Based on the candidates they were reportedly interested in, two things were obvious in the Lions' search for a new head coach. First, they wanted someone with previous head coaching experience. They also wanted more of a mild-mannered type. After five seasons with the fiery Jim Schwartz, Detroit interviewed several candidates known for their calm demeanor. The Lions eventually found a candidate who checked both boxes, hiring former Indianapolis head coach Jim Caldwell.
"We believe Jim is the right man to lead our team and deliver a championship to our fans," Lions owner William Clay Ford said in a statement from the team. "We had a very specific plan and profile for our next head coach, and I am convinced that we found that man in Jim Caldwell."
There is no question Caldwell fit the mold Detroit was looking for and he comes with excellent recommendations. Tony Dungy sang Caldwell's praises to multiple media outlets throughout the process. He even spoke with Lions management and personally recommended Caldwell. Peyton Manning praised Caldwell during the playoffs last season and other former players have also said how good of a person and coach Caldwell is.
The question in Detroit now becomes whether Caldwell's resume and ability as a coach can live up to his recommendations. Dungy made the same glowing comments when Caldwell was hired as the Colts' head coach in 2009. Three seasons later, Caldwell was fired. When Caldwell took over for Dungy, he inherited a well-oiled machine. The Colts had Manning and were coming off seven straight playoff appearances. Indianapolis started 14-0 in Caldwell's first season and even reached the Super Bowl. They dropped to 10-6 the next season, losing at home to the Jets in the Wild Card round. Manning didn't play the following season, the Colts dropped all the way to 2-14 and Caldwell was fired.
Even when the Colts were winning, Caldwell drew criticism for game management issues. Manning's injury obviously played a big role in the Colts' decline, but how much? Here is what Clark Judge of CBS Sports wrote when Caldwell was fired:
I know, Peyton Manning didn't play. But are you going to tell me the Colts were that bad? I don't think so. Caldwell went because the Colts think there's someone better out there ... or, at least, Grigson does, and I'd agree.
Essentially, what Caldwell demonstrated this season is that without Manning he couldn't succeed. Well, I know a coach in New England who lost his quarterback and still finished 11-5. I know a coach in Houston this season who lost his star defensive player, his top two quarterbacks and his top wide receiver for much of the season ... yet still made the playoffs and won a game there.
My point is: Caldwell demonstrated nothing more to the new regime than he knows how to position himself for Andrew Luck.
Caldwell spent the last year and a half as the offensive coordinator in Baltimore. He took over for Cam Cameron during the 2012 season and the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl. There is no question the move had a positive impact. With Caldwell in charge, the Ravens' offense improved considerably and Joe Flacco played the best football of his career. The only problem is the success didn't last. In his first full year as the offensive coordinator, the Ravens dropped to 29th in yards, 25th in scoring and dead last in yards per play. Caldwell has been praised as an offensive guru who can take Matthew Stafford and company to the next level. Yet, his offense in Baltimore this season -- with the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL under center -- was the least effective in the league.
Caldwell had even less success in college. He compiled a 26-63 record as the head coach at Wake Forest and was fired after eight seasons. That included a 12-52 record in conference play. Jim Grobe took over for Caldwell and the Demon Deacons improved from 2-9 to 6-5 in his first season. His mediocore resume as a head coach and coordinator doesn't have Sean Yullie of Pride of Detroit and other Lions fans very excited:
With a job opening that was seemingly so attractive on paper, is Jim Caldwell really the best the Lions can do? I get that he led the Indianapolis Colts to a Super bowl and won a ring with the Baltimore Ravens. However, there are extensive concerns about his in-game decision-making, he went 26-63 as a head coach at Wake Forest and his only NFL success as a head coach is directly tied to Peyton Manning and a team that was already a winner when he took it over. Plus, his only real success as an offensive coordinator is a four-game stretch where Joe Flacco played out of his mind. In Caldwell's one season as the full-time offensive coordinator, the Ravens struggled so much that he might have been forced out if the Lions hadn't hired him.
Caldwell proved he could succeed with Peyton Manning as his quarterback. Without him, the verdict remains very much in doubt. He'll have plenty of talent to work with in Detroit, led by Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush. His references may have helped him get the Lions job, but now it will be up to him to prove he was the right man for it.