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April 18, 2019

Measuring Jim Caldwell: What the Jets and NFL GMs can learn from the Lions’ great mistake

January 9, 2019

Jim Caldwell went 9-7 for the second straight season in 2017 as head coach of the Lions. Lions general manager Bob Quinn claimed nine wins were not enough and fired him. In 2018, the Lions finished 6-10.

At the time Quinn rationalized “we didn’t beat the really good teams.” In 2018, the Lions lost to the Jets, 49ers and Bills. Now the Lions can’t seem to beat the really bad teams.

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Bob Quinn is an arrogant idiot, but other GM’s can learn from his mistakes.

This past week Caldwell had interviews with the Browns, Packers and the Cardinals, and is expected to meet with the Jets next week. If the Jets are smart, or any team with a young developing quarterback is smart, Caldwell would be their next hire. It’s actually a no-brainer.

Jim Caldwell was fired by the Lions despite a winning record and a rare playoff appearance for Detroit. (George Bridges / AP)

The continued development of a Sam Darnold, a Baker Mayfield, a Josh Rosen, or a Jameis Winston is just not something a good GM wants to leave to chance. In an NFL where “great offensive mind” and “quarterback guru” are regularly applied to young white untested offensive coordinators, Caldwell has actually earned those labels.

Peyton Manning, who averaged 20 interceptions his first five years, has regularly praised Caldwell for his valuable role in his early development as his quarterbacks coach. As head coach, they went to the Super Bowl in their very first year after only one trip in his first 11 years. As Ravens offensive coordinator, he also won a Super Bowl with Joe Flacco in their first year. And then there is Matt Stafford:

83.1 with 24-37 record for Stafford before Caldwell

93.7 with 36-28 record for Stafford with Caldwell

After years of continuous improvement under Caldwell, Quinn messed with a great thing. Stafford posted his highest career passer rating of 99.3 in 2017. This year, it regressed back to 89.9, and the Lions offense dropped from 7th to 25th despite the key addition of rookie running back Kerryon Johnson.

When I say “Quinn is an arrogant idiot,” I mean it. As a GM, he never took the time to objectively measure Caldwell’s true value against the talent on the roster. Instead he hired his unproven Patriots friend Matt Patricia.

Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn
Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn (Carlos Osorio / AP)

The Lions fall was entirely predictable – no matter who the next coach was.

From purely an analytical and historical perspective, Caldwell’s back-to-back 9-win seasons with such a starless roster was an NFL coaching marvel. Caldwell’s Lions roster simply lacked the 4-7 Pro Bowlers that almost universally populate every single playoff team’s roster. That’s on Quinn.

Take the 2016 Lions who went to war with only one Pro Bowler, kicker Matt Prater. Those Lions beat the otherwise 8-6 Vikings twice, and Washington, to leap-frog both superior teams into the playoffs. The D.C. team had five Pro Bowlers, the Vikings had six. In the playoffs, the Seahawks boasted seven Pro Bowlers plus some guy named Russell Wilson. Then the clock struck midnight.

Back then, I wrote on Caldwell’s incredible Cinderella story and his “invisibly-brilliant coaching legacy,” and stated “he cannot keep overachieving like this. History says so. As soon as the NFL’s most underrated coach stops squeezing two or three extra wins out of his talent – he will be gone. I predict after next season.”

My prediction was half-wrong. In 2017, Caldwell kept squeezing out extra wins. Quinn fired him anyway.

The 2017 Lions had two Pro Bowlers – Darius Slay, and newly acquired T.J. Lang. The average number of Pro Bowlers on every NFC playoff team was six.

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For Bob Quinn and emotionally-driven critics, Caldwell just “didn’t get the job done” or just “can’t take the Lions to the next level” while conveniently forgetting his immediate Super Bowl visit with the Colts, or that he was the one calling the Super Bowl plays for Flacco.

For others, the answer was simple – get Jim Caldwell some damn playmakers every other playoff coach has.

We love stats and facts to assess players, but just not head coaches. Let’s do something radical, and pretend Caldwell was a player, and objectively measure his career.

1. MEASURING CALDWELL WINS VS. NATIONAL MEDIA PREDICTIONS (6.8 WINS)

At least three national media outlets offered preseason predictions for all four of Caldwell’s Lions years.

23-41 – USA Today

29-35 – CBS Sports

32-32 – ESPN

36-28 – Jim Caldwell’s Record

Jim Caldwell’s Lions record easily surpassed all preseasons predictions, his Lions predecessor Jim Schwarz (29-51 record), and had the best winning percentage in Lions history.

By 2016, Caldwell lost his two best players Ndamukong Suh and Calvin Johnson to free agency and retirement, and Quinn joined the team as GM. The Lions roster holes under Quinn were well-known – by absolutely everyone. Below is a review of 12 available national media preseason predictions for Lions under Quinn.

