Wojo: Jim Caldwell's low-key approach isn't working

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell and members of the coaching staff on the sidelines in the second half of the 17-14 loss to the Chicago Bears.

Chicago – The Lions looked undisciplined, disinterested and increasingly dysfunctional. It showed everywhere, from the defense to the quarterback to the receivers, but it starts at the top.

If Jim Caldwell has anything left to lift his team, he’d better reveal it soon, or he shouldn’t have the job much longer. He already was going to have a tough time convincing the new front office he’s the answer at coach, and it’s not getting any easier.

In a dismal 17-14 loss to the previously winless Bears on Sunday, the Lions again looked ill-prepared at the start, prone to huge mistakes. Caldwell again pinned the blame on himself and his staff, and that’d be noble if it wasn’t so repetitive. I doubt new GM Bob Quinn would fire Caldwell early in the season, but he’s surely gathering evidence to make up his mind.

This was another profound embarrassment, and as scrutiny of Caldwell grows, it’s harder and harder to see how he survives. In the long term, it’s on the front office to upgrade the talent and fix this. In the short term, it’s on Caldwell to prove he deserves a chance to fix it.

I don’t know the new regime well enough to predict its strategy, but it doesn’t take a discerning eye to see the trouble. Against the Bears, the one element that had been productive – Matthew Stafford and the passing game – fell apart. The defense again failed to generate any pressure and was picked apart by journeyman quarterback Brian Hoyer.

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Since winning the opener in Indianapolis, the Lions have dropped three straight, and showed little life until the second half the past two weeks. The most notable burst of emotion Sunday came when Stafford angrily flailed his arms toward receiver Golden Tate after a miscommunication led to an interception late in the first half.

Stafford expected Tate to do one thing. Tate said he must’ve missed the signal and expected something else. Jacoby Glenn plucked the easy interception and killed a potential scoring drive. There’s always something, whether it’s 17 penalties against the Titans, or a 31-3 deficit against the Packers, or 10 penalties and a non-existent running game against the Bears.

“We just were not sharp at all,” Caldwell said. “There was no rhythm to it, that’s my fault. … Just look at the results, and the results aren’t good. I’m not hiding from that. We gotta do a better job.”

The Lions didn’t record an offensive touchdown against one of the worst defenses in the league. They only made it close on Andre Roberts’ 85-yard punt return with 1:52 left. Stafford threw two interceptions, including the brutally botched one, and afterward snapped off short answers when asked about it. He tried to take responsibility, which at least shows the Lions are getting pretty good at self-blame.

“We just didn’t execute, and it starts with me,” Stafford said. “Anytime you lose and play as poorly as we did, it’s not fun.”

It’s not simple to figure out, either. Yes, the Lions have key injuries on defense (Ziggy Ansah, DeAndre Levy) and lost running back Ameer Abdullah. But Stafford has played well and developed synergy with offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. Then it disappears for puzzling stretches, usually at the start, when urgency seems ridiculously low.

On defense, coordinator Teryl Austin is known for cranking up pressure and attacking quarterbacks. Without Ansah, there’s very little ferocity and only occasional blitzing. The Lions sacked Hoyer twice and rarely hit him. In the third quarter, with the Bears leading 7-6, Hoyer had enough time on third-and-11 to look right, look left, roll right, roll left, check the stats on his fantasy football team, then fire a 64-yard pass to Eddie Royal.

Listen, no one predicted the Lions would be contenders this year, and they have significant talent and experience deficits that Quinn must address. But we see the same confounding gaffes way too often. Tight end Eric Ebron, who has been playing with an injured ankle, drew one crushing holding call, and inexplicably stopped blocking on another play.

That came in the fourth quarter, when elusive Theo Riddick appeared to be knocked down, but regained his balance. There’s a damning image of Ebron standing still while Riddick kept churning for yardage, and true to the theme of the day, Ebron shamed himself afterward.

“I should’ve never stopped, knowing the skill set of Theo, that he can make one guy miss,” Ebron said. “It looks bad on my part and I take responsibility for stopping. Great play by Theo to try to fight for us, bad play by me to quit on that play.”

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Caldwell is respected by his players, and they aren’t splintering under his leadership. But they’re not exactly responding to his low-key, measured approach either. I’m not sure they fear him, although he did bench Tate for stretches of the second half. Marvin Jones Jr. suggested everyone needed to do “some soul-searching,” and he’s probably right.

When Quinn decided to keep Caldwell, this was the danger, that it’d be a one-year trial run, which is hardly ideal. Caldwell may bristle at the criticism and pointed questions, but he isn’t buckling. The problem is, the all-is-calm stance loses credibility when all is not well.

I asked Caldwell if he fully grasped how dire this might be, and whether his players get it too.

“If you think this is my first time coaching, then you might assume (he didn’t grasp it),” he said. “We understand the situation we’re in. We gotta correct the mistakes we made.”

It doesn’t take much for a season to unravel, as we know around here. Caldwell and his staff must dig up some answers quickly, because time is wasting and the heat is rising.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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