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On Jim Caldwell Getting Another Chance as a Head Coach

The Detroit Lions hired former Colts head coach Jim Caldwell as their next head coach. Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson looks at why Caldwell is a much better coach than given credit for by Colts fans and why the hire was a good one by the Lions.

Andy Lyons

A week ago, the Detroit Lions hired their next head coach after a two-week search.  They hired Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell as the replacement to Jim Schwartz.  Caldwell was the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-2011 and previously was the Colts assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach with the Colts under Tony Dungy from 2002-2008.  He spent one year with Dungy in Tampa Bay before the two came to Indianapolis, and before that Caldwell was the head coach of Wake Forest for 8 seasons (1993-2000).  He has two Super Bowl rings, as the quarterbacks coach of the Colts in 2007 and as the offensive coordinator of the Ravens in 2013.

In 3 seasons as the Colts head coach, Caldwell compiled a 26-22 regular season record and a 2-2 playoff record, including an AFC Championship.  Colts fans don't think very highly of him and his coaching, so that's what I want to address in this article.  He's a much better coach than given credit for and I am a big believer that he can succeed in Detroit.

Jim Caldwell had the responsibility of taking over for a legend, Tony Dungy, when Dungy stepped down following the 2008 season.  While Caldwell was the long-awaited successor to Dungy in an effort to prevent a major change to a well-oiled machine with Peyton Manning leading the charge, change happened nonetheless.  But it didn't as much happen with the coaching staff as it did with the actions of the general manager.  People think that we do a lot of Bill Polian bashing around here, but believe me when I say that I consider him the greatest football executive history, and it's not even close.  But that doesn't mean he was perfect.  And a lot of the issues with how the Jim Caldwell ran the show in Indianapolis were actually issues with Bill Polian.

When Dungy was the head coach of the Colts he was strong willed enough that Bill Polian couldn't control everything - and he didn't like it.  When Caldwell took over for Dungy, Polian took the opportunity to take more control.  I've always felt - and while I haven't been able to prove it yet - that it was fully Bill Polian's decision to rest the starters at the end of the 2009 season and not Jim Caldwell's.  I wish someone would have asked Caldwell about that in his press conference with the Lions.  He's never blamed Polian, but I'm not sure if that's really true.  Either way, the fact of the matter is that Jim Caldwell did not have the opportunity to fully run the team his way - first it was taking over for Tony Dungy with his staff largely in place, and second it was the general manager actually running things.

Additionally, are we going to blame Caldwell for the 2011 season?  Really?  Without Peyton Manning, that team was bad and devoid of talent needed to win many games in the NFL.  Would they have won more than 2 games with Dungy at the helm?  I believe so, but Dungy was a special coach and most people would not have done much better than Caldwell did - especially given the fact that Polian did not build the team well at all to deal with an injury to Manning.

The most common criticism of Jim Caldwell comes from one single moment - the timeout against the New York Jets in the 2011 NFL playoffs in what would end up being Peyton Manning's last game as a Colt.  The lasting image from that game is Peyton Manning, with arms raised in exasperation, trying to figure out why his head coach had called a timeout to stop the clock and give the Jets time to regroup and drive for the game-winning field goal.  Would they have just run out the clock if not for Caldwell's inexplicable timeout?  Maybe.  But please, please, please understand this - it is unfair and unwise to base an entire opinion of a coach off of one timeout.  I honestly think Chuck Pagano's decision to punt on 4th and 1 in the divisional game against the Patriots was just as bad, if not worse.  Let's not judge a coach off of just one play, alright?

Lastly, the perception of Caldwell is that he only succeeded because he had Peyton Manning at quarterback.  This is the common perception of the national media.  And it seems very logical and makes sense - with Manning, Caldwell was 24-8 in the regular season and 2-2 in the playoffs (.722 combined), winning an AFC title in the process.  Without Manning, Caldwell was 2-14 (.125).  It seems like it was all Manning, right?  Right.  But don't miss the more in-depth answer.

Jim Caldwell arrived in Indianapolis in 2002, not 2009.  At the time Caldwell came to Indianapolis, Peyton Manning had thrown 81 interceptions in 4 seasons and would throw another 19 picks in 2002, Caldwell's first season as the Colts quarterbacks coach.  In Manning's first 5 seasons he threw 100 interceptions, averaging 20 picks a year.  In the next 4 seasons, that number dropped to 39 picks combined, averaging just 9.75 interceptions per season.  A major reason for Peyton Manning's numbers dropping drastically was Jim Caldwell.  See, people forget that Caldwell coached Manning for 7 seasons before becoming the Colts head coach.  In that time, he earned the complete trust of the future Hall of Fame quarterback and Caldwell had a big role in Manning's development.