National Media for 2016/2017 Lions: Average Prediction is 6.8 WINS

4 wins (3): 4-12, Sporting News & Pro Football Focus (2016); CBS Sports (2017)

5-7 wins (4): 5-11 USA Today (2017); 6-10, PFF (2017); 7-9 CBS Sports; USA Today (2016)

8 wins (3): 8-8, ESPN (2016 & 2017); Fox Sports (2017)

9+ wins (2): 9-7, Sports Illustrated (2017); 11-5 Sporting News (2017)

That’s right. National media outlets were more likely to predict a 4-12 Lions record than a record of 9-7 or better. Overall, national media predicted an average of only 6.8 wins. What about playoffs?

National Media: Only 4% Predict Lions Will Make the Playoffs

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In 2016 and 2017, panels of experts from NFL.com (35), Sports Illustrated (22), CBS Sports (14), USA Today (10) offered 71 preseason playoff predictions for both years.

Preseason Results: A whopping 96% predicted the Lions would MISS the playoffs.

Actual Results: They Lions made it in 2016, and were three inches away from making it again in 2017 after a controversial ending in a Falcons game.

2. MEASURING CALDWELL WINS VS. DETROIT FREE PRESS (7.1 WINS)

What about Detroit sports media? Three outlets had teams of writers offer 2016/2017 predictions?

Predicted Lions Wins before 2016/2017 (total # of predictions):

7.1 WINSDetroit Free Press (8)

7.6 WINSThe Detroit News (10)

While slightly more favorable, Caldwell again exceeded all team predictions. Most revealing is the 7.1 average wins predicted by the Detroit Free Press, the local area’s largest and most influential media outlet. The Detroit Free Press is extremely clear-headed about the Lions roster every September – just not so much in December.

In 2016, the newspaper stated “all four have Lions with losing records” while citing the retirement of Lions great Calvin Johnson, the roster’s “potentially fatal flaws,” “injury concerns at almost every position,” and that the “Lions remain a joke” with “too many holes to be taken seriously.” In 2017, citing roster holes and injuries once again, only one of four DFP writers predicted Caldwell’s 9-7 record.

After the season. Multiple DFP member’s called for Caldwell’s firing instead. And soon after, so did GM Bob Quinn. If you followed the local press, Quinn’s perverse logic about beating “good teams” rang familiar. Quinn’s claim cowardly scapegoats Caldwell for his own failures as a GM, and unfairly shifted the goalposts.

Caldwell was no longer being measured by his overall record, but some arbitrary sub-record – a type of hyper-scrutiny not uncommon for successful black coaches. With Caldwell, it was not beating “good teams.” For Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, his many “FireTomlin” critics charge he loses too often to “bad teams.” Teams generally tend to be good or bad, so exactly which type of loss is acceptable?

Jim Caldwell was accused of being too popular with his player.
Jim Caldwell was accused of being too popular with his player. (Gary Landers / AP)

Caldwell critics regularly turned his strengths into flaws. He was loved and respected by his players who overachieved for him. After his firing, prominent Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom had a different take:

“You know what tipped me that Caldwell’s effectiveness was waning?” Albom wrote. “Every player loved him. Even after disappointing losses, they hailed him as a great guy. In the NFL, that’s not a good sign. It often indicates mediocrity being tolerated.”

Does it really? And what is your evidence of that?

“In a league where all that counts is winning, a swift sword is needed. Being liked is unimportant. Players should be put off by their demanding coaches. Lombardi? Landry? Belichick? How often did you hear raves about what great guys they were?”

Other player-coaches from this century like Tony Dungy, Pete Carroll, Mike Tomlin and Doug Pederson might all vehemently disagree. In 2018, Albom’s logic is not just a relic from another time, but it embodies nearly every single unfair Caldwell criticism: big on perception, but short on substance. Let’s keep measuring.

3. MEASURING CALDWELL VS. OTHER COACHES

Let’s take a look at two other existing, well-respected coaches during Caldwell’s Lion’s tenure who are all still coaching in this year’s playoffs.

2014-2017 Coach Record, and Total # of Pro Bowlers

32-32 – John Harbaugh – 18 Pro Bowlers

32-32 – Sean Payton – 13 Pro Bowlers

36-28 – Jim Caldwell – 7 Pro Bowlers (31st fewest in NFL)

Caldwell is Super-Bowl-connected to both men. As Colts head coach, he once met Sean Payton in a Super Bowl that was ultimately decided by a late 4th quarter Peyton Manning interception. With the Ravens, he was the Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator who called all the plays in Joe Flacco’s unlikely Super Bowl run.

Peyton Manning raves about Jim Caldwell's work in making him a better quarterback.
Peyton Manning raves about Jim Caldwell’s work in making him a better quarterback. (Paul Sancya / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

With the Lions, Caldwell outperformed these coaches despite fewer Pro Bowlers. From a roster perspective, Sean Payton is Caldwell’s most useful coach parallel.

While Caldwell was busy leading the Lions to the playoffs twice in his first three years, the Saints went 7-9 those three straight years. That’s right. Despite the great Drew Brees, Sean Payton was just stuck at seven wins.

