Christmas didn’t exactly come early for the Detroit faithful when an “also-ran” Cincinnati team spoiled their faint playoff hopes this past Sunday. The ensuing caroling wasn’t jolly either, as a cacophony of anti-Caldwell sentiment built to a crescendo. In the wake of the season-ending loss, the beleaguered coach’s curb appeal is at an all-time low. But even as a growing chorus of displeased Lions fans clamor for his head, the fat lady hasn’t started singing yet.
Believe it or not, this is not an easy decision for general manager Bob Quinn. Firing a coach – and the collateral damage it so often entails – is seldom easy in the NFL. Complicating matters is the fact that Jim Caldwell is a winning coach, and one who has won two Super Bowls (as an assistant) at two different stops, to boot.
This will be Quinn’s watershed moment as the Lions general manager. If he ousts Caldwell and the hiring process doesn’t bear fruit, he may find himself buying the farm in a few harvests. If he stays the course and it proves to be a dead-end, his trust will be seen as misplaced and could be relieved of his duties as navigator accordingly. All this to say — he won’t simply fire Caldwell to satisfy Lions fans’ perennial bloodlust.
Beware of False Narratives
Now, I’m sure I’ve developed something of a reputation for being a Caldwell apologist recently. After being overly critical of him in the past, I’ve come to recognize he’s been scapegoated for a lot. And perhaps some of what I’m saying now is a subconscious atonement for that, so take this as you will.
First things first, I recognize he’s not perfect and has made his fair share of mistakes. Nevertheless, he’s a good coach with valuable qualities. But in examining the case of Caldwell, it is important to discern the true from the false. Both his supporters and detractors have fabricated narratives to strengthen their respective cases, which should indicate that this is not so cut-and-dry.
For example, the statement that, “He’s the winningest coach in Lions history,” while true, is a poor justification for retaining his services. Not only is the bar set low due to Detroit being a historically mediocre franchise, but it also has little relevance to the situation at hand.
On the flip side of things, another popular narrative is the condemnation of Caldwell for the inability to win the division with Case Keenum starting for the Vikings and Aaron Rodgers out. This is a weak argument for a few reasons. First and foremost, it plays off the misperception of Keenum, who has had a solid year in spite of being known as a backup journeyman. It also fails to consider how good Minnesota’s roster is in its entirety. The Vikings have a formidable front seven and a serviceable (and largely healthy) offensive line. The Lions have neither.
Beware of Double Standards, Too
The cognitive dissonance is jarring. While the fanbase has recognized the weaknesses of this team, they have often failed to take them into consideration when evaluating Caldwell. If the injury-ravaged, patchwork offensive line has been used to magnify Stafford’s success, why is it suddenly a non-factor when Caldwell comes up? They’ve allowed sacks at a significantly higher rate and generated less push at the line of scrimmage (i.e. adjusted line yards) compared to last year. Meanwhile, the defensive line is collecting sacks at a lower rate and – you guessed it – generating less push at the line of scrimmage. Fans have even criticized Quinn – perhaps wrongly – for his lack of investment along the defensive line this past offseason (a topic for another day). They’ve also suggested the team let Ziggy Ansah walk in free agency, because he’s apparently been that bad.
This is not Caldwell’s fault, nor is it Quinn’s fault. Those units have been decimated by injuries, so part of it is just bad luck. But these things need to be taken into consideration.
And Just How Good is This Team?
Another narrative that has been offered is that the team has gone downhill since Caldwell’s first season as head coach (11-5). Well, yeah — look at the roster.
Stafford has gotten better, but to whom would you attribute that to? The running back corps is worse, as Reggie Bush was a fringe feature back and Joique Bell was a reliable short-yardage option. Today, the Lions offense features a disjointed committee approach. Wide receiver is obviously going to be worse due to the absence of a certain future Hall of Famer. The tight end group is better. By the numbers, the offensive line allowed sacks at a lower rate (6.9%) and generated more movement at the line of scrimmage (3.79 adjusted line yards) in 2014 than 2017’s unit has (3.24, 7.5%).
