It is not difficult to find reasons to doubt Jim Caldwell.
His record as a head coach at any level is, to be generous, undistinguished. He had two years at the helm of the Indianapolis Colts, two of which would be considered failures ‒ the loss in the Wild Card round in 2010 and the 2-14 Curtis Painter-led disaster of 2011.
Previously, as head coach at Wake Forest, Caldwell steered his lads to a single bowl game in 8 eight years, finishing with an overall record of 26-63. That’s a .292 winning percentage. For comparison’s sake, the guy who came before him, Bill Dooley, had a winning percentage at Wake of .448. The guy who came after, Jim Grobe, had a winning percentage of .484.
Caldwell’s most recent experience was as offensive coordinator in Baltimore, where it wasn’t even certain that they wanted him back. Despite the presence of Joe Flacco and his $100 million arm, Ray Rice and Torrey Smith, the Ravens finished 29th in the league in total offense (as well as 30th in the league in rushing, a theme for Caldwell throughout his coaching career). In 2012, Caldwell was named offensive coordinator late in the season, and yes, the Ravens did win the Super Bowl, but their offense was still statistically average.
But there has to be some reason the Lions wanted him as their head coach. Jim Caldwell wasn’t hired for his piercingly beautiful eyes. His name was not selected at random from the ‘C’ listings in a Baltimore phone book. There are situations all the time where the guy with the most dazzling résumé is not actually the best candidate, right? Maybe Jim Caldwell is the guy waiting to make that guy look like a chump.
So what is it about Caldwell (who was a candidate for more jobs than this one) that got him back on short lists for NFL head coaching jobs? What is it ‒ because it’s certainly not anything on the résumé ‒ that made Caldwell a hot name in 2014?
I went Googling in search of voices of support for Caldwell, from a time before he was hired by the Lions. Post-hiring, voices of support are plentiful and convenient for the team, media and opinion-holder. I view them with a bit less veracity. Pre-hiring, such voices were a little more scarce and carry more authenticity.
I found a few. Jeff Saturday and Robert Mathis both spoke in support of Caldwell after the Colts fired him in early 2012. Saturday, at the time:
“I think coach Caldwell has done a very good job. He has gotten the most out of his players, and we play hard for him each and every week,” Saturday said before the season finale. “We haven’t necessarily played well, we’ve made mistakes and done things, but they have, oftentimes, been things that we’ve talked about in coaching meetings.”
This is from Jim Tressel, who worked for the Colts in 2011, talking about how Caldwell and the Colts won two of their last three games that season, despite losing their first 13, six of those by two touchdowns or more:
“To keep that group together and not fold their tent, and I think the only reason was because of how much respect they had for him. I really believe that and again I was just a guy sitting in the corner, but I mean I’ve never seen anything like that because usually when your hope is gone it’s really hard to keep things together.”
So a lot of the pro-Caldwell sentiment out there is based largely on the dismal Colts remaining competitive at the end of a disastrous year. And that is completely valid and not a small achievement.
It’s also not fair to simply dismiss Caldwell’s 2009 campaign with the Colts just because he had Peyton Manning, so that team should be dominant by default. Coaching still matters. Those Colts weren’t just good, either ‒ they went 14-2. NFL history is loaded with super-talented teams that never made it to the Super Bowl, but Caldwell’s super-talented team, in 2009, did. That counts. That’s one Super Bowl appearance with the Colts in three years, while Tony Dungy had the same number in seven years with the Colts (and in 13 total years as a head coach), and Dungy is currently a finalist for the Hall of Fame.
The one easily-apparent, sensible thing about the Caldwell hire is the idea that he’s ideally suited as a fix-it man for the Lions specific set of problems. The Lions are not untalented, but they are undisciplined. Their 110 penalties, 8th most in the league, demonstrates that inadequacy.
And Caldwell, while head coach of the Colts, did lead a penalty-averse group. They finished 31st, 28th and t-32nd in penalties, respectively, in Caldwell’s three years, with never more than 79 in a season. Jeff Saturday, post-hire, has spoken glowingly about the discipline Caldwell can quietly instill. So maybe, if discipline is the order of the day, Caldwell is a reasonable choice.
As far as reasons to put a guy in charge of a franchise, though, it still doesn’t seem like a lot.
If you’re really looking for them, you can find reasons to talk yourself into Jim Caldwell as the guy who will win with the Lions. There’s so much evidence to the contrary, though, and that evidence is so much more concrete.
I want Jim Caldwell to succeed, because I want a quiet, calm, non-tough-guy to tip over the NFL’s current coaching cult of personality (in which men need specific haircuts to be considered for head-coaching jobs). He will be a massive underdog as a coach, and I am almost always in favor of the underdog. And Caldwell, coaching record aside, is probably a really nice man, and why wouldn’t I want him to succeed?
And I would love to see what the Lions see (and evidently the Redskins and Titans saw, too) that makes them believe Jim Caldwell could be the man that will win more games than the last guy. I want to see the secret Jim Caldwell quality that’s dazzling enough to outshine a whole lot of head coaching disappointment. Whatever that thing is, it’s not on his résumé, and it’s not been proven to be a winning quality in either the NFL or college. I hope he’ll show it to us.