- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
In the land of public perception, the Detroit Lions whiffed.
This isn't saying Jim Caldwell won't end up being a good coach or maybe even a great coach. This isn't saying that Caldwell isn't the coach who can finally turn around a legacy of losing and late-season collapses in Detroit.
But right now, at the initial time of the hire, Detroit whiffed. Whiffed in the realm of public opinion, where it appeared that the team's reported top choice all along had been San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt.
Understand, none of the coaches in this hiring cycle other than maybe Lovie Smith was close to a sure thing. Everyone else had flaws, from being a first-time head coach in the NFL to struggling with subpar quarterbacks and/or having a losing record as a head coach.
So Caldwell is better than some of the options out there, of that there is little doubt. But he was apparently not the top option. All of this after team president Tom Lewand said he felt the Detroit job was the most attractive one out there this year. After general manager Martin Mayhew said he believed he could find the right guy and that he has built a team to succeed.
This is a hire that will almost certainly raise questions. Yes, Caldwell hits almost all of the markers the Lions were searching for in a head coach: prior head-coaching experience, an offensive background, a pedigree working with quarterbacks. And yes, Caldwell is by many accounts a good and decent man who can bring discipline, respect and high character to the Lions' head-coaching position.
Plus, he has the support of his former boss, Tony Dungy, and his former quarterback, Peyton Manning. Dungy told ESPN Insiders Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen that Caldwell is a “great match” for the Lions and that multiple former Colts called Detroit in support of Caldwell as head coach.
Caldwell has essentially been a quarterback mentor when he hasn't been a head coach, having never been a coordinator at any level until December of the 2012 season, when he replaced Cam Cameron with the Ravens. He did a fantastic job with the Ravens and Joe Flacco in a short span, winning the Super Bowl last season and guiding Flacco to 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs.
But with Caldwell in the role full-time this season, Baltimore struggled offensively. The Ravens were 29th in total offense and 25th in scoring. Flacco threw more interceptions than touchdowns for the first time in his career and completed fewer than 60 percent of his throws. Ray Rice rushed for 660 yards, the fewest since his rookie season and the first time he rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards since his rookie year.
Caldwell's job was unimpressive enough that colleague Jamison Hensley, who covers the Ravens, said the Lions might have saved Baltimore from having to make a tough decision on Caldwell's future.
Instead, Detroit is giving him control of a franchise desperate for a winner, desperate for a consistent playoff team and with what the Lions believe is a roster to compete for division titles and playoff berths.
Caldwell reached the Super Bowl in his first season as Indianapolis' head coach, losing to New Orleans 31-17 in Super Bowl XLIV. The Colts made the playoffs in his second season, too.
But without Manning and left with a horrific quarterback situation, Caldwell started 0-13 and finished 2-14. It was a situation few coaches could have won in and it eventually led to his dismissal. But another question remains: If Indianapolis had enough confidence that Caldwell was the man for the future, why didn't it keep him to groom and mentor Andrew Luck?
When he was the head coach at Wake Forest, he had one winning season in seven years and won more than three games only twice in his tenure. That raises the questions about his long-term ability to be a head coach, as well.
It is just one of the questions that have to be asked about his hiring.
On his initial interview, Caldwell met with quarterback Matthew Stafford to start to build a rapport and to give an idea of some of the things he might correct. He met with ownership. He came in with a detailed plan of what he saw wrong with Detroit and how he could fix it.
Now he'll have a chance to implement that plan. And his success, much like any candidate the Lions would have hired, will be tied to what he can do with Stafford. Fix Stafford, make the Lions into a winner and whether Caldwell was the first choice or the 15th choice won't matter at all.
But if he doesn't, it might be more than just Caldwell who would be deemed a failure.