Commentary

What's Jim Caldwell playing for?

Has coach done enough to keep job? Would winning be bad for Colts' future?

Updated: December 29, 2011, 12:31 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Most of the participants in the Indianapolis Colts' season -- peripheral or not -- are pretty clear about their desires.

If you're a fan, you want the Colts to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars on New Year's Day. That way you'll lock up what many feel is the next great once-in-a-generation quarterback, Stanford's Andrew Luck.

If you're a Colts player, you want to win. Period. That was never clearer than Thursday night, when the Colts came back to defeat the bound-for-the-playoffs Houston Texans 19-16 for their second win of the season. To players, Luck has nothing to do with it. These guys are playing for their suppers.

Jim Caldwell
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesJim Caldwell has had Peyton Manning on the sideline but not the field this season.

Peyton Manning? If you've caught any glimpses of him on the sideline during this lost season, it should be pretty clear that he wants to win -- although his motivation might be conflicted. The prospect of Luck lacing up his shoulder pads in front of the adjoining locker cannot be sitting well with the future Hall of Famer, especially because everyone -- from coaches to fans to the media -- will be looking for any hint that the neck injury that made Manning the highest-paid assistant coach in NFL history has not healed well enough for him to play. And play well.

Owner and CEO Jim Irsay would love to lock down Luck, even though he hasn't said as much, only that he would not hesitate to draft "a great young quarterback" if one was available.

Finally there's head coach Jim Caldwell, who's been fortunate to have coached a team with a brilliant and talented quarterback -- until this year. Like any coach, he'd like nothing better than to be able to look from the sideline and see a great (or at least potentially great) quarterback under center for his team. And Luck is that guy. Lose to the Jags, and he ensures himself of going from Manning to Luck with just a little bit of Dan Orlovsky in between. Win? Beating Jacksonville would put Luck in play, with the St. Louis Rams also in the running for the top pick.

Should the Colts lose Luck, well, that New Year's Day win would go down in infamy as the costliest victory in sports history.

But here's another conundrum: A Colts win might allow Caldwell to keep his job. Might being the operative word. Had the Colts run the table -- or more appropriately, had the table run over them -- and finished 0-16, Caldwell, no matter the Manning injury, almost certainly would have been fired.

Although his regular-season record was a sterling 24-8 coming into this year, the stink of oh-fer (along with the still-bitter memory of the Colts failing to "go for" undefeated in 2009, Caldwell's first season, and losing to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV, where the general consensus was that he was outcoached by Sean Payton) would have been too much for Tony's Dungy's successor to survive.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAre the Colts playing for Andrew Luck or for a win?

That said, Irsay doesn't seem to be the type who overreacts to short-term blips. After all, he paid Manning $26 million for this season, even though he hasn't and won't play a down. And Irsay has said he's willing to pay the $28 million bonus due to Manning in early March to keep the 35-year-old under contract, even if a comeback to anything even close to his recent self would damn near be a miracle.

So it wouldn't have totally surprised me if Irsay had retained Caldwell, even if the Colts had gone oh-for-'11. Especially because the team would be in Luck, giving the coach the kind of gem he should have the chance to coach after enduring this kind of hell. It also wouldn't have surprised me if Caldwell had been canned. In fact, he reportedly was expected to be fired if the Colts had gone 0-16.

Head coaches -- at least those not named Bill Belichick -- are just renting those headsets. It's the brutal nature of the business -- win or go to the television studio. But the Colts won't go winless. In fact, they're one of the hottest teams in the NFL. OK, Saints and Patriots fans, not really, but after all they've been through, they deserve to stick their chests out a bit.

And with any hope of reaching the playoffs long gone, a final win would extend that feeling through the offseason.

Colts fans? Well, as much as most of them will be flat-out cheering for the No. 1 pick, the true fans won't complain, either.

Irsay would cheer the victory, as any owner would, then keep his fingers crossed -- for Luck.

So it all comes down to Caldwell. Does he play his best team in every situation? Does he coach to win? I'm not sure he feels he's done enough to save his job.

A victory on New Year's Day might be enough to help Caldwell retain his headset -- but it also might cost him and the franchise dearly. To paraphrase Dirty Harry: How Lucky you feelin', Jim?

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com

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