Brees needed help. So what changed? Instead of firing Payton, or claiming that “seven wins are not enough,” Saints GM Mickey Loomis did his job, and restocked the Saints roster.

In two years, Loomis drafted three Pro Bowlers, and impact rookies including Michael Thomas, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, and traded up in the 2017 draft to get Alvin Kamara. Running back was Caldwell’s greatest need, but Quinn passed on Kamara in the 2nd round to draft cornerback Teez Tabor. Kamara was the next running back taken in the draft.

Had Quinn drafted Kamara instead, Caldwell would have been looking at least 11 wins in 2017. The Saints are the No. 1 playoff seed today at 13-3, and the Lions are 6-10 because Loomis outperformed Quinn and was smart enough to keep his coach and protect his special coach-QB relationship.

When Quinn failed Caldwell, he also failed Matt Stafford.

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4. MEASURING CALDWELL VS. CLOSE GAMES (22-15)

Before hiring Patricia, Quinn said he was looking to hire a new coach good at “situational football” a very popular criticism of Caldwell critics who like every other team’s fans question his “game management.” Once again, the data says the exact opposite.

Under Patricia, the Lions lost five games by at least 14 points, and another blowout loss to the Bears that ended up an illusory 12-point loss. Six blowouts in a year are unheard of for Caldwell, whose Lions never exceeded two blowout losses in any year.

About 90% of NFL coaching happens Monday through Saturday, and fundamentally-sound Caldwell coached teams rarely get blown out. Caldwell was a master at keeping the Lions competitive in games other coaches lose by half-time. As a result, the majority of Lions games were close one-score nail-biters – as all Lions fans know.

Caldwell’s Lions were 22-15 in in those one-score Lions games. You’re welcome Lions fans.

Jim Caldwell deserves to be a head coach in the NFL, the facts don't lie.
Jim Caldwell deserves to be a head coach in the NFL, the facts don’t lie. (Jose Juarez / AP)

Caldwell’s near 60% win-rate in close games with a starless roster devoid of playmakers suggests he was pretty damn good at “game management” or “situational football.” Had more of his close losses ended in 2018 scores of 48-17 (Jets) or 27-9 (Vikings), he might have avoided the situation altogether.

Caldwell’s critics can recite every last alleged bad play call in each of those 15 losses while forgetting the 22 wins. And if they do recall, they often assign credit to now-fired OC Jim Bob Cooter or Matt Stafford. Under Caldwell, Stafford thrived with 20 game-winning drives in four years. Does Stafford just have a natural knack for pulling out close games? No. He doesn’t.

Without Caldwell, Stafford is 13-25 in his other one-score games in his career.

Like Caldwell once did with young Peyton Manning, he immediately helped cut down on his interceptions. Caldwell put Stafford in offensive schemes where he was most comfortable, and that maximized the use of quick throws and no huddle offenses.

“He’s a smart offensive coach,” Stafford told the Detroit Free Press last year. “He puts our team in the right situations to succeed, and that in turn helps me out.”

This could be Sam Darnold.

If you follow Caldwell’s Lion’s critics closely, not everyone thinks Caldwell is smart at all. Despite Caldwell’s documented overachievement, he has many second-guessing critics, and it’s not just Quinn.

There is a peculiar NFL phenomena where the more close games a head coach loses, the dumber fans will think their coach is. That’s ANY coach. And if you’re specifically a black head coach, too many close losses become a permanent stigma on your intelligence.

If there is a team’s fan base that is pleased with their coaches’ “clock management” skills, I’ve never met them. The difference is Andy Reid does not get his cognitive skills questioned.

If John Harbaugh and Sean Payton blow their 2017 seasons by allowing inexcusable fourth quarter miracle touchdowns to Andy Dalton or Case Keenum, it’s a forgivable and forgotten mistake. When Caldwell’s Lions lose to an Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary in a meaningless 2015 game in 2015, Detroit media will never stop writing about it.

Shortly before his firing, Joseph Hayes wrote how Caldwell’s hot seat was tied to racism. After Caldwell’s firing, economics professor David Berri studied the firing of all winning NFL coaches since 1978, only 6.9% of white coaches had ever been fired after a winning record, but 23.5% of all winning black coaches have.

“What accounts for this?” asked associate professor Lou Moore, “For one, black coaches are not part of the good ol’ boys club. Head coaching gigs are about networking, opportunities, and reputation.”

After firing Caldwell, Quinn said otherwise: “This is a results business. This is wins and losses.”

And yet today, Quinn and Patricia somehow still remain employed.

While Quinn and Caldwell critics absolutely deserve Matt Patricia, Caldwell absolutely deserves to be employed as an NFL head coach.

A review of 120 separate preseason predictions shows Caldwell was producing winning seasons with a 7-win rosters. If results really do matter, it appears Caldwell’s biggest coaching flaw was his inability to part The Red Sea.

Jim Caldwell is not just a good coach – but an elite one. And rarely has one so undervalued ever become so available.

If the Jets value Darnold’s development, and their own future, they better move fast.

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