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Jim Caldwell has been a clear success in Detroit. So why is his future in doubt?

The 61-year-old is the Detroit Lions’ most successful coach in decades – and yet he’s been forced to deny speculation that he might not keep his job

Les Carpenter: The Guardian – January 5, 3017


Is there an NFL head coach more under-appreciated than the Detroit Lions’ Jim Caldwell?

Six decades of losing should make you believe football’s most downtrodden franchise is lucky to have Caldwell on their sideline. The ledger of his predecessors does not impress. None of the other five men who coached the Lions this century won more than 36% of their games. Save for Gary Moeller’s 4-3 record in emergency service during the 2000 seasons, you have to go back to 1956 to find a Lions coach with a winning percentage as good as Caldwell’s .571.

And yet the man who has led Detroit to the playoffs in two of the last three years might be clinging to his job. It took a Wednesday morning ESPN report saying Caldwell will coach the Lions next year to squelch suggestions he could be fired. Later in the day, Caldwell was forced to dedicate time during his press conference to thank the team for keeping him.

All this on a week the Lions are preparing for the playoffs.

Perhaps the suggestions that Caldwell could be fired were more a breeze kicked up by social media speculation than an actual consideration by team executives, but it’s astounding that the Lions had to clarify his status. This is a franchise that has never been to the Super Bowl, has won just one playoff game since 1957 and will play only their fifth postseason game in 16 years on Saturday in Seattle. At a time when the man who brought the winning should be getting a contract extension, he is instead wondering if he will get to coach the final season of his four-year deal.

“I was totally shocked that there was a question he would return to the Lions,” John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, told the Guardian on Wednesday afternoon.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance is dedicated to making NFL teams aware of talented African American coaches. Wooten, as the organization’s head, has helped create opportunities for many coaches of color. And while many will interpret his Caldwell support as bias for a black coach, Wooten is always careful to say his organization constantly urges teams to “hire the best coach”. Aside from stealing Bill Belichick from New England, it’s hard to argue the Lions will find a better leader than Caldwell.

He arrived in Detroit at a time when the Lions were seen as a team with a promising roster but a reputation for instability. They were a team of too many penalties and too many mistakes. They needed an adult, someone to infuse control, someone who can lead the team through bad times. Twice in three seasons he has led Detroit on November and December winning streaks that drove them to the playoffs. Since he has come to the Lions, quarterback Matt Stafford has had some of his best seasons, and the team has thrived offensively despite the surprise March retirement of superstar receiver Calvin Johnson.

“Jim has the great ability to make you feel that what you are doing is best for you,” Wooten said.

Still, the Lions’ most successful coach in decades does not yet have an extension on the last season of his four-year deal, and had to spend time during playoff preparation fending off speculation that he might not last beyond the postseason. Sure, general manager Bob Quinn arrived two years after Caldwell, and general managers tend to want to hire their own coaches: some of this week’s speculation on Caldwell’s future is no doubt tied to the team’s recent streak of three losses to the three best teams in the NFC. But losing at the Giants and Dallas and then to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is hardly a reason to be dumped.

It’s been a bad couple of weeks for successful black coaches in the NFL. Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw recently called the team’s current coach Mike Tomlin “a great cheerleader guy” and added: “I don’t know what he does. I don’t think he is a great coach at all.” What Tomlin has done is give Pittsburgh stability for 10 years, winning five division championships and going to two Super Bowls.

I was totally shocked that there was a question he would return to the Lions John Wooten, Fritz Pollard Alliance

In a league of mostly African American players, the NFL is still slow to hire black men to lead them. Since 2012, teams have hired 21 white first-time head coaches and only one black coach (the Jets Todd Bowles) who had never run an NFL team before. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Tomlin is involved in another division-winning season and Caldwell is left to feel lucky to have a job after two playoff appearances in three years.

Caldwell might not be the most exciting head coach. He doesn’t scream on the sideline, and his press conferences are dry. He is not a soundbite. He’s 61, and thus not the fresh new thing that fans and team executives seem to crave. But he makes teams better. This fact can’t be in dispute, even if he rarely gets credit for the job he has done.

Many write off Caldwell’s success as coach of the Colts from 2009-11 – two division titles and a Super Bowl appearance – as riding Peyton Manning to victories, not that Belichick hasn’t done the same with Tom Brady in New England. Few talk about him as of the NFL’s best offensive coaches, even as his record says he is. In 2012 he took over as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator in mid-season, quickly placed an emphasis on a powerful running game and a vertical passing attack that saved Baltimore’s fading season and helped them win the Super Bowl. Now he’s made winners of the woebegone Lions.

“I think the players recognize that he is a great communicator, a leader, and a strong teacher of the principles of the game,” Wooten said.

Does anyone else? How many white coaches who took the Lions to playoffs in two of the last three years would be wondering if they have a future with the franchise? At some point, the NFL needs to appreciate Jim Caldwell for what he is: one of the game’s best coaches and offensive minds. In 2017, you would think the only thing that matters when judging a coach is his record. You wouldn’t think a Hall of Famer wouldn’t dismiss Tomlin as “a cheerleader.” You wouldn’t think Caldwell could be fired for making the Lions – the Lions! – a two-time playoff team.

From his home in Texas, Wooten said he is optimistic that NFL teams do understand what Tomlin and Caldwell are doing. Currently there are six head coaching openings, and he is hopeful the time is right for men like Arizona offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, Bills interim coach Anthony Lynn, or Teryl Austin who is Caldwell’s defensive coordinator in Detroit.

Maybe he is right. Maybe the league is changing. Maybe people will finally understand that winning is the only perception that matters.

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