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.