff speaks louder than anything to players coming in."

Backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky spent 2011 with Caldwell in Indianapolis and, as a free agent this year, he had a few other suitors. And even though Orlovsky's four seasons with the Lions resulted in some suboptimal memories, Caldwell explained exactly to him the value of being a veteran leader on the 2014 team.

"That was my motivating factor, to come and be a part of what I thought was going to be a really good team and something really special," Orlovsky said. "It turned out that way."

Building confidence

When the Lions interviewed Caldwell in January, he met with quarterback Matthew Stafford. Though reports suggested it was an in-depth teaching experience, it was more of a meet-and-greet, and Stafford said the coach has been the exact same guy he encountered that day.

Jim Caldwell speaks with an official during the Lions' win over the Bears on Sunday.

Many players have boasted about Caldwell treating them like men, putting the accountability for what happens in games on their shoulders. They appreciate that as much as Caldwell's calm demeanor throughout the course of games, which has helped instill a sense of belief among the team that it can win any game regardless of circumstances.

Caldwell has made some game management missteps this year, and his conservative approach has hurt the Lions in a few games. But for the most part, players recall his ability to stay composed in instances like a 21-0 deficit at halftime against the Falcons in London as moments that helped them win more than they've lost.

"I think he lays out a great plan each and every week for us, allows every guy from the 53-man to the scout team to whatever it is to understand what their task is and what they have to take care of each and every week, and we just go out there and execute," defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said.

When the Lions hired Caldwell, the coach explained he wanted a smart, fast and physical team. The second-ranked defense has fit that description, for the most part. The No. 18 offense hasn't met expectations, but after having 29 turnovers last season, the Lions have just 19 this year, something Stafford said Caldwell emphasizes daily.

'Steady approach'

One possible shortcoming has been discipline as the Lions are 10th in the NFL with 108 penalties and will be without center Dominic Raiola Sunday because he's suspended for stomping on Bears defensive tackle Ego Ferguson's ankle.

But for the most part, it's clear how Caldwell's fingerprints are all over this team.

"I think Jim's done an excellent job," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's somebody that's very consistent, and I definitely think they have taken on his personality. I think if you look at the way they've progressed through the season, the fact of the matter that they've won so many close games speaks well to Jim and his staff.

"It's a steady approach and you don't see a whole lot of variance as far as the quality of play week in and week out. There's a good reason why they've won 11 games."

Ihedigbo couldn't recall his favorite of the inspirational quotations Caldwell has presented, but he said they do resonate "big time" because they help players learn to become better men in addition to better football players.

"It teaches the competitive nature," he said. "It teaches you that kind of hunger and desire to win because he shows you it at every single level."

And whether he's motivated players with quotations from leaders of war or philosophers, Caldwell's main message has stayed consistent, and his players have matched that consistency on the field.

"Everything he said has been true," Tapp said. "Honestly, we feel like the only way we're beaten in certain situations is if we beat ourselves, and he said that from the very beginning: We attack OTAs (organized team activities), minicamp, training camp and the season each and every week the same way, we'll be in a great position come December. And that's what's happened."