A playoff berth can be a funny thing in the NFL.
Just ask Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell. The embattled coach that was brought in ahead of the 2014 season to take a Lions team, which had collapsed in the second half of the previous two years, to the next level.
His first year was a success. The Lions rattled off 11 wins, reached the post season and avoided the second-half collapse that ultimately cost Caldwell’s predecessor his job.
In two seasons with the Lions, Caldwell has amassed an 18-14 record, including a 11-5 record in the regular season’s backend.
Despite that, he could be on the chopping block with his release potentially looming.
The decision on Caldwell’s future will be one of the first actions that follows the filling of the Lions vacant general manager position.
Still, I’m prepared to go out on a limb and say Caldwell should be back next year.
Consider the fact that turbulence did not turn to turmoil when the team hit 1-7 and the axe fell for coaches and executives alike.
There seems to be a resounding level of support for Caldwell and his staff across the locker room. One that appears stronger to me when talking to players now than it did in 2013, when the Lions faced the impending departure of former head coach Jim Schwartz.
Caldwell hasn’t been perfect – he has had in-game blunders and doesn’t have the type of charisma that fans gravitate to – but he has done what a head coach most needs to do. He’s kept his team united and he’s assembled a strong staff.
The latter is among the strongest reasons he should return.
The offensive turnaround under Jim Bob Cooter has been well documented – namely with the growth of quarterback Matthew Stafford. Cooter is here because of Caldwell.
Had Cooter been the original offensive coordinator, the conversation may be different right now. However, Caldwell deserves more credit for quickly pulling the trigger on releasing former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi than he does fault for the hire. Lombardi was highly regarded coming in and there is no way you fire him any earlier than Caldwell did given the circumstances.
Caldwell is also responsible for the Terrell Austin hire. It’s true that Austin could leave for a head coaching opportunity this offseason. However, would you be more confident in a new coach finding an adequate replacement or Caldwell – someone that has demonstrated aptitude in coordinator selection – finding one?
Beyond all of that, consider the fact of timing. Even if the Lions hire a GM quickly, they might miss out of the top coach candidates because other teams may be able to act more swiftly.
Plus, none of the top candidates are slam dunks at this point. Adam Gase, Sean McDermott and Darrell Bevell all come with huge question marks having never been head coaches at this level. You could go the retread route with the Josh McDaniels and Hue Jackson types – but those come with the baggage of failed tenures in the past. The college coach option is on the table but the recent track record of those hires isn’t exactly inspiring.
Of course, there may be current head coaches available but would it be advantageous to sacrifice draft picks for Sean Payton? Is Chuck Pagano the answer after what’s happened in Indy? Tom Coughlin has won two Super Bowls but also has had major downs during his time in New York.
So even the hypothetical availability of experienced head coaches with resumes aren’t sure things – assuming any of them would chose Detroit over other destinations.
Look, Caldwell isn’t a sure thing either. The Lions showed they couldn’t compete with the upper echelon of the NFL earlier in the year and have padded their record against lower competition in the second half.
Still, when you add it all up, Caldwell seems to be the best option even if just for continuity – especially for your offense, especially for your quarterback.
If it doesn’t work out, you can pull the plug a year later, start your coaching search on time and have a better idea on the direction of the roster. It’s not like you’re missing out on a sure-thing candidate in 2016.
Keeping Caldwell is a low-risk option that offers high reward.
We should know how willing Detroit is to roll the dice in a matter of days.