There's a reason why Peyton Manning called the Lions out of the blue and gave a strong recommendation for Caldwell.  There's a reason why Tony Dungy answered the Lions call and gave an equally strong recommendation.  When you're looking for a head coach, it doesn't get much better than strong recommendations from Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy.  It just doesn't.  Caldwell's players love him.  Caldwell's co-workers love him.  So why don't Colts fans love him?

Easy - they want a scape goat.  They want to blame someone for resting the starters in 2009, for losing the Super Bowl that year, for going 2-11 in 2011.  They want to hold someone accountable, and the easy option was Jim Caldwell, the team's head coach.  But that doesn't mean he deserved to be the scapegoat.  All things considered, he did an impressive job at maintaining an elite level in transition from Dungy to Caldwell, he did an impressive job of holding things together in a 2010 season that was plagued with numerous injuries, and 2011 was honestly unavoidable without Peyton Manning under center.

Now, however, Jim Caldwell has a fresh start.  The Polians aren't running the show anymore, and, for as good Bill was as a football executive, that has to be a relief for Caldwell.  The Lions' ownership seems to be patient, as they gave Jim Schwartz 5 seasons.  I don't think Caldwell will need those 5 years to prove to them that they made the right decision, however.  Keep in mind, Caldwell won more playoff games in 3 seasons in Indianapolis (2) than the Lions have won in the past 55 seasons combined (1).

It was a move that was intended to change the culture while at the same time get a very good coach for talented but turnover-prone quarterback Matthew Stafford.  Jim Schwartz was a yeller and his teams were undisciplined - often being among the most penalized and turnover-prone teams in the league and also having a perception among many in the league as having dirty players.  Jim Caldwell brings a calm demeanor (but don't mistake that for passivity) and his teams are very disciplined, not committing many penalties or turnovers, and they first and foremost are represented by class - which the head coach certainly models.  Caldwell said in his introduction press conference:

"We have to make certain that we have a service and a commitment to service to our community and to our fan base. I think that's a huge part of it. One of the great descriptions I've ever heard about a person is velvet and steel, that an individual should be, particularly guys that play this game, like a piece of steel wrapped in velvet. So, on the field you'll find a hard-nosed, tough, fast, physical individual. But then out in our community, you'll see them as caring, as kind, as cordial as you'll ever see a human being. That's the combination we're looking for, civility and toughness."

In addition to a culture change and a super classy attitude, Caldwell brings a much needed top-notch quarterback coach to the franchise with a franchise-caliber quarterback.  Caldwell worked with Peyton Manning for 10 years and Joe Flacco for the last two (and he also worked with Kerry Collins when they were at Penn State), and he hired Joe Lombardi as his offensive coordinator - who has worked with Drew Brees for the past 7 years.  Caldwell and Lombardi (the grandson of the legendary Vince Lombardi and a very smart football guy himself) bring experience working with the some of the league's all-time great quarterbacks, and that should be extremely helpful for Matthew Stafford.  Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said of Caldwell:

"He's going to be very hands-on.  He's going to have a quarterback coach trained on the things that he wants done, and he's still going to be very hands-on even though he's the head coach in terms of developing Matthew. And that's one thing that we talked about in the interview that really impressed me about him and one thing that I was excited about was that he's not going to delegate that to somebody and step back and say, ‘I'm the head coach, I'm the overseer.' "

Caldwell said of Stafford:

"I've watched every throw Matthew made last season, because when I came here and met with him, I wanted to have some familiarity with him. We didn't go through film together, but we talked about what I saw, and I listened to him, and it was very beneficial. We have used a set of drills in coaching over the years that I think has added some consistency to all the quarterbacks we've coached. The great majority of poor throws-people look at the arm, and that's important obviously, but I think footwork is the key. I can pull up any game film and show you how our footwork drills help you. In a nutshell, the feet and eyes work together. If I'm throwing in a particular direction, my footwork is pointing in the same direction-directly at the target. We'll work on it with Matthew, and he will do them flawlessly."

The Lions hired a good one in Jim Caldwell, and we should soon begin to see the positive effects that the hiring will have on Matthew Stafford.  Colts fans don't have the fondest memories of Jim Caldwell, which is unfortunate and makes me even happier that he is getting a second chance to 'redeem' his legacy.  He is a tremendous person and a great coach, and the Lions made a smart decision hiring him.