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Firing Jim Caldwell mid-season would be a mistake for Lions

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It doesn’t help their chances of succeeding this year, and it doesn’t improve their prospects in 2017 yet either.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s be very clear here from the start: I’m not a huge fan of Jim Caldwell as a head coach. He’s not the worst coach the organization has seen, but so far through his tenure, he probably hasn't been the best hire in team history. I’m not entirely sure if he’s the ideal head coach that any team would want for their organization, but this season, Caldwell has done more good than bad. However, having just reached the halfway point of the season, I am sure of one thing: firing Jim Caldwell right now is a thought Lions fans shouldn't be entertaining.

Blasphemous, right? Not the most popular opinion to stick up for one of the most assailable figures in the Detroit sports scene; but again, it’s not a Jim Caldwell thing, it’s a head-coach-in-the-NFL kind of thing.

So you want a new head coach?

If you’re a fan of the Detroit Lions and you wish to see Caldwell kicked to the curb, I’d have to imagine you’d subscribe to one of two mindsets. Either you think this Lions team is capable of achieving greater success this season than their current record reflects and a head coaching change now would turn this team around, or you’re of the belief that now is the time to cut ties with Caldwell, promote internally—whether that be Teryl Austin or Jim Bob Cooter or whomever—and give them an audition for the job.

Now I have to think that nearly everyone who wishes to see a head coaching change has their shortlist of assistant coaches and coordinators the Lions should pursue from other teams. It's nice to dream, but according to NFL rules, teams who fire their head coach mid-season cannot begin talking to coaches from other teams until the regular season has ended, and, in some cases, not until teams have advanced or been eliminated from postseason play. So firing Caldwell now—or in the next couple of weeks—can’t even be considered getting a "head start" on a coaching search; that's like getting out of bed at four o'clock in the morning to be to work by nine.

Let's take a look at NFL head coaches that have been canned mid-season since the turn of the century:

Season and Team Head Coach & Record Interim Coach & Record
2000 Redskins Norv Turner (7-6) Terry Robiskie (1-2)
2000 Lions Bobby Ross (5-4) Gary Moeller (4-3)
2000 Cardinals Vince Tobin (2-5) D. McGinnis (1-8)*
2000 Bengals Bruce Coslet (0-3) Dick LeBeau (4-9)*
2001 Vikings Dennis Green (5-10) Mike Tice (0-1)*
2003 Falcons Dan Reeves (3-10) Wade Phillips (2-1)
2004 Dolphins D. Wannstedt (1-8) Jim Bates (3-4)
2004 Browns Butch Davis (3-8) Terry Robiskie (1-4)
2005 Rams Mike Martz (2-3) Joe Vitt (4-7)
2005 Lions Steve Mariucci (4-7) Dick Jauron (1-4)
2007 Falcons Bobby Petrino (3-10) Emmitt Thomas (1-2)
2008 Rams Scott Linehan (0-4) Jim Haslett (2-10)
2008 Raiders Lane Kiffin (1-3) Tom Cable (4-8)*
2008 49ers Mike Nolan (2-5) M. Singletary (5-4)*
2009 Bills Dick Jauron (3-6) Perry Fewell (3-4)
2010 Vikings Brad Childress (3-7) Leslie Frazier (3-3)*
2010 Cowboys Wade Phillips (1-7) Jason Garrett (5-3)*
2010 Broncos J. McDaniels (3-9) E. Studesville (1-3)
2010 49ers M. Singletary (5-10) Jim Tomsula (1-0)
2011 Jaguars Jack Del Rio (3-8) Mel Tucker (2-3)
2011 Dolphins Tony Sparano (4-9) Todd Bowles (2-1)
2011 Chiefs Todd Haley (5-8) R. Crennel (2-1)*
2013 Texans Gary Kubiak (2-11) Wade Phillips (0-3)
2014 Raiders Dennis Allen (0-4) Tony Sparano (3-9)
2015 Dolphins Joe Philbin (1-3) Dan Campbell (5-7)
2015 Titans Ken Whisenhunt (1-6) Mike Mularkey (2-7)*
2015 Eagles Chip Kelly (6-9) Pat Shurmur (1-0)

