Back in November, when Martha Ford fired the Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew, Jim Caldwell's firing seemed inevitable. The Lions were 1-7 and easily looked like the worst team in the NFL.
"We expect our team to compete, improve and win," Ford said in her press conference following the firings. In the next seven games, Caldwell delivered on all three accounts; Detroit competed, improved and won. The Lions look like a brand new team and Caldwell has brought them back to a somewhat respectable 6-9 record (considering the start). While it's not the season Caldwell wanted, he's managed to keep the team competitive when there was little reason to compete.
As a result, he's made the decision to fire him much harder. The new Detroit Lions president Rod Wood admitted that Caldwell's fate will be up to whoever Detroit's general manager is in 2016. Here are the cases for both retaining and firing Jim Caldwell to start the 2016 season.
The case for keeping Jim Caldwell
Through 16 weeks in his second season, Jim Caldwell is 17-14 in the regular season and 0-1 in the playoffs. While that may not seem very impressive, for the Lions franchise, that is wildly successful:
Win would give Jim Caldwell 17-14 record in 1st 2 years. Last time a #Lions coach had winning record in 1st 2 yrs was George Wilson, 1957-58— Paula Pasche (@paulapasche) December 27, 2015
Although the Lions should not be comparing themselves to their own franchise's past, but rather the rest of the league, 17-14 is still a very respectable start by league standards. And while Caldwell was expected to win now, he kept the team competitive throughout some serious adversity and won in places like Lambeau and New Orleans, where the Lions haven't won in decades.
Keeping the coordinators.
One of the biggest arguments for keeping the Caldwell around is the success of his coordinators. Teryl Austin has been widely applauded for his work on the defense. Though Detroit's defense was a disaster to start the season, Austin has helped mold players like Darius Slay, Ezekiel Ansah and Quandre Diggs into serious talent. Now the unit is finally competing near level it did in 2014, when the Lions had one of the best defenses in the league.
On the other side of the ball, midseason replacement at offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has Matthew Stafford and the offense looking competent for the first time this year. Cooter has been long thought of as a rising coach in the NFL, and one has to think with a full offseason with the team, Cooter could potentially turn the offense into something real. When asked if he wanted to keep Cooter around for another season, Stafford said, "No question." If Caldwell is fired, these promising coaches are almost certainly headed somewhere else in 2016. And while retaining Caldwell doesn't guarantee retaining the coordinators, its certainly gives the Lions the chance to maintain a stable coaching staff.
Avoid a rebuilding stage.
It's very rare for a first-year coach to see immediate success with his new team. Obviously, Caldwell did it last year, but it would be a big risk for the Lions to try to pull the same magic again. Detroit has several aging players (Calvin Johnson, Rashean Mathis, Stephen Tulloch, etc.), and while they also have some young stars, their window to compete for a championship is closing. Having the current roster learn an entirely new offense and defense could potentially set the team back far enough to miss out on that opportunity.
By all indications, Jim Caldwell is immensely popular among the players. Of course, while Caldwell is in place as head coach, you're unlikely to hear any public dissent by players, but by many accounts, Caldwell has an unusual amount of support from the locker room.
Player morale shouldn't be the main reason for any organizational moves, but it should be part of the equation.
The case for firing Jim Caldwell
When Martha Ford fired the Lions president and general manager, she sent a message that the mediocrity of the past will not be acceptable. She intimated that the Lions are about to undergo so major changes, an attractive proposition for a team that has one playoff win in almost 60 years. If Detroit decides to keep Caldwell around, that message will ring hollow and Ford will lose the support of many (even though it won't be her decision directly).
When Caldwell arrived in Detroit, he was already infamous for a few in-game blunders. While this issue may have been overblown a bit, "Bad Caldwell" has a tendency to show up in big moments. Many thought it was a big mistake for Caldwell not to go for it in Dallas after the officials picked up the pass interference flag on a late fourth quarter drive. He also made a handful of mistakes at the end of the Atlanta game in London last year that nearly cost the Lions the game. The Hail Mary fiasco against the Packers seemed like the last straw for Caldwell.
While we've seen improvement in Caldwell's use of timeouts and his overall aggressiveness (another fake punt last week!), his overall game management still is considered subpar by most.
Minimal offensive improvement.
Caldwell was brought in for one, main reason: The Lions needed to fix Matthew Stafford and the offense. Although Detroit went 11-5 last season, the offense took a considerable step back. Passer rating, yards per carry, rushing and passing yards all took a significant nosedive with Caldwell at the helm.
The expectation was another year and another offseason with the new system would bring much more success for the offense. But Detroit actually looked much worse to start the season.
An argument could be made that the Lions' struggled fell at Joe Lombardi's feet, not Caldwell's. When the Lions fired Lombardi, the offense seemed to get a shot in the arm, but that improvement may be a bit misleading. The first half of the Lions' season featured some of the best defenses in the league in Minnesota (twice), Denver, Arizona and Seattle. During the Lions' offensive "explosion", they faced Philadelphia's free-falling defense, New Orleans (32nd in DVOA) and San Francisco (25th). The offense still struggled badly against a good Rams defense, and although they won a few games against decent defenses in Green Bay and Oakland, they still only scored 18 in each of those games.
While there has been improvement in the offense, it hasn't been enough and it has come far too late. In Caldwell's main mission to fix the offense, he has unequivocally failed.
Late season improvement not enough.
With as improved as this team has looked over the final two months of the season, it isn't enough to overlook how unprepared the team was to start the season. The Lions started the season 1-7 and were only competitive in a handful of those games.
There were many glaring issues with the team that took far too long to address. The right tackle position was essentially ignored until the Lions finally claimed Michael Ola. But Ola didn't make his first start until Week 11. Stephen Tulloch had clearly become a liability in coverage, but the Lions took way too long in getting Tahir Whitehead back into the lineup. The Lions' secondary is finally making some strides, but only after injuries forced Caldwell into playing some of his younger guys.
Eventually, Caldwell and his staff made the right moves to right the sinking ship, but it had come when the Lions' season was too sunk for saving.
In the last seven weeks of the season, Caldwell has done enough to at least earn some consideration for sticking around. His in-game issues, while annoying, are quite common among the league and probably overblown. But if the Lions are serious about overhauling the organization and ridding themselves of their well-earned stigma, a change in coach is an essential step in that progress. Whatever choice the Lions' general manager makes, it will not be as easy of a decision as it would have been two months ago.