Published August 12, 2017
The line goes that NFL stands for Not For Long. The average length of a player’s career in the league is about three years.
Coaches don’t have long lives, either, though they have multiple ones.
Every Monday morning during every NFL season, 16 teams’ fan bases want the coach fired. The following Monday, the other 16 want the same thing.
Chuck Noll once talked of the fickle middle finger of fans.
Noll, the Hall of Fame coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers who won four world championships, jogged onto the field at Three Rivers Stadium one afternoon in the 1980s. A “FIRE NOLL” sign was hanging for all to see.
“What kind of a business is this?” Noll told NFL Films. “I win four Super Bowls and people want me fired?”
That’s taking the Not For Long thing in a different direction.
When Bob Quinn was introduced as the Lions’ GM in January, 2016, the fans’ thirst for blood rivaled that of a vampire’s. Jim Caldwell had been coach for two seasons, long enough to have worn out his welcome. It didn’t matter that in those two seasons, Caldwell led the Lions to the playoffs in one of them. This is the NFL, remember.
The fans saw Quinn and figured their wishes would be fulfilled. Surely a new GM means a new coach, right?
Quinn gave his name/rank/serial number presser, took some questions, said very little, relatively speaking, and went to work.
The Jim Caldwell death watch began in earnest.
The fans waited for the news, watching Twitter like a hawk. When would Quinn give Caldwell the ziggy?
Not 48 hours passed before the thirst for Caldwell’s blood was out of control.
Calls flooded the phone lines of sports talk radio. Internet comments were pouring in, in all their misspelled, grammatically incorrect glory. Why wasn’t Caldwell fired yet?
Talk about Not For Long! Bob Quinn wasn’t on the job for two days and fans said that he was a Martha Ford “puppet” and that he “obviously” wasn’t allowed to fire the coach.
No one has to pass an intelligence test to be a sports fan. Never was it more true than in this case.
Quinn’s to-do list when he arrived in Detroit was lengthy, as it is with any NFL team that’s bringing in new front office leadership.
There’s the personnel department. The scouting staff. The draft combine.
Quinn had a coach in place, and one that had only been on the job for two years, with two years remaining on his contract. The fans don’t want to read this, but the coach was the least of Quinn’s worries when he took the Lions job.
Unless Bob Quinn had identified someone that he absolutely wanted to join him in Detroit as head coach—and he had plenty of time to do so as the Lions job was materializing—then the coaching situation could wait.
Why add a coaching search to the to-do list?
You don’t build an NFL team around the coach, no more than you build a new house around a coffee table.
Quinn had no tangible relationship with Jim Caldwell before joining the Lions. He had no idea what their dynamic would be. Nor did he really care. Quinn had so many other fish to fry. He had an organization to rebuild, off the field. He had a roster to craft. The coaching situation would eventually take care of itself.
Why? Because the fate of any NFL coach—even the Chuck Nolls of the world, eventually—is tied to one thing and one thing only: the numbers under the W and L in the league standings.
Quinn and the Lions are still a work in progress. In fact, in any given year, 31 NFL teams are a work in progress. Each February the NFL crowns a champion, and 31 teams end up tied for last place. You think there’s great honor in making it to a Super Bowl and losing it? Tell that to the players from those losing teams.
The late Tug McGraw, who experienced the highs and lows as a World Series champion in 1969 and 1980 but also as a loser in 1973, once summed it up. And it’s no different in pro football.
“You know all that stuff about ‘Well, at least you made it to the World Series?’ NO. Uh-uh. Losing a World Series is terrible. Terrible. There’s no greater feeling than winning a World Series, and there’s no worse feeling than losing a World Series.”
No one truly knows if the Lions are any closer to winning a Super Bowl than they were when Bob Quinn took the reigns in January 2016. Quinn seems to have a plan, but only time will tell. Yet we should all know this: the fate of Jim Caldwell is now directly tied to Jim Caldwell.
If the Lions win, Caldwell stays. If they don’t, he goes. It’s no less true now than it was when Quinn joined the Lions. It’s no less true anywhere else in the NFL.
Quinn could have fired Caldwell whenever he wanted last year, even though that wasn’t his top priority when he took the GM job. Firing the coach is easy. Much easier than building a personnel department, a scouting staff and preparing for a draft. Quinn can always give Caldwell the ziggy.
Quinn wasn’t brought to the Lions to be the final piece to a puzzle. It wasn’t as if the team was just a GM away from winning the whole ball of wax in one year. Rather, Quinn was hired to find a bunch of puzzle pieces. And that search is ongoing.
Now, a coach can be a missing piece. A team can be a coach away from success. That’s been proven time and again.
The Lions weren’t a coach away when Bob Quinn was hired. Far from it. They may not be a coach away now.
Quinn is starting just his second football season in Armani with the Lions. Caldwell is in his final year of the four-year pact he signed in 2014. This isn’t rocket science. If Caldwell wins and the team shows improvement on the field—along with making the playoffs for the third time in Caldwell’s four years in Detroit—Quinn will likely extend the coach’s contract. If the Lions look like the Keystone Kops and win four games, Caldwell will likely be gone, his contract expiring gently into the night.
Quinn is not a Martha Ford puppet. His hands aren’t tied. He can fire the coach whenever he chooses. He just hasn’t chosen to do so yet.
The great Earl Lloyd, NBA pioneer, nailed it when he took the job as Pistons coach in 1971.
“It’s funny about coaching. The day you sign your contract is also the day that you sign your walking papers.”
Bob Quinn’s job is to build a team that, one day, will play the AFC Champions in a Super Bowl, somewhere over the horizon. No matter how unfathomable that may seem to some.
Who will be the coach of that Lions team? I have no idea. And Quinn doesn’t, either.
Thank goodness sound football executives aren’t vampires.