The Lions just announced the hire of Jim Caldwell as their new head football coach. The hiring immediately caused me to wonder what was going on in the Lions front office for this to happen. It seems like an obviously bad hire to me, but instead of just simply saying that, I decided to look a bit into it and see if the evidence matched my perception.
First things first. Here are Caldwell’s offensive rankings as a head coach and offensive coordinator:
What this list does not include is the playoff stats and the last three games of the 2012 Ravens season, when Caldwell took over for Cam Cameron. Joe Flacco’s three regular-season games under Caldwell are as follows:
Which, by the way, was worse than his averages for the full season. Fortunately, Flacco went on a very good playoff run, putting up 1140 yards for a 10.78 AY/A, and 11 TDs to 0 interceptions– although he still only completed 58% of his passes. Is this four-game stretch, along with the years Caldwell had coaching Peyton Manning, enough for a team to put their faith into him?
Before going more into the hire, let’s discuss Caldwell’s offense. Throwing on tape of the 2009-2010 Colts, they look similar to the Colts I became accustomed to watching for years before with Manning under center. They ran a lot of “rub” routes (plays where the WR’s cross each other to “pick” the defender so he has to take a bad path to the WR), out routes, and attacking the deep corners of the cover-2. It’s what the Colts had done throughout Manning’s tenure. The one difference was the team ran a bit more hurry-up. But remember, Caldwell had been on the Colts staff for nearly a decade by the time of his firing; he was not going to reinvent the wheel with Manning at QB.
So then comes 2011. Do I put a lot of blame on Caldwell for the failure of the offense in 2011? I’m not going to crucify him: when a Hall of Fame QB disappears from your offense, it’s going to collapse no matter who is coaching. The problem is that the entire team, not just the QB position, completely imploded that season. In Caldwell’s first two years his defenses were respectable– not terrific, but also not terrible. In 2011 they turned in a terrible performance. The offense looked stagnant, and Caldwell never adjusted it. They were still in the bottom three in rush attempts and 21st in pass attempts. Again, losing Peyton ended the season before it even started, but there was nothing in Caldwell’s performance from that season that would have inspired the “offensive guru” label that’s now attached to him.
Now, onto Caldwell’s time with the Baltimore Ravens. As we noted earlier, Flacco had a terrific playoff run. Caldwell was the OC for that. He deserves however much credit you are willing to give him for that. Overall, his 7 games as an OC for the 2012 Ravens weren’t anything world changing. But in the 4 games that mattered most, the offense was on, scored points, and won a title. That’s terrific. But then 2013 comes, and Joe Flacco has the worst season of his career. Yes, Flacco’s 2013 season was actually worse than his rookie season, where he was a quarterback from an FCS school jumping straight to starting in the NFL. Don’t be fooled by Flacco’s yardage numbers; they are purely from high usage. He threw 19 TDs against 22 INTs, his highest INT% of his career; he had his lowest yards per attempt; he took the most sacks of his career (with a slightly better sack% than his 2010 campaign); and he had the worst ANY/A of his career.
Caldwell’s offense did not even take advantage of Flacco’s best skill– his ability to throw the ball deep. Flacco threw fewer 20+ yard passes this year than ever, and even with that in mind, Flacco’s efficiency numbers to the deep part of the field were dramatically worse than last season’s, as you can see below. (The first image is 2012, while the second is 2013. Taken from ProFootballFocus.com)
Notice how in 2012, Flacco threw 16 TDs and 0 INTs, but in 2013, in fewer attempts, managed 1 touchdown to 8 interceptions.
OK, so to give Caldwell the benefit of the doubt, maybe numbers aren’t everything. Maybe Caldwell can evaluate talent, draft well, and develop that talent. Now with the Colts, this claim is a bit dicey, as Bill Polian and Chris Polian were the heads of personnel there, so it’s unlikely Caldwell had final say over anything, but I imagine he had at least some input into the roster. The Colts first pick during the Caldwell era was Donald Brown. Their 2009 draft continued by adding Fili Moala, Jerraud Powers and Austin Collie. In 2010 the Colts drafted Jerry Hughes and Pat Angerer. 2011, the team added Anthony Castonzo and Ben Ijalana.
