Jim Caldwell: What to expect?

SI.com’s John Mullin posted an article claiming that new Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell is in a "no-win situation." Mullin, who is does not seem to write this in order to stir up any silly "controversy" or anything, seems to genuinely think that Caldwell is in a thankless role as Indy's new head coach.

Follow the logic: If the Colts win the Super Bowl, the credit goes to Peyton Manning and by extension to Tony Dungy, who set the bar by winning one three seasons ago. If they don't, it's Caldwell's fault.

Well, for starters, if the Colts are fortunate enough to win another Super Bowl, the "credit" will certainly go to Jim Caldwell. That credit will come from owner Jim Irsay and President Bill Polian. If Jim Mullin is talking about Caldwell getting credit from, say, the media... well, no offense to Jim Mullin, but Jim Caldwell could give a crap whether the media will give him credit for coaching Indy to a Super Bowl. And if the Colts do not win anything, Caldwell will get the same treatment every other coach gets when they don't meet expectations. In truth, the only coach that's "off the hook" in 2009 is Mike Tomlin.

Mullin's article did spark a question: What do Colts fans expect from him in 2009?

Superficial analysis says that the Colts are now inferior to what they were last year. No Tony Dungy = no chance to win a ring. I'm sure similar sentiments were uttered in Pittsburgh after Bill Cowher retired. Like those sentiments, the "No Dungy" arguments doesn't make any sense either. Dungy's greatness is what he built in Indy and Tampa Bay. Yes, he won a lot of games, several division titles, a ring, etc. So did guys like Tom Flores, George Seifert, and Barry Switzer. What makes Dungy on par with the Tom Landrys and Vince Lombardis of football lore is how he went about his work, and what he built along the way. Just as Landry built the Dallas Cowboys, Lombardi the Green Bay Packers, and Don Shula the Miami Dolphins, Tony Dungy turned around two hapless franchises. And just as Jon Gruden showed in 2002, once the foundation is built, even a buffoon like Gruden can win a ring. And last I checked, Jon Gruden took a helluva lot of credit for winning a Super Bowl with Tony Dungy's team (only to do nothing in the seven years after). 

With Caldwell, I know I have my own set of expectations. Since his first press conference, I have been impressed. Within the first few months of a new coach taking over, you often get a good sense of what kind of person he is. Smart coaches (and smart people in general) recognize what works and do not mess with it. Take Tony Dungy, for example. When hired in 2002, the entire defensive coaching staff was fired. Also released were the wide receivers coach, the QB coach, and the tight ends coach. Dungy retained Tom Moore (the offensive coordinator) and Howard Mudd (the o-line coach). The rest you know.

Another good example is Mike Tomlin. Tomlin came to Pittsburgh after years of coaching Tampa 2-style defense with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Minnesota Vikings. Rather than fire all the defensive personnel (like coordinator Dick Lebeau) and install a system he'd had a tremendous amount of success in, Tomlin opted to keep the 3-4 "Blitzburg" defense the Steelers had used for years. Rather than dump a system that works (and that the team has personnel to run) in favor of something he knows, Tomlin himself opted to learn the system already in place. The results speak for themselves.

Now, wheel all this back to Caldwell. He is retaining the same offensive and defensive systems. Many of the same assistant coaches are coming back, including Moore and Mudd. The two areas Caldwell chose to change (coaching-wise) are areas that have historically been weaknesses for the Colts: Special teams and defense. Caldwell chose to bring in a proven defensive assistant with an impeccable reputation in Larry Coyer. He also (essentially) fired longtime coaching dud Russ Purnell and replaced him with a high-energy coach from the college ranks: Ray Rychleski. So, from a cumulative coaching staff standpoint, one could argue that Indy's coaching staff is actually better than last year's.

So, with a stronger coaching staff, we now shift to the roster. Peyton Manning is still the best QB in football. He still has a strong arsenal of receivers, a new rookie first round pick at running back, and a seemingly healthy offensive line. The defense has several new options at defensive tackle, a seemingly healthy Bob Sanders, and a rejuvenated linebacking corps. Talent-wise, this is one of the deepest teams in the NFL, with lots of playmakers at several key positions.

If the Colts do not win it all in 2009, it will likely be for the same reason they did not win it in 2007 or 2008: Injuries. For three seasons in a row, the Colts have been decimated by critical injuries. They were able to overcome several key injuries in 2006 because of some big front office moves (the Booger McFarland trade for one). In 2007, the injuries to Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis killed their season. Last year, there were so many injuries I almost lost count. Indy lost Marlin Jackson, Bob Sanders, Gary Brackett, Joseph Addai, Ryan Lilja, and (though not injury related) Ed Johnson. Peyton Manning played on one knee most of the year, and Jeff Saturday played much of the season with a torn tendon in his leg.

So, if the Colts can manage to stay reasonably healthy in 2009, they will win a Super Bowl. They have the coaching staff and the roster to do so. And since they can win it all, I know my personal expectation is that they should win it all. And if they do, I can assure you that we fans will give Jim Caldwell all the credit he would certainly deserve. When you win a Super Bowl, there is no "no win situation" about it. You have a ring. No one can deny or demean that without looking like a prick or a sore loser.

Those are my expectations for this team. Do mine mesh with yours?

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