Jim Caldwell’s Detroit Lions tenure spoke for itself: New captain needed

by | Jan 2, 2018 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Whenever anyone asked about his future — and down the stretch they asked weekly — Jim Caldwell would deflect with “That’s not for me to decide” or “We’re not going to talk about that.”

Toward the end, he even cited his own behavior as precedent — “You’ve never heard me blame anything …” or “You’ve never heard me defend myself …” — as if the most important thing for Caldwell was being consistent in saying nothing about his performance.

In the end, his record spoke for itself. The plays spoke for themselves. The miscues spoke for themselves. The losses spoke for themselves.

Caldwell, 62, is gone after four years at the wheel, and the fairest thing you can say about a fair man who behaved fairly is that this was a fair conclusion.

It’s the NFL. Treading water is the same as going backward.

New captain needed.

“I believe Jim is one of the finest leaders we’ve ever had here as a head coach,” team owner Martha Ford said in a statement. “… Our organization is better because of Jim, and we are forever grateful.”

Nice words. Classy words. But what separates fans of this franchise from the people who own it is that nice and classy don’t mean squat if the team doesn’t win.

And this team doesn’t win. Not a division title in 23 years. Not a playoff game in 26 years.

None of that changed under Caldwell. The boat is still leaking.

New captain needed.

A good man, but mild results

You know what tipped me that Caldwell’s effectiveness was waning? Every player loved him. Even after disappointing losses, they hailed him as a great guy.

In the NFL, that’s not a good sign. It often indicates mediocrity being tolerated, and mediocre performers being grateful there aren’t consequences.

In a league where all that counts is winning, a swift sword is needed. Being liked is unimportant. Players should be put off by their demanding coaches. Lombardi? Landry? Belichick? How often did you hear raves about what great guys they were?

There is a difference between good men and good NFL coaches. Jim Caldwell is undeniably the former. But being the latter means taking a team to new heights, parting with players and schemes that don’t succeed. And despite an overall winning record (36-28), this franchise has nothing new to show for Caldwell’s four years here.

Critical games lost. Critical opportunities blown.

“That’s a big part of why I’m standing here,” admitted Lions general manager Bob Quinn, when asked by the media about bad stretches under Caldwell. “There were games we could’ve, would’ve and should’ve won and we didn’t. This is a results business. This is wins and losses.”

Now, you shouldn’t judge a man by the worst thing he ever did, so it is unfair to only assess Caldwell by nine men on the field, or an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary, or a challenge flag not thrown, or a collapse against the Bengals with the playoffs on the line.

Yes, those things count. But Caldwell did good things as well. He erased habitual Lions’ patterns of losing road games, losing to inferior teams and always losing to Green Bay.

There were no serious off-field incidents. And certain key players — Matthew Stafford, Darius Slay and others — progressed under his leadership.

But too many others did not. Ameer Abdullah, Ziggy Ansah, a whole host of lineman on both sides of the ball, have been inconsistent at best. And while the coordinators must take blame for the actual play calling, Detroit’s unimaginative offense and going-backward defense must fall in the head coach’s lap.

Which is now out of the chair.

New captain needed.

No cure for ‘Patriotitis’

Now, a little perspective often helps at these moments. Four years and two days ago, another Lions GM announced another head coach named Jim had been fired.

Today, that Jim — Jim Schwartz — is reportedly the leading candidate to take over the New York Giants, while the men who fired him, Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand, are gone, as is Caldwell, the man who replaced him.

Schwartz was fired for being a hothead whose teams collapsed down the stretch. His overall record, after five years, was 29-51. Caldwell, the opposite of a hothead, posted much better numbers and had teams race back at the finish. He’s gone, too.

So perhaps the Lions’ standards are getting higher. They’re not sticking with mediocrity. Quinn, who has been here two years, took a flier on Caldwell when he arrived, which is understandable, as young and green as he was to management.

“Coming into it that first year, I thought the best decision for this football team was to keep Jim,” he said. “This year I felt the best decision for the team was to move on.”

It’s also worth noting that veteran coaches like the Bears’ John Fox, who won a lot with Denver and Carolina, Jack del Rio, who was 12-4 with Oakland last year, and Dom Capers, who once had a Super Bowl-winning defense with Green Bay, are all out of jobs today.

So is Chuck Pagano, the man who was hired to take over from Caldwell in Indianapolis.

Oh, and the “lowly” Cincinnati Bengals, coached by a lame duck Marvin Lewis, not only knocked Detroit from its playoff dreams two weeks ago, but did the same Sunday to the Baltimore Ravens, a team that pummeled the Lions.

Go figure.

That’s the NFL. The fact is, most fans suffer from what I call “Patriotitis,” the envy of a New England team that wins Super Bowls regularly, rebuilds constantly, and makes superstars out of no-names. Everyone wonders why his or her team can’t do the same.

But there’s one franchise that does that. One. There are a lot more like Detroit, stuck in the middle, floating between 6-10 and 10-6, just missing a division title here, just shy of a playoff there, firing a coach, hiring a coach, firing a coach.

“The decision on Coach Caldwell was mine and mine alone,” said Quinn, who added, “The record is on me. This is my record. This is 9-7. This is my team.”

And his mess to fix.

It’s another Lions rebuild. Another new direction. Another year they pay for their near misses by getting the 20th draft pick, the lowest of all the 9-7 teams left out of the playoffs, suggesting somehow they are better than Dallas, Seattle, Baltimore and the Chargers, when most would argue they are not.

That’s life in Lion Land. Nothing easy. Nothing sure. We thank another brave leader for his service, and watch the remainders try to fix the boat.

Jim Caldwell, through thick and thin, wanted his performance to do the talking. In the end it did.

New captain needed.

Turbulent waters ahead.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. 


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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