He’ll be the Lions’ first African-American head coach in a city that is largely African American, and Tony Dungy, a really good guy, called on his behalf, and he has been to the big game several times. But beyond that, there is not much to excite fans over the hiring of Jim Caldwell.
And, with due respect, for now, there shouldn’t be.
Caldwell may turn out to be the greatest hire in Lions history. He may take this team to places it has never been – namely a Super Bowl. But that is what you say about every new head coach. He may do this. He may do that. Heck. They said it about Darryl Rogers.
The fact is, Caldwell, in his late 50s, has had one other stint as an NFL skipper, three years with the Indianapolis Colts, which started well and ended horribly. He went to the Baltimore Ravens as an offensive coordinator during last year’s luck-kissed run to the Super Bowl, but this season, under his tutelage, the Ravens’ offense was the fourth-worst in the league. Some in Baltimore suggest the Lions did the Ravens a favor.
Meanwhile, Detroit had shown bigger interest in Ken Whisenhunt, the San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator who once took Arizona to the Super Bowl. But Whisenhunt told the Lions to hold their private plane, then told them to hold their offer. He took a job with Tennessee instead.
And though today the Lions will no doubt say that Caldwell was their top guy, that they love everything about him – William Clay Ford, publicly absent during this whole process, issued a statement saying he was “thrilled” – the fact is, if Caldwell so impressed them, they could have hired him weeks ago when they first interviewed him.
Why let him stay on the market?
By the way, the Lions used the word “thrilled” exactly five years ago – to the day – in announcing the hiring of Jim Schwartz.
Lions pick a ‘proven’ guy
So Caldwell is, however they spin it, a second choice, which in and of itself isn’t so terrible. Hiring an NFL coach is a lot like making a mid-round draft pick. You suddenly hear a lot from “experts” about guys whose names are vaguely familiar, they have this or that going for them, but none of them is perfect, or – like the No. 1 pick – they wouldn’t be available.
Most of the time, you are either taking a retread or an unproven assistant. Sure, there’s the rare time a team lures a legend like Bill Parcells out of retirement. It makes headlines. But it rarely works. The last time Parcells tried it, he lasted four years with the Cowboys and didn’t win a playoff game. And let’s not even mention Joe Gibbs.
So today, the Lions go for a “proven” guy, which, in these parts, means someone who has actually head-coached a team before and won something, however briefly.
The pendulum swings. The Lions went from College Coach Phase (Rogers) to the Promising Assistant Phase (Wayne Fontes) to the Guy Who Has Done It Before Phase (Bobby Ross) back to the Assistant Phase (Gary Moeller, Marty Mornhinweg) back to Done It Before Phase (Steve Mariucci) back to Assistant Phase (Dick Jauron, Rod Marinelli, Jim Schwartz) and now back to Done It Before Phase.
None of it has worked.
Bermuda Triangle of coaching
And if Caldwell is as steady and decent a man as they say, you are inclined to give him this word of advice: “Run!”
Too late, I guess. But there is a reason that – with one asterisk exception – no man hired in the last half-century as the Lions head coach has ever worked as an NFL head coach again.
The last half-century? That’s not a graveyard. It’s the Bermuda Triangle.
Don’t you wonder why, if, as some claimed, this vacancy was “one of the most, if not the single most, attractive head coaching openings” in the NFL, that several experienced coaches quickly chose other teams, and Whisenhunt, in the end, chose Tennessee instead, a smaller-market team without a franchise quarterback?
Maybe there is bad karma around the Lions. Maybe prospective coaches see how it never works out for other guys and just stay away.
Whatever the case, when you have a team with four notable superstars (Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Ndamukong Suh) and you still don’t have your pick of coaches, something is going on.
Caldwell wants to be here. That’s good. Perhaps Dungy, a great Lions booster, has told him good things about the city and management. Perhaps Caldwell realizes, at his age, it’s time to make one more run at this head-man spot. Perhaps he did help make Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco better.
Or perhaps they kept him from looking worse.
The only thing you can say about this process is that there are no sure things, not in the coach you hire, not in the ones who got away. You can’t even say a guy with a specialty – like Caldwell offensively – is the way to go, because, remember, Schwartz was supposedly a defensive genius, and after five years, the Lions’ defense is largely a mess.
So maybe Caldwell improves the offense, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he changes chemistry, maybe he doesn’t. He seems a good man and a quality person, and that’s always commendable, although the same could be said of Marinelli, and he went 0-16.
All we know is that when “maybe” is all you’ve got – and that is all today will be about, no matter how upbeat the news conference turns out – you can’t expect fans to be thrilled. They are cautious. They are weary. Maybe come December, they’ll be saying something different. Or maybe they won’t.
Around here, that’s as close as we get to optimism.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.