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Why keeping Caldwell was the sane option for the Lions

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It's not right because of optimism or lack of options, but because it's not plunging the Lions into the same madness plaguing other franchises.

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The buzzards of noise and mayhem rose to action Friday when Caldwell was christened a second time as the Lions head coach. In reality, the Lions simply retained Caldwell and decided to let him go through with the third year of his contract, but after the countless trials of pain and agony it feels like the immovable man was fired and hired and fired again a hundredfold, a black Prometheus constantly losing his liver to those selfsame vultures.

The man's cheated death foretold a hundred times this season. Now it's another year to prove why it was worth it. But for this year, Caldwell's survival didn't have to happen; it needed to happen.

Caldwell's continued tenure with the Lions has been met with far more measured responses than what I had come to expect throughout the season, although the hot takes are still prowling these streets in some papers. Bob Quinn's decision was the first of many land mines. Already out there is the belief that this is another episode of Same Old Lions. Rod Wood is now viewed again as the Ford Family Friend Hire, Bob Quinn the Patriots also-ran, and the retention of a coach who is not The Winner. Commitment to Mediocrity. The floodgates have opened and all these opinions that were nary found before are in full force.


But the pendulum has swung so many times and avenues have been tread that perhaps, just perhaps, there is a contingent that understands what was liable to happen if the Lions followed the same trend of constantly firing coaches and looking for the next best thing. The players worked an excellent campaign in his name, and they celebrate in earnest today for a many they clearly enjoy playing for.

That matters. The difference between 7-9 in Detroit and 7-9 in Philadelphia comes in large part because of how the players feel about their leader. The fan will be happy so long as the record is good; the players have motivations far beyond just that. These are not the mythic-made peons of Vince Lombardi's legend who needed to be led by a dictatorial word to prove their worth. The modern footballer has the energetic fists to resist such, and the intelligence to match in this game. They know when the coach isn't fighting for the same stakes. They know what systems are working and which are not. They understand the empathy and camaraderie necessary to play a game that steals years from them. They want that in their leader.

I was particularly struck when I read Joey Harrington's discussion of his time in Detroit. Lions fans during those dark years only recall the bums in charge and the primordial need to Fire Everybody; the players saw faces come and go and moods soured by the constant upheaval. Who wants to play for a guy who might be out the door the next day? Why would you want to play for a city that feels this fickle destruction of any continuity (that's the big word today. You'll keep hearing it) is somehow part of the path to a winning culture?

Who does that? Who thinks knee-jerk reactionary operation is how leadership is discovered?

Retaining Caldwell doesn't matter when it comes to the record, or his decisions in games, or any vision for a future or even those candidates available. It's a victory for the sanity of an organization. It's a win to decide that constant instability in hopes that Jon Gruden will magically appear and win a Super Bowl in year one isn't realistic. That kind of Powerball dreaming is why there's so many teams humping the top of the draft year in and out.

Here are some teams that have changed their head coach at least twice in four years, the same scenario Detroit was staring at if they fired Caldwell: the Browns, Titans, Jaguars, Bills, Raiders, Buccaneers and Dolphins. If the Lions want to keep company with that lot, go right ahead. Those same teams keep chasing the next greatest head coach possible; it's no surprise then that each one finds itself mired in more problems than just filling those shoes.

The truth is more savage than those franchises want to admit. It takes time with a given coach. It takes multiple years of commitment, and yes, sometimes that doesn't work out. But you won't know the real truth in two, or even three years. That revelation is bound to drive a good number of these particular fans mad, especially as the NFL continues to market itself as a league where any team can Win It All in any given season.

Understand this about Caldwell: this has been be only his fifth year as a NFL head coach. He has existed within the coaching sphere for so long, but in that inexorable march since Iowa he has only had two head coaching jobs in the professional ranks and one at the college level. That college gig was at Wake Forest, one of the worst programs throughout the history of the "Power Five" echelons of NCAA Division 1 football (its continued struggles can be attributed to a bevy of issues well beyond the simple veneer of coaching, by the by).

Do you want to make a narrative of how Caldwell's teams regress after X number of years under his watch? Go ahead. But that narrative has little to stand on when the sample size is so small. If you want to include his two seasons and a month as the offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, you can do that too; but that same roster won a Super Bowl and then the next year found itself mired down by bloating contracts that limited the retention of offensive personnel. You can call that regression if you so wish.

I don't know if Caldwell is The Answer that the Lions have so long sought all these dread long years. The decision-making is there and I don't know if that changes or not. Is that a product of only five years of head coaching experience in the NFL? Is it immovable given his age or will it change with further experience? I don't want to declare that I know the answers, because I don't.

You could make strong cases on firing or retaining Caldwell based on various merits or failures. I'd probably listen to both and find wisdom in all sides. To me, there's no clear answer on Caldwell and his capabilities that I can declare. But at the end of the day, there are questions I need answered.

Would Josh McDaniels or Matt Patricia, if either would even take the job, be worth losing the trust of players in the front office? Would Caldwell not work as closely as they would with new general manager Bob Quinn? Would any option be a considerable upgrade among a gaggle of NFL coaches getting their first head coaching job and dealing with sky high expectations for a franchise that's never actually fulfilled such dreams? Is it worth it to be paying for the contracts of multiple head coaches just to sate bloodthirsty columnists and pessimistic fans? Is all of this justified in peddling hope to exacerbated fans rather than admitting that building a winning culture takes more than a handful of lottery tickets?

What is the cost of firing Caldwell, and can the Lions, oft seen by the national audience as snakebitten, afford to continue to pay that?