Detroit Lions fire coach Jim Caldwell
Allen Park — After four seasons, two playoff berths, and amassing the franchise’s best winning percentage for a full-time coach in the Super Bowl era, the Detroit Lions fired coach Jim Caldwell Monday morning. The team announced the move via Twitter.
“My wife Cheryl and I greatly appreciate the tremendous opportunity to have been a part of the Lions organization serving as head coach for the past four years,” Caldwell said in a statement released by the team. “We offer our sincere gratitude to Martha Ford, the Ford family and the entire Detroit organization for an abundance of confidence and encouragement during our time with the team.”
Caldwell’s dismissal comes a day after a 35-11 thrashing of the Green Bay Packers, the team’s first season sweep of the division rival in 26 years. But a 9-7 record left the Lions out of the postseason and marked the third-straight year the team fell short of double-digit wins.
“On behalf of my family and the Lions organization I would like to thank Jim Caldwell for his exemplary leadership and service to our team and our community over the past four years," Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford said in a statement. “I believe Jim is one of the finest leaders we’ve ever had as our head coach. Not only did he guide us on the field to three winning seasons, but he also set a standard of excellence off the field that had a tremendous impact on everyone in our organization and our entire community.
“Our organization is better because of Jim, and we are forever grateful. We wish Jim, his wife Cheryl and the entire Caldwell family all the best that life can offer.”
The Lions hired Caldwell in 2014, seeking to bring stability to the team and its franchise quarterback, which had garnered a reputation for having lofty potential, but lacking needed discipline.
At his introductory press conference, Caldwell promised to field a smart, disciplined, fast and physical team. He also didn’t shy away from unprecedented expectations.
“Do you believe in providence?” Caldwell asked the crowd that afternoon. “I certainly do, and I think there is a reason why I’m here. I think, without question, that is to win a championship.”
That first year was the closest Caldwell came to delivering.
Behind a dominant defense — led by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and linebacker DeAndre Levy — and an offense that minimized risks and turned the ball over 14 fewer times than the season before, the Lions raced out to a 7-2 start. After a mid-season stumble, with back-to-back road loses to the Cardinals and Patriots, the Lions won four straight to set up a season-ending showdown in Green Bay with the NFC North on the line.
The Lions lost that game but still qualified for the postseason with an 11-5 record. And after jumping out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead in Dallas, appeared poised to snap a 23-year drought without a playoff victory. But things fell apart in the fourth quarter after the officiating crew picked up a pass interference flag against Dallas and Caldwell opted to punt, instead of going for 4th-and-1 at the Dallas 46-yard line.
After Sam Martin shanked the punt, the Cowboys drove 59 yards in 11 plays, scoring the game-winning touchdown with 2:32 remaining.
The day after the game, Caldwell refused to let officiating be an excuse for the loss. In his four years with the Lions, he always expected his team to overcome outside obstacles and would point the finger at himself when they failed to do so.
“We didn’t play as well as we needed to play down the stretch, didn’t make the plays that we needed to make,” he said. “I think all too often that people lean upon excuses and reasons why. We’re not doing any of that. This team has got to get better, we’ve got to find ways to get better. Our object is to be better this next year than we were this year.”
That improvement didn’t happen as the Lions bungled their way to an 0-5 start the next season. Following a home loss to the Vikings which dropped the record to 1-6, Caldwell fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn. General manager Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand were let go by ownership the next week.
With quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter promoted to run the offense, the team experienced a mid-season turnaround, winning three in a row. But whispers of running the table and sneaking into the playoffs were squashed when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers connected on a 61-yard, free-play Hail Mary in a nationally televised game. Still, the Lions managed to end up 7-9, despite the dreadful start.
That strong finish helped Caldwell keep his job when Bob Quinn was hired to replace Mayhew that offseason.
“After spending a significant amount of time together, it is clear that our football philosophies are very similar,” Quinn said in a statement. “Not only did he lead the Lions to the playoffs his first season here, but when you look at how the players responded the second half of last season, under difficult circumstances, it’s clear to me that this team believes in him and responds positively to his leadership.”
Despite the offseason retirement of star receiver Calvin Johnson, Caldwell rewarded his new boss’ faith, getting the Lions back on track with a team that epitomized his steady demeanor in the face of trying circumstances.
The Lions completed eight fourth-quarter comebacks, an NFL record, as part of a 9-4 start in 2016. But the team faded down the stretch after quarterback Matthew Stafford dislocated a finger on his throwing hand. That contributed to three consecutive losses to close the year, including another season-ender to Green Bay with the division on the line.
The Lions still managed to back their way into the postseason, despite the 9-7 mark, but were unable to muster any offense in a 26-6 loss in the Wild Card round to Seattle.
The Lions returned most of their key contributors this season, while making notable upgrades to the offensive line in free agency and the linebacking and receiving corps via the draft. The team got off to another hot start, winning three of four, with the lone loss the result of a controversial officiating error. But three straight defeats to eventual playoff teams, and a disappointing late-season stumble in Cincinnati, ended hopes of returning to the postseason.
Prior to the finale against the Packers, Caldwell sounded resigned to his fate, calling the team’s performance “a little bit above average” and not good enough.
“My job when I came here was to win it all,” he said last week. “That’s what every coach is in it to do. And anything short of that is unacceptable, plain and simple. So, you keep trying to work at it, and try to get at that point to get it done. But there’s only one happy team at the end of the year, and that’s it in this league.”
It’s been 60 years since the Lions were the one happy team. They’ll try again next year, with someone new at the helm.