As we gear up and get ready for Saturday's playoff showdown with the Jets, I think it's time we stop for a few moments to give a small fan hug to Jim Caldwell.
Yes, we at Stampede Blue have been hard on him all year, and rightly so. He was out-coached in the Super Bowl last season. The team looked unprepared and quit on itself Week One against the Texans. His decision to call timeout gave the Jaguars enough time to get into field goal range and beat the Colts in Week Four.
And, correct or not, he is seen by many as little more than Bill Polian's 'errand boy,' much the same way people view the A.J. Smith-Norv Turner relationship in San Diego.
Despite his shortcomings as a coach earlier this year, and despite the way people may or may not view him (1070 The Fan's Dan Dakich called him a 'student teacher' after the Week One loss to the Texans), Jim Caldwell deserves a ton of credit for the Colts closing the 2010 regular season 4-0 and winning the AFC South.
Prior to Indy's 4-0 march to the post-season, we wrote this:
If the Colts do not make the post-season, Jim Irsay needs to consider making changes.
For me, I firmly believe that if the Colts had missed the post-season, Jim Caldwell would have been fired. Jim Irsay knows we Colts fans are, at our core, fickle. If the team is good, they will cheer and show up to games. If the team does not 'connect' with us fans, if we have a negative view of the coach or players, we will say home.
See Conseco Fieldhouse attendance records recently as a reference.
And if Caldwell had been fired, coaches like Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden, John Fox, and Bill Cowher would have lined up outside Jim's West 56th Street office for a job interview. There's not a coach alive who wouldn't sacrifice live babies to the god Baal for a chance to coach Peyton Manning. We even posted an article discussing Gruden's recent toe-dipping in the coaching vacancy pool as a way to gauge whether or not the job in Indy was truly available.
Gruden very much wants the Colts job. Just my opinion, based on what I hear and see.
But, because Indy finished 4-0, won the AFC South, and is hosting a Wild Card playoff game this Saturday, Jim Caldwell deserves to return in 2011. He deserves credit for the playoff push because of the following coaching moves:
Motivating the defense
Prior to the Jacksonville game in December, a game the defined the regular seasons for both teams, Caldwell personally challenged the defense to shutdown the Jags running game. Now, the cynic in all of us says this little challenge really meant nothing while the pragmatic-types asked 'Why wasn't this done earlier in the season?'
Regardless, the challenge seems to have worked. Prior to doing it, Indy surrendered 140-plus yards of rushing a game. Since the challenge, they've given up an average of 60 yards a game.
Running the ball
The team re-committed to running the ball once they knew Austin Collie was done for the year with multiple concussions. The Colts are built to throw the ball, and and it's been a very successful formula for them over the years. But, with Collie, Dallas Clark, and Anthony Gonzalez all on IR, throwing isn't a formula to win anymore. So, Caldwell and Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen made adjustments.
In the four games prior to Indy's 4-0 December march, the Colts went 1-3 (including their first three-game losing streak since 2002). During that 1-3 stretch, the Colts had 22, 20, 16, and 17 rushing attempts per game, respectively.During their 4-0 streak, their rushing attempts per game were 32, 24, 39, and 25 respectively.
By running the ball more, this cut down Peyton Manning's turnovers by giving him the security of a strong running game. As we all know, Peyton presses when he thinks he has to do it all. It's both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness. When Indy had just 75 rushing attempts during their 1-3 slog through November, Peyton threw 13 interceptions, including four in two games that were returned for TDs.
During Indy's 4-0 stretch, when they had 120 rushing attempts over four games, Peyton threw just two INTs.
Credit Caldwell with realizing that the old way of winning (throwing) just didn't work without Dallas Clark and Austin Collie. The offense changed, and the ball was given to the backs to make plays.
Benching crappy players
Tony Dungy was a great coach; a future Hall of Fame coach. Maybe the best of his generation. But, one of his biggest flaws was his often bullheaded loyalty to players and coaches who, quite honestly, sucked. It was only when things got truly desperate, when it was so obvious that a blind man could see it, that Dungy would make a change to personnel.