The defensive line is inarguably worse today. So is a linebacking corps that misses Deandre Levy and Stephen Tulloch, a duo whose time came too soon. The defensive back room is better, but Darius Slay, for example, has developed beautifully. And to whom do we credit for that? As with Stafford’s development, commendation should be shared between players and coaches.
And did the team get any better this year?
Not really. The renovation project at offensive line has been setback due to injuries and, again, has performed statistically worse. The defensive line lost Kerry Hyder and Haloti Ngata. Tahir Whitehead looks better, but Jarrad Davis has struggled mightily as a rookie. Arguably the best addition has been return specialist and backup cornerback Jamal Agnew. So why is 8-8 or 9-7 a fireable offense?
Is it possible that this team – the talent – isn’t as good as we thought it was? Back in early October, I wrote that I was “punting on the hype,” and noted that the Lions had issues many people were ignoring. While I took a lot of flak for that, they’ve gone 5-7 since I said that. And the same people, despite all evidence to the contrary, now believe it’s Caldwell who has failed them.
If You Still Want to Fire Caldwell, That’s Okay
There is, however, a legitimate reason to move on from Caldwell. Although Caldwell is a good coach, he’s not a great one — and there is a very intriguing crop of candidates this year, and improving the head coach position is never a bad thing. Matt Patricia, John DeFelippo, and Matt LaFleur, to name a few, are appealing options. But let’s not concoct reasons as to why we want him gone.
He hasn’t lost the locker room. Remember eight comebacks last year? Remember how hard they fought against New Orleans? And furthermore, safety Don Carey came out on Twitter and said that Caldwell “deserved better” in response to an angry tweet from a fan. Carey is just one of many, but he didn’t have to do that. He could have let it die in his mentions. He responded, anyway.
Caldwell’s not to blame for the running game woes either, as Dan Orlovsky discussed on last week’s podcast. As he pointed out, there are only so many run schemes you can execute. And while many fans are frustrated with what is perceived to be the Lions’ overwhelming tendency to run on first down, the team runs the ball 52% of the time on first. That is slightly lower than the NFL average of 53%. The problem is that their successful play rate on such runs (39%) ranks 29th in the league. That is not a predictability problem, that is an execution problem. While the coaching staff should consider dialing that back a bit, they cannot simply throw the ball every play.
Perhaps the biggest, and most valid, complaint is that the team comes out flat or isn’t prepared. It has been a consistent problem and I’m not sure what to attribute this to. Caldwell is the popular candidate, and he very well could be the problem, but I don’t have a good explanation for that. I will, however, say that if your team has problems staying motivated, you have bigger problems than your coach.
At the end of the day, this is all par for the course. Caldwell may have written his own obituary in doing so, but he said it best: “We were a little above average, but a little above average isn’t good enough.”
Both he, and the team, can be described as ‘a little above average.’ Does he deserve to be fired for leading such a team to a fitting record? That’s a judgment you must make on your own.
The Bottom Line
Unfortunately, we are all stuck examining this situation through a keyhole. We don’t know what practices are like, what team meetings are like, what’s going on in the locker room or in the front office, how players feel, etc. We already know very few values for the many variables in this equation, or at least we think we do.
If you believe, as I do, that Caldwell doesn’t deserve to be fired, it’s probably because you think the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Perhaps you also fancy yourself a realist who isn’t impressed with Detroit’s overall talent level.
If you believe Caldwell should be fired, it’s likely because, on some fundamental level, you believe there’s a better coach out there and the team should take a chance on them.
We are all tired of losing. We all want the team to win the division and make noise in the playoffs. And, ultimately, we all want Detroit to bring home a Super Bowl. But bullshitting each other, and ourselves, to justify what is really just a baseless gut feeling, is pointless. There is no definitive way to settle the Caldwell debate, and neither course of action is ideal. Fortunately, none of us make the decisions. That’s Quinn’s burden to bear. And until he makes his decision – likely in a matter of weeks – we’ll all be stuck checking the reports.