Let's get this out of the way right now: Nobody knows how the Detroit Lions' decision to hire Jim Caldwell is going to turn out. History may give us a pretty good idea of where this is all going, but much like a draft pick or a free-agent signing, it's foolish to make a final judgment about a coaching hire before any games are even played. Caldwell deserves a chance to show us what he's got, and only time will tell if this was truly a good hire or a bad one.
The thing about coaching searches is there's no specific formula for success. Just because a team lands its top candidate doesn't mean he will be successful. And just because a team ends up with its fourth or fifth choice doesn't mean all hope is lost. Sometimes the best hires end up being the ones with the lowest approval ratings, and sometimes the worst hires involve the perceived best candidates. The reality is every situation is different, and there's no telling how things will work out for Caldwell in Detroit.
Of course, just because we can't predict the future doesn't mean the Lions are immune to criticism here. That's pretty obvious with how negative the reaction has been to the Caldwell hire. The Lions had to settle for their backup plan after losing out on Ken Whisenhunt, and their backup plan was somebody who never grabbed the excitement of fans. Granted, the top priority when hiring a head coach should be winning games and not simply earning a thumbs up from your fan base, but the fact that Caldwell became the Lions' backup plan in the first place is really an indictment of the entire coaching search.
Now, let's not get this twisted. Guys like Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden were never realistic options for this job, and it's not like the Lions had their pick of "exciting" coaching candidates. As a whole, this year's coaching class is just not that appealing, especially when you consider that college guys like David Shaw and Kevin Sumlin declined interest from NFL teams. The real problem is that the Lions fired Jim Schwartz a year too late, and they missed out on coaches like Andy Reid, Bruce Arians, Chip Kelly, Mike McCoy and Marc Trestman as a result.
My biggest problem with the actual coaching search that took place this year is that the Lions really backed themselves into a corner by staying so true to their former head coach/offensive background profile. I understand their thinking in wanting an offensive-minded candidate with experience as a head coach, but that mindset automatically shrunk down their list of candidates to the four guys they interviewed. Whisenhunt may have been the absolute top choice among that group given the success he's had with a few different quarterbacks, but in reality he was simply the least bad option with Caldwell, Gary Kubiak and Mike Munchak serving as the alternatives.
The Lions can claim this was a thorough search, and perhaps they did do a lot of work behind the scenes. It just seems like the Lions were too willing to settle and too afraid of taking a risk on a college coach or a coordinator without head coaching experience. What would have been the harm in interviewing James Franklin, Brian Kelly or even Gus Malzahn? (That's assuming those guys have interest in speaking with NFL teams, of course.) And what would have been the harm in interviewing Greg Roman, Darrell Bevell or Mike Zimmer? I know the Lions had a specific profile in mind, but that mindset really doomed their search from the start.
I guess it's entirely possible that a more extensive search wouldn't have changed the Lions' ultimate decision. They could have interviewed 10 different coaches with all kinds of different backgrounds and still decided that Caldwell was the best man for the job once Whisenhunt was no longer available. However, the fact that they only interviewed four coaches before settling on Caldwell just produces an underwhelming feeling.
With a job opening that was seemingly so attractive on paper, is Jim Caldwell really the best the Lions can do? I get that he led the Indianapolis Colts to a Super bowl and won a ring with the Baltimore Ravens. However, there are extensive concerns about his in-game decision-making, he went 26-63 as a head coach at Wake Forest and his only NFL success as a head coach is directly tied to Peyton Manning and a team that was already a winner when he took it over. Plus, his only real success as an offensive coordinator is a four-game stretch where Joe Flacco played out of his mind. In Caldwell's one season as the full-time offensive coordinator, the Ravens struggled so much that he might have been forced out if the Lions hadn't hired him.
I guess my overall point is that the Lions' coaching search just wasn't very impressive. Part of the search was out of their control with Dungy and others having no interest in returning to coaching and certain college guys not wanting to jump to the NFL. And a big part of this feeling stems from the fact that Whisenhunt picked the Tennessee Titans over the Lions. However, it just doesn't feel like the Lions did quite enough with what they had to work with to say they made the best hire they could. It feels like they were too stubborn with their coaching profile and it feels like they had to settle for Caldwell as a result. Despite having the perceived best job available, they hired a coach who might have been on the verge of being let go because he wasn't getting the job done as an offensive coordinator.
At the end of the day, the perception surrounding the Lions' hire and the overall reaction from fans doesn't mean anything as long as Caldwell wins. Hopefully a year from now we'll be looking back at our reactions to this hire and laughing about just how off base we were. That would be the ideal outcome -- Caldwell turns out to be the right man for the job and makes us all look silly with how we reacted. And it's entirely possible that could happen.
In the short term, I just view this as the latest occurrence of the Lions doing what they do best -- falling short of expectations. Perhaps that's my fault for believing that things would be different this time around, but now all I can do is shake my head and move on with the hope that despite all of the evidence suggesting otherwise, the Lions do actually know what they're doing for a change.