New Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn just retained the head coach of a 2014 playoff team that lost seven of its first eight games in 2015—and he was right to do it.
All along, Martha Ford and the Lions ownership insisted the choice of head coach would belong to whomever they hired to make football decisions. Quinn, a 39-year-old first-time general manager, was not only given the title of executive vice president to go with it, according to ESPN's Adam Caplan, but a five-year contract.
Quinn is completely and emphatically in charge of Lions football for the foreseeable future. This decision isn't just about who's going to coach the team in 2016, but about the power structure that will control the football operations going forward. The Lions have given Quinn a mandate and a commitment.
As I tweeted Thursday night, though, the coaching carousel had spun to dizzying speeds—and if Quinn wanted to switch horses, he needed to jump then or never.
Friday morning, Quinn decided to give Caldwell time.
Time, it seemed, was the one thing Caldwell never had. Hired by former general manager Martin Mayhew, brought in to get the most out of the Lions' less-than-the-sum-of-their-parts roster, the pressure was on to succeed while they still had Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and DeAndre Levy all on the same roster.
If Caldwell, famed for his work with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco, could remove whatever mental block was standing between Stafford and his potential, the Lions had the talent to not only challenge the Packers for NFC North supremacy but make a real title push.
Caldwell's offensive coordinator, Joe Lombardi, was supposed to be the X's-and-O's whiz kid to Caldwell's grandfatherly mentor. It worked, sort of. Stafford cut down on interceptions in 2014 but didn't really fix his sloppy footwork or iron out the communication mix-ups with his receivers.
Yes, the Lions went 11-5 in 2014, but more often than not it was the play of Teryl Austin's No. 3-ranked defense, not Lombardi's offense loaded with first-round draft picks and pricey free agents, that carried the day.
When the Lions lost All-Pro defensive tackle Suh and his partner in crime Nick Fairley, the defense was due for a backslide, even after trading for five-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata. Given the Packers' still-strong grip on the division, the on-the-rise Minnesota Vikings, the impressive new coaching staff of the Chicago Bears and a difficult non-division schedule for the NFC North, getting back to 11-5 was always going to be a huge challenge.
Nobody expected 1-7.
In the second year under Lombardi, Stafford didn't look any sharper. In fact, he regressed, throwing for around his career-average touchdown rate but with far too many interceptions:
|Period||Cmp. %||TD %||INT %||Y/A||Passer rating|
|2014, Games 1-16||60.3||3.7||2.0||7.10||85.7|
|2015, Games 1-8||64.6||4.3||3.7||6.97||84.1|
|2015, Games 9-16||70.0||6.5||0.7||7.44||110.1|
Pro Football Reference
Lombardi's schemes looked repetitive and derivative, a half-baked recycling of mentor Sean Payton's work. Caldwell repeatedly defended Lombardi, right up until he fired him.
Lombardi was given his walking papers on the heels of a 28-19 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, and on the verge of traveling to London for a showcase game against the Kansas City Chiefs. At that point, the Lions were 1-6 and on track to have the No. 1 overall pick.
It was similar to the utter collapse the Lions suffered in 2008: After two decent seasons under new head coach Rod Marinelli, the Lions moved on from star defensive tackle Shaun Rogers.
A reasonable backslide on defense was to be expected—but instead, the bottom fell out. The Lions were completely uncompetitive. Team president Matt Millen was fired midseason, and just about everyone else was fired the instant the season was over.
It was a similar outcome in 2015: Team president Tom Lewand and GM Mayhew were axed midseason, and Caldwell was spared just long enough to shepherd his team to the butcher.
Except a funny thing happened: Newly promoted offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter got Stafford playing the best football of his life. As shown in the highlighted stat line above, the Lions' final eight games of 2015 were a quarterbacking masterpiece.
The Lions averaged 26.1 points per game, over a touchdown more than the 18.6 points they averaged in the first half of the season, and they went on a 6-2 run that started with the Lions going into Green Bay and winning for the first time since 1991.
If Caldwell's primary mission was to unlock the potential of the offense by getting the best out of Stafford, his second hire at offensive coordinator certainly achieved it. Even though the defense, missing Levy for nearly the entire year and getting very little production from Ngata, was far worse in 2015 than 2014, Austin remained an in-demand head coaching candidate.
Johnson led a group of players calling for Detroit to retain Caldwell, according to MLive.com's Kyle Meinke.
"I love him," Johnson said, not long before he began publicly musing about retirement. "Everybody in the locker room would probably say the same thing. He commands respect, but he doesn't have to do much. It's just his character guys gravitate toward. Easily, one of my favorite coaches. I've had a couple good ones, and he's one of my favorites."
Black Monday came and went, and critical time was spent finding the right general manager. Once Quinn was hired, he began assessing Caldwell. As top offensive candidates like Hue Jackson and Chip Kelly signed elsewhere, it became clearer that the Lions would have to move for a coach still in the playoffs—such as the New England Patriots' Josh McDaniels—or stand pat.
Quinn, as Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported, met with Caldwell four separate times before deciding the best person for the job was the person who already had it.
"After spending a significant amount of time together," Quinn said, via Lions reporter Tim Twentyman, "it is clear that our football philosophies are very similar."
Lions players' reactions on Twitter were immediate and extreme:
Like most if my fridaysssssssssss! They just keep getting BETTER! THAT'S! WHAT! IM! TALKING! ABOUT! https://t.co/k9ki72Jmro— theo riddick (@Riddick6) January 15, 2016
So excited to see Coach Caldwell will return to coach this team. In such little time he's taught me so much. Truly a remarkable man. #WROH— Ameer Abdullah (@Ameerguapo) January 15, 2016
Caldwell? YEEEEESSSSSS!!!!! 👍🏿👌🏿🙏🏿— Ezekiel Ansah (@Ziggy_Ansah) January 15, 2016
After months of assuming Caldwell is gone, his retention may seem confusing—but a McDaniels, Jackson or Kelly would be hired because he might be able to get Stafford to play the way he played for Caldwell and Cooter down the stretch.
Firing a coach who went 18-14 in his first two seasons because he didn't go to the playoffs in each of those two seasons—on a franchise that's seen seven coaches come and go since their last consecutive playoff appearances in 1994 and 1995—doesn't make much sense. Moreover, if keeping Caldwell for another season entices Johnson to stick around and make one last play for playoff glory, all the better.
Perhaps best of all, both of Caldwell's well-regarded young coordinators should stick around.
Cooter, who certainly would be snapped up by another club if not retained, can continue to be the resident Stafford Whisperer. Austin will take his fourth head-coaching interview of the offseason Friday in Tennessee, according to the Detroit Free Press's Dave Birkett, but ESPN's Adam Schefter isn't the only one who sees interim head coach Mike Mularkey as the favorite to land the gig.
Finally, Quinn's keeping Caldwell was a brilliant move to consolidate his own power. Had the first-time GM fired Caldwell and not made a brilliant hire, three years from now Quinn could be thrown out along with his chosen skipper.
But now, Quinn is blameless. If Caldwell and Company face-plant in 2016, one year into Quinn's five-year deal, Quinn can go out and get "his guy." If 2016 is a roaring success, Quinn will rightfully be lauded for being wise enough to keep a good thing going.