Of those players, Donald Brown could not get on the field and gave us this gem:
Moala showed a little bit this year but overall has been a bust. Powers was another bust. Collie was a bust; he performed decently early with Peyton throwing to him but couldn’t stay healthy. Hughes exploded with a terrific season this year (for Buffalo), mostly because he moved to OLB in the 3-4 from Caldwell’s 4-3, where he was looking like a bust. Angerer is teetering on bust. Ijalana never played a game for the Colts. Castonzo is almost certainly the best pick during the Caldwell era; at worst he is a league average to good player.
I’d also like to add that Caldwell, who was the QB coach in Indy prior to his head coaching job, was given the job of grooming 2009 sixth-round pick Curtis Painter into a viable QB; this came after he failed to groom Jim Sorgi. Painter still has a job in the NFL, somehow, but Caldwell lacked such confidence in him in 2011 that he brought in 39-year-old Kerry Collins to run the offense and eventually gave the reins to Dan Orvlovsky. You mostly remember Orlovsky as the QB who walked out of the endzone when Jared Allen was charging at him and who ultimately led the Lions to their 0-16 season. Again, the Polians should get the vast majority of blame for the draft picks, but Caldwell deserves to be discussed in their failures as well.
So Caldwell has failed to impress me with his offensive numbers and he’s failed to impress me with his track record of drafting and developing talent. Well, a coach can be like Marvin Lewis and make terrific hires for assistant coaches, to help mold these players and pass off these responsibilities to those coaches. How good were Caldwell’s coaching hres? Of the coaches on Caldwell’s Indianapolis staff, Alan Williams is the only one to still have a coordinator position in the NFL (which he likely no longer will once the Vikings find their next head coach), Larry Coyer is out of the NFL entirely, Clyde Christensen was demoted from OC to QB coach of the Colts, and Ron Turner went to the college ranks to be a head coach. The well-known Tom Moore has moved to the Arizona Cardinals to be an assistant head coach.
But hey, even despite that, maybe Caldwell could put together a great staff in Detroit. The initial rumors are that Jim Tressel is the leader for the offensive coordinator position, though, so I will not be holding my breath on “hiring a good staff” being something Caldwell is going to do well.
But maybe Caldwell is an in-game innovator, going for it on 4th-and-short properly, or maybe having some feel for timeout usage, or maybe we can just find anything that could give us confidence in his management of the game:
Yup. Caldwell called a timeout to GIVE the Jets a better chance at winning a playoff game. And they did; the Jets kicked a 32-yard field goal and the Peyton Manning-led Colts lost 17-16 to the Mark Sanchez-led Jets.
The hiring is just baffling to me. No, I did not sit in on his interview. No, I do not know what his plans for the Lions’ future are. I also cannot say he has not improved and learned from his past mistakes. Maybe a tenure on a team run by an overbearing president and GM and with a Hall of Fame QB isn’t the best way to evaluate a coach. So should we give Caldwell the benefit of the doubt? I just can’t imagine how we could. Nothing Caldwell has done gives me the least bit of confidence that going forward he is going to be a good hire for the Lions. It just confuses me that another failed retread gets hired.
So to answer the question of “Why Jim Caldwell?”, I say, I don’t know. I don’t know how he was ever seriously considered for the job, and I am blown away that he was given a second chance so soon. It is a hire basically based on a four-game stretch of Joe Flacco and two years with Peyton Manning. And to me, that is unacceptable.
On the positive note for Lions fans, Caldwell is an upgrade from Jim Schwartz, who I considered the worst coach in the NFL this past season. That’s a low bar to clear, though.