Jim Caldwell stood at the podium at the Detroit Lions practice facility earlier this week, and as he’s done so many times throughout his tenure as the team’s head coach, took questions about his future with the franchise.
These questions spanned parts of three seasons when a seemingly innocent one was asked: If he signed an extension, would he tell the media?
“No,” Caldwell said before pausing. “That’s the honest truth.”
Turns out it was more true than anyone other than Caldwell and some within the Lions organization knew. Caldwell already had a contract signed -- for months. He just chose to play the question-and-deflect game with the media because, well -- that’s not entirely clear.
Signing Caldwell is a vote for continuity within a franchise that has shown progress over the past three-plus seasons. Caldwell has made two playoff appearances in his three seasons and has his team at 2-0 entering Sunday against Atlanta. He has the support of ownership. In her last public comments in January, 2016, team owner Martha Ford said “I love Jim Caldwell.”
He has the support of his players, who came to his defense whenever questions about his future were posed during the team’s rough start in 2015 and mini-collapse last season. They appreciate his honesty and how he tailors practices to take care of players. He also hired a strong staff, led by coordinators Teryl Austin (defense) and Jim Bob Cooter (offense), who also could end up as head coaches before too long.
There was also a synergy between Caldwell and the man who decided to retain him and then extend him after he was hired, Bob Quinn. Both Quinn and Caldwell have said how often they meet during the day and how many conversations they have about the future of the club. It was clear for a while that Quinn would be part of it. Now, Caldwell will be too.
It’s an extension Caldwell deserves because of his team’s record and performance. Of that, there’s little question. But the future? What Caldwell has done to date won’t be good enough anymore -- and what he’s done has also raised some questions about the club in the long term.
The Lions have twice had chances to lock up the club’s first divisional title since 1993. In both 2014 and 2016, the Lions lost decisive games that cost them NFC North titles, sending them on the road for postseason games that they eventually lost. It extended a streak without a playoff win dating to the playoffs after the 1991 season. In 2015, the Lions lost seven of their first eight games. Caldwell was the main holdover from a front office cleaning that cost Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand -- the men who hired Caldwell -- their jobs.
It’s unlikely Caldwell’s type of results so far -- not securing divisional titles, not winning playoff games -- will be good enough for the franchise in the future. Remember, at their core, Quinn and team president Rod Wood come from places of winning. Quinn has Patriots philosophy throughout his entire history. Wood, before he took over the Lions presidency, was an extremely successful businessman.
Both Quinn and Wood appear to be betting on Caldwell being able to reach a level of success with Detroit that he has been unable to get to consistently. Quinn and Wood want a winner. They could have taken a wait-and-see approach with this season. They could have also gone in a different direction in two straight offseasons now.
If it works, Caldwell, Quinn, Wood and quarterback Matthew Stafford will be viewed as legends in this city that has been starved of winning at football. If it doesn't, and the Lions remain in mediocrity or worse, it’ll be on all of them.