The Detroit Lions have found their heir apparent at head coach with the hiring of Jim Caldwell.
Caldwell spent the past two years with the Baltimore Ravens as the quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.
Before his time with the Ravens, Caldwell was the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He compiled a 26-22 record in three seasons, while winning two AFC South Division crowns and a trip to Super Bowl XLIV.
The obvious beneficiary of this hire would be Matthew Stafford.
Caldwell has had his hands on the development of two Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in Peyton Manning (2006) and Joe Flacco (2012).
Tim Swentyman of DetroitLions.com interviewed ex-Colts coach Tony Dungy on the hire and stated:
"I also think this team, very much like our team in Indianapolis, there was so many offensive weapons in place that you want a system that can maximize that. I think what Jim believes in, in terms of offense, is just going to fall in line with the skill set of the players there. You have a young quarterback to develop in Matthew Stafford and it reminds me of when we (got to Indianapolis).”
The Lions feature prolific offensive talents in Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush and Joicque Bell.
Despite all the talent surrounding him, Stafford struggled mightily from Week 10 onward—throwing 12 interceptions versus 10 touchdowns. After starting the season 6-3, the Lions lost six of their last seven games en route to a 7-9 record.
Stafford is highly regarded around the league, but his gaudy offensive numbers have been plagued by bouts of inconsistency.
Lion fans are hoping Caldwell is able to replicate the development pattern he had with Manning in Indianapolis.
Manning himself credited Coach Caldwell in a conference call with Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun:
"I felt like he really took my game to another level. He’s also a tremendous mentor and friend to me,” Manning said. “I can speak to him as a person and what kind of a coach he was to me.”
Beyond Manning, Flacco also enjoyed success under Caldwell’s tutelage.
Flacco made his mark on the 2012 postseason—throwing for 2,672 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.
In Flacco’s previous nine postseason appearances (sans Caldwell), he had a pedestrian 8:8 touchdown to interception ratio.
Randy Booth of SBNation.com made note of Caldwell taking advantage of Flacco’s strengths as a quarterback—his strength with the deep ball:
"This season as a whole -- including the playoffs -- Flacco has thrown 15 touchdowns of 20 or more yards and 15 touchdowns of less than 20 yards. To put that into perspective, Tom Brady holds the NFL record with 50 touchdown passes in the regular season. He did that in 2007, and also tossed six touchdowns in the postseason. So with 56 touchdown passes total that year (and with a weapon like Randy Moss streaking down the field), Brady threw just 16 touchdowns that were more than 20 yards -- just one more than Flacco in 2012, despite having 26 more TD passes.”
Critics will argue that Flacco took a step back in 2013, and statistically that argument is correct. The obvious counterargument is that he played this season without Anquan Boldin, a declining Ray Rice and was without his top tight-end Dennis Pitta for most of the season.
Many will view the Caldwell hire as an odd one for the Lions, but history shows that quarterbacks have improved under him.
The Lions would have made the playoffs this season had Stafford stayed somewhat consistent in the second half—the problem is turnovers seem to snowball with him.
He struggles with his decision making at times, throwing interceptions during critical junctures of games. Ball security is another area of concern as Stafford fumbled the ball 12 times this past season—losing four of them.
Arm strength can only carry a quarterback so far and Stafford will never be considered an elite quarterback until he learns how to take better care of the ball.
If Caldwell can rein in Stafford’s talent and make him more consistent, the Lions will be all the better for it.