One of these days, it would be nice to find out what a Detroit Lions head coach can do with some players with talent who were drafted beyond the first round.
Today is Black Monday in the NFL. That cutesy name for the day where lots of head coaches get the ziggy.
One of the names on the so-called hot seat is the Lions’ own Jim Caldwell. The football faithful are screaming for the head of another coach.
But Caldwell is 18-14 in two seasons and even that modest record is good enough to rank first in terms of winning percentage of any Lions non-interim coach since Joe Schmidt (1967-72).
That fact is either uproariously (no pun intended) funny or tragic-comic. Take your pick.
But Caldwell held his team together despite a 1-7 start that got the team president and the general manager canned. The Lions finished the season on a 6-2 run, including wins in Green Bay and New Orleans.
Of course, Caldwell is also the same coach who led the team to its 1-7 start. And he’s the same man who had his defense pathetically unprepared for a Hail Mary against the Packers on national TV.
So what to do?
The regime of president Tom Lewand and GM Marty Mayhew, which spanned about seven years (2008-15) and included two coach firings and hirings, was rife with questionable free agent signings and worse drafting. The era also included two winless playoff appearances.
When the duo decided to part ways with coach Jim Schwartz two years ago, the time seemed right for a change. Schwartz did OK, taking over an 0-16 team and getting it into the playoffs by his third year. But there was also the feeling that Schwartz had taken the Lions about as far as he could. A second half collapse in 2013 (aided and abetted by QB Matt Stafford) sealed Schwartz’s fate, especially combined with his loose cannon personality.
But the remnants of the poor drafting of Mayhew didn’t leave with him in November.
Call it The Remains of the Draft Day.
Caldwell is in a tricky spot. He’s 18-14 but a new GM will be hired soon. And new GMs usually like to pick their own coaches.
So what to do?
The 6-2 second half featured stellar play from Stafford—almost the 180 degree opposite of how he played down the stretch in 2013. Stafford tossed 17 TD passes to two interceptions under the guidance of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who replaced Joe Lombardi in late-October.
Caldwell should stay but whether he should or shouldn’t is likely to be irrelevant, because of the upcoming changes in the front office.
Yes, you heard me. The Lions should retain Jim Caldwell.
The truth is, you can change coaches until you’re blue in the face—run a whole bunch of them around the maypole if you want—but it won’t change a damn thing with the Lions until a sound football man is in place who can draft some stinking players outside of the first round.
The irony here is that the one time the Lions ought to keep the coach, he may be out the door anyhow.
The Caldwell/Cooter/Teryl Austin (defensive coordinator) combo, I believe, could do alright in Detroit if they were given two things.
One is a little more time, and the other is talent in the later rounds, that doesn’t cost a fortune.
Austin might be gone as well, because a head coaching job could beckon.
But it’s the improvement that Stafford has shown under Cooter that should excite.
When the quarterback plays well, the team has a chance to win. When he doesn’t, it doesn’t.
That’s pretty much been the axiom in pro football forever.
Stafford was lousy in the second half of 2013 and the Lions tumbled out of the playoff picture. And the coaches all got fired.
Stafford was terrific in the second half of 2015 and the Lions went 6-2—which should have been 7-1 if not for the aforementioned Packers debacle.
See how that works?
If the Lions have Stafford figured out, then Jim Bob Cooter should have his own statue at Ford Field.
But back to the front office and player personnel.
The hand-wringing over star receiver Calvin Johnson’s $24 million salary cap hit next year is understandable, but it’s exacerbated by the fact that the Lions traditionally don’t get much out of their cheaper players.
If the fourth and fifth-round guys were any good, then Johnson’s salary wouldn’t be as big of a deal.
Heck, how about a second round guy being any good on occasion? Is that too much to ask?
With the Lions, free agency has too often been used as an expensive band-aid. There have been some hits (Golden Tate, Glover Quin) but throwing big money at guys who other teams didn’t want to re-sign is still a crapshoot. And not the best use of team finances.
But the Lions have drafted so poorly, and get so little out of the later round players, that they have to resort to big bucks to fill the gaps.
Compare that to the kings of the NFC North (save for this year), the Green Bay Packers, whose roster is filled to the brim with homegrown players. The Packers usually don’t sign free agents, because they don’t have to. Same with the New England Patriots. Same with a lot of the successful teams over the decades.
The Packers of the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s and the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s all were built fundamentally through the draft. And their Hall of Fame players weren’t all first round picks, either.
The Lions have gotten precious little beyond the first round of the draft, when compared to the winning organizations in the NFL.
Unless the Lions’ propensity for shooting themselves in the cleats at every draft goes away, you could make the second coming of Vince Lombardi the coach and it won’t mean a hill of beans.
Jim Caldwell is not the perfect football coach. He has warts. His game management is still a little shaky.
But he’s 18-14. He gave his feckless offensive coordinator the ziggy (albeit maybe belatedly) and the replacement seems to have fixed the quarterback.
The Lions didn’t lay down after the 1-7 start. They weren’t the Cleveland Browns.
Besides, who’s out there as a coaching candidate that floats your boat?
Fix the front office. Draft better. Manage the money more wisely.
Put a stopper—for now—on the coaches’ revolving door.