With Caldwell, things aren't so stubborn.
Now, granted, sometimes this isn't a good thing. Anthony Gonzalez all but called Caldwell a liar prior to the start of the regular season when he told reporters someone had promised him he'd have the opportunity to compete for his old job. According to Gonzo, that promise was never fulfilled. It doesn't take Sherlock friggin Holmes to figure out who that someone was.
Still, despite some players who might not care for Caldwell's perceived double-talk, with him play is predicated on how well you perform on a consistent basis, not what your name is, what you did last year, or where you were drafted. Mind you, this mantra isn't always consistent when considering some of Caldwell's roster moves. Starting Jamey Richard over Kyle DeVan when the season began was utter stupidity, as was plugging in Fili Moala over Antonio Johnson.
However, credit Caldwell for not being so stubborn that he doesn't see when a mistake was made and then correct it.
Now, he'll never admit a mistake publicly, but it was no coincidence that the run defense started getting better when linebacker Philip Wheeler was sat (again) for players like Pat Angerer, Tyjuan Hagler, and Kavell Conner. Benching Donald Brown for Dominic Rhodes and Mike Hart during the course of the season also helped the team.
The one many are pointing to now was the rather silly benching of Mike Pollak for Jeff Linkenbach in November only to sit Linkebach again and go back to Pollak in December. Some said that Pollak should have never been sat in the first place. Those 'some' were wrong. Pollak played like crap for much of the season, and benching him was more than justified. The problem with benching Pollak for Linkenbach, a natural left tackle, was that 'Link' was even worse than Pollak. But, credit Caldwell for not being so stubbornly stupid as to stick with Link. He reinserted Pollak who, since his second benching in two years, has played the best football of his short career.
Staying positive and even-keeled
We often joke about the many faces of Jim Caldwell. No matter the situation, the man some fans refer to as 'Fat Dungy' has this look of 'Derrrrr' on his face. Some fans think such a perceived lack of emotion is the reason why the team struggled in November.
The reality is Caldwell's positive take on things, and his 'stay the course' mentality were a big reason why Indy is hosting a playoff game this Saturday.
Some teams, and some players, respond well to coaches who scream, yell, kick dirt, and curse like sailors with Tourette's syndrome. Jim Mora was such a coach, and while I give him a ton of credit for establishing some much-needed discipline within the Colts organization, he never won a playoff game here.
With Caldwell, this team responds well to his personality. Like Dungy, he did not panic when things looked bleak. He made his before-mentioned 'tweaks' with the running game and the defense, and basically sold the team on the idea that if they just do their jobs, they will win out and make the post-season.
It's important to note this attribute of Caldwell's because while it's the job of freaks like me to scream 'OMFG! WE SUCK AND WILL MISS THE PLAYOFFS IF YOU ASSH*LES DON'T START PLAYING BETTER!' it's the job of the coach to keep everyone calm, composed, and collected during times of crisis. It's when things are falling apart all around you that your true skills as a coach shine through.
I mean, it's not hard taking over a Tony Dungy team and lead it to a Super Bowl. It's been done twice. What's hard is, the year after that Super Bowl run, making the team truly your own and not a copy of Dungy's. Gruden couldn't accomplish that the year after the Buccaneers won their Super Bowl.
During this four-game win streak for the Colts, I personally think Caldwell achieved in Indy what Gruden couldn't in Tampa Bay. This is no longer Dungy's Colts. These are Caldwell's Colts. Are they perfect? No, but they do the little things that make 'Colts football' the successful model it is.
They play hard, fast, and physical.
So, as Colts fans, we need to hold off a little bit on the Caldwell bashing for a bit and give the big fella his due. There's a time to be critical and a time to offer praise. For Caldwell, he deserves some love from us. For the 2010 regular season, he might not have been perfect, but he rose to the occasion when it mattered most, and his skills a a coach got this club into the post-season.