It might be time for Jim Caldwell to go in Detroit

CINCINNATI -- Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell couldn't totally explain it. In a game his team had to have, a game to keep his team’s season alive, his players made mistake after mistake. They didn't gain control at any point.

And it all leads to one thing -- really, the question that’s been bubbling for parts of three seasons now in Detroit. Who will be in control of the Lions six months from now and should it be Caldwell? Caldwell's job has been in question since the middle of the 2015 season, when the Lions started out 1-6, leading to the firing of his offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Less than two weeks later, the team president and general manager were gone.

Caldwell survived that season and was retained by new general manager Bob Quinn after he spent a week learning about the head coach he inherited. Even last season, when the Lions made the playoffs, there were questions about Caldwell's job security because of how it ended -- four straight losses to playoff teams.

Detroit signed him to an extension this offseason. He seemed safe. Then earlier this month, after two straight losses where the Lions never led, the "multiyear" extension turned out to be only one year guaranteed. And Caldwell went right back to the hot seat again.

It seemed like making the playoffs again might save him, but now that's impossible. So what does that mean for his future? Even he doesn't seem to know.

"You know what, any time you lose in this game, everything's up for consideration, all right," Caldwell said. "What we have to be concerned about is getting our team focused again, ready to go. We can end up 3-1 in the quarter, that's not where we want to be but it ends up with a pretty decent clip just in terms of if you can get to 3-1."

Caldwell can still focus on the micro picture of one game because that's all that’s left in this season -- and perhaps in his tenure, depending whether or not Quinn decides Caldwell is still the coach who can give Detroit its first playoff win since the 1991 season or its first division title since 1993.

If Quinn thinks he can, then maybe he keeps him. If he doesn't 100 percent believe that, though, then it's time for Caldwell to go. But if Quinn chooses to keep Caldwell again, he also must know his tenure as general manager will become much more tied to the successes and failures of a coach he inherited instead of hired.

Lions owner Martha Ford, who has not spoken publicly in over a year, declined comment as she was driven out of the stadium on a golf cart. Team president Rod Wood also declined comment on Caldwell's future outside the Lions' locker room.

Caldwell said he hasn't spoken with anyone in the Lions' front office about his future -- although considering the hide-and-seek nature of Caldwell's extension, it's tough to truly know what conversations have happened and what have not. Remember, the Lions and Caldwell agreed when the extension was signed not to announce it publicly, only to have it leak later on.

Caldwell wouldn't defend his tenure Sunday. He said "those things are not up to me," when asked if he's done enough to return. Caldwell is 35-28 in Detroit. He's made the playoffs in two of four seasons, but hasn't won a playoff game.

Moreover, Caldwell is a damning 3-23 against teams that finished the season with winning records in his tenure with the Lions -- including 0-6 in 2016 and 1-6 this season. Those are rough numbers.

But the real way to judge it is this: The Lions have to wonder now if they are better now than they were a year ago. Are they trending in the right direction? And can Caldwell be the person to take the Lions to a place they haven't been in decades?

Caldwell was asked if his team is still trending in the right way Sunday afternoon. He wouldn't say yes. He wouldn't say no.

"Well, I think that's one of the things that you can just look at it and make an assessment yourself," Caldwell said. "We'll look at it ourselves after it's all set and done next week and we'll make a determination. You look at record-wise, where we are, we still got one game to go."

Yes, a win over Green Bay in the season finale Sunday would give Detroit an identical 9-7 record to what it had last season. But that team made the playoffs and was dispatched of handily in the postseason 26-6 by Seattle.

This year's team, in a more competitive NFC, won't even get there. Detroit put itself in this position early with losses to New Orleans, Carolina and Atlanta. It sealed it with a two-possession loss to an under-.500 Bengals team.

"I think we definitely had a team to make a run," linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. "And as you see how the season went, it was just up and down. We didn't play good consistently enough to really make that run."

When asked who is to blame for that, Whitehead said everyone. And he's right. The coaches can only do so much. They can't keep Don Barclay from thinking he was on a different count on the penultimate drive of Sunday's 26-17 loss to Cincinnati, leading to a false start. He also picked up a holding call.

But it's also the coaches who came up with consistently questionable game plans and it's the coaches who never seemed to be able to fix the consistent slow starts throughout the past two seasons.

Most players didn't want to comment or speculate on Caldwell's future. Kicker Matt Prater said he "definitely, absolutely" thinks Caldwell should return for a fifth season.

Those decisions, though, are mostly in the hands of Quinn. He has a week to figure it out.