What a difference a year makes. As head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Jim Caldwell went 2-14 in 2011 and was fired. He was a bum, a fraud living off the coattails of Peyton Manning. Now, Caldwell is at the helm of a rejuvenated offense. More importantly, he is a Super Bowl champion. What happened?
A Promising Beginning
To trace the line from punchline to champion requires a look at when Caldwell was a highly regarded head coach in the NFL. Keep in mind, Caldwell guided his team to a 14-2 record and a Super Bowl appearance in his first year as a head coach.
The decline from there was fast and steep. Even at his best, Caldwell was regarded as a caretaker. His only real job was to not screw up a good thing. The Colts had Peyton Manning throwing to Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. They were destined to be a good team, and Caldwell just needed to let it happen.
In that regard, Caldwell did just fine. He had perhaps the easiest job in the NFL, as he could simply let Manning do most of the work. The two had an excellent working relationship dating back to 2002, when Caldwell was brought on as the Colts quarterbacks coach.
To be fair to Caldwell, the coach did have a big effect on the pupil. Before Caldwell joined the Colts, Manning had never thrown fewer than 15 interceptions in a season. With Caldwell as his guide, Manning threw 15-plus interceptions only twice in eight years.
The Wheels Fall Off
While Caldwell's facial expression always looked a little lost, he seemed to be doing a solid job. When Manning missed all of 2011, though, the wheels fell off. The Colts' roster was built around Manning, to the point that the talent at other positions was lacking.
With no suitable backup quarterback either, the Colts were doomed. No amount of brilliance from Caldwell could have changed that.
That having been said, the quarterbacks guru saw his backups struggle on the way to a 72.2 team passer rating and just six yards per attempt.
Adam Schein of FoxSports.com offered one of the most comdemning testimonies in a 2011 article:
What are his skills? Why should he stay on in Indy? If you disagree with my take, enlighten me on his strengths. His in-game management has always been suspect, starting with his disastrous and goofy clock management at the end of the playoff loss to the Jets last year that had Manning shaking his head from the sidelines.
He is supposed to be an offensive coach and a quarterback guru. Have we seen that? His winless team has appeared flat and uninterested.
Caldwell saw his star fade during the 2011 season, culminating with his eventual termination. Without Manning, he was nothing but a joke, to the point that an internet meme showcasing his lack of emotion became popular on Thesportsgeeks.com.
A Fresh Start
The Colts let Caldwell go in the 2012 offseason, and the Baltimore Ravens snatched him up with relish to coach the quarterbacks. They wanted a personal coach for young quarterback Joe Flacco, who had his best year with Jim Zorn as his quarterbacks coach. A year later, Caldwell would be an apt replacement.
The response was not enthusiastic. If Caldwell couldn't get anything out of three different quarterbacks in 2011, how could he improve Flacco?
To be sure, the improvements were not immediate. In fact, the Ravens offense was so inconsistent that they fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron after another offensive lull against the Washington Redskins.
A Great Opportunity
Instead of thinking that Caldwell was the problem, though, the Ravens viewed him as the solution, or at least as a stop-gap answer.
Caldwell wouldn't change the playbook, but he would change the attitude and communication of the Ravens offense. He would give Flacco the freedom he had always longed for, he would open up the playbook with better balance and more varied passes and he would always retain a close relationship with his quarterback.
All of that proved true.
Under Caldwell, the Ravens averaged 146.3 rushing yards per game, well over the team's season average of 118. Caldwell recognized that the strength of this offense was Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, and he called his plays accordingly.
That opened things up for Joe Flacco, who averaged more than nine yards per attempt in the playoffs, compared to just seven yards per attempt in the regular season.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated offers an excellent look at Flacco's numbers after the switch. Flacco's yards per game didn't change much, going from 247 under Cameron to 248 under Caldwell, but Flacco's efficiency improved exponentially. Flacco's yards per attempt increased by a whole yard under Caldwell, his touchdown-to-interception ratio went from 2:1 to 15:1 under Caldwell and his passer rating went up 20 points.
The impact on Flacco's mechanics and confidence were huge, but Caldwell's play calling also had a great effect. He increased the tempo of the offense, running more no-huddle, and he also dialed up a few plays worthy of individual recognition.
In fact, Caldwell was credited with the prettiest play-call of the Super Bowl by Pro Football Focus. The scouting website praised the misdirection here, as the Ravens ran a pseudo-roll out goal-line pass that usually goes into the flat. On this particular play, Flacco stays in the pocket, though, and throws over the middle of the field to a wide open Dennis Pitta.
The more relaxed policies regarding audibles was also helpful for Flacco, who relished the chance to pick apart defenses with his mind as well as his arm.
One of the most important plays in the Super Bowl was a 3rd-and-1 fade route to Anquan Boldin that went for 15 yards. Flacco had audibled out of a run to take advantage of the single coverage, something that probably would not have happened under Cameron.
Finally, Flacco and Caldwell simply click. Both are low-key, slightly dull individuals, whereas Cameron had a little more fire to him that didn't always mesh with Flacco.
With Caldwell at the helm long-term, expect a breakout season from Flacco. Caldwell's knowledge of opponents' weaknesses, calm demeanor and encouragement of on-the-fly adjustments has fit right in with Flacco and the Ravens.
He helped make them a champion. Now, he will help make them an offensive juggernaut.