What the numbers show

One addendum to take note of that isn't explicitly stated in the table above is that none of these teams went on to make the playoffs after changing head coaches. Not a single one of these 27 mid-season coaching changes since 2000 resulted in a team turning their fortunes around and leading their team to a playoff berth. In fact, head coaches who took over mid-season since 2000 are 61-111 for a .356 winning percentage, lending credence to the thought that maybe a lot of these teams weren't really all that good to begin with. In other words, firing the head coach is a declaration of failure from the front office. When Bob Quinn was given the keys to this team, I thought retaining Jim Caldwell bought him time for roster turnover/development, and I still think it was a smart move. Firing Caldwell now stunts the growth of young talent on this team and truly starts the timer on Quinn's time in Detroit, a true lose-lose situation for the young general manager.

What should also grab your attention about the information above is that a third of the coaches who took over as interim went on to retain the job the following season, and six of those coaches took over with at least half of the season remaining. Since 2010, only two of those four interims still have their job today: Jason Garrett—perpetually on the hot seat in Dallas—and Mike Mularkey—who was hired last year and was a Lions' collapse away from starting his inaugural season 0-4.

It’s fine if you’re pessimistic about the outlook for this Lions team with the way their roster is currently constructed, or with the way injuries are only continuing to mount, but this has no bearing on Jim Caldwell’s position with the team. If you didn’t expect a bit of a rebuilding process to happen when Bob Quinn took over earlier this year, you were failing to acknowledge the ebb and flow of all upper-management changeover that happens when franchises overhaul their front offices. But again, it's fine if you're sour about the Lions chances this season, I have no qualms about being upset that the team is losing football games that have all been decided by a single score.

The case for Caldwell

However, what I do have a problem with is the kind of thinking that dictates, "Fire Caldwell now so he doesn’t have a chance to win his job back." I have no clue how to respond to a line of thinking that places such a premium on a change in the head coaching position that would actually come at the expense of the team winning football games, which is, you know, the whole point we watch this team on Sunday... I hope.

The Lions have come face-to-face with Murphy's Law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The thin depth at linebacker was a problem that has been exacerbated by more and more injuries. Ezekiel Ansah started the season missing four out of five games and DeAndre Levy hasn't played since Week 1: that's two of their three best defensive players. Ameer Abdullah, the starting running back who many expected a breakout season from, is most likely out for the season and his backup, Theo Riddick, finally returned to action after missing three straight weeks. Eric Ebron, another player many expected to become a major contributor with the retirement of Calvin Johnson Jr., has been battling injuries since the start of the preseason.

Caldwell, while in the past reluctant to be aggressive and go for it on fourth down, has done the opposite this year. He's thrown the challenge flags when he should, but kept the red flag in his pocket against Houston when he should have thrown it. His clock management can still cause some head scratching, but he's not the only coach who struggles with this, right Andy? And his onside kick against Houston, it wasn't the reason the Lions lost on Sunday.

These aren't excuses for Caldwell to keep his job; plenty of coaches have been able to navigate injuries and suspensions and still managed to be successful in this league. Plenty of other coaches have learned to implement aggressive play-calling on fourth down to keep their offense on the field. Plenty of coaches are probably just as good as, if not better than, Caldwell at managing their timeouts.

But when a team decides to fire their head coach mid-season, things have to had come to a point of no return. Players have had to have reached a point of no longer progressing and the coach has had to have lost touch with his locker room. This is the same head coach that Lions players were over the moon about having come back after the end of last year's tumultuous season where the team started 0-5 and finished 7-9. The Lions haven't come to this point of no return. Heading into Week 9, the NFL season is far from over: only three NFC teams have five or more wins this season, leaving 13 other NFC teams with the same amount of wins or less than the Lions: there's still a lot of season left.

With no other viable options for an interim head coach, and considering the lack of success those interim coaches provide moving forward historically, you have to ask yourself, "What's the point in firing Jim Caldwell right now?"