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Jim Caldwell Made the Lions Competent, but He Couldn’t Make Them Contenders

In his four years leading Detroit, the coach brought consistency to a franchise that traditionally has lacked stability, but his inability to take the team to the next level cost him his job

Jim Caldwell Associated Press/Ringer illustration

Jim Caldwell, the expressionless, eternally unblinking head coach who has been Detroit’s unofficial “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster since 2014, has been fired just one day after he led the Lions to back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in two decades.

The Lions signed Caldwell to a contract extension in 2017, but that deal only guaranteed him through the 2018 season, so the franchise will only need to buy out a single year of the coach’s pay. He finishes 36-28 in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs during his four years with the team.

Caldwell was hired in Detroit after one of the most mercurial rides imaginable in Indianapolis. The coach lost a Super Bowl to the Saints in 2009 during his first season with the Colts and was fired two seasons later, after going 2-14 without quarterback Peyton Manning. In Detroit, Caldwell brought something Lions fans hadn’t seen in decades: consistency. The Lions made the playoffs twice in four years after making one appearance in the previous 14. Detroit finished with 11, seven, nine, and nine wins under Caldwell, marking the first time the franchise had four consecutive seasons with seven or more wins since the Nixon administration.

Yet Caldwell failed to deliver Detroit’s first division title since 1993. In 2014 and 2016, Caldwell’s Lions lost to Green Bay in Week 17 matchups that served as de facto division title games. The Cardiac Cats were perhaps the most clutch team in the league during Caldwell’s tenure, but his offense failed spectacularly in its attempts to establish a running game, and the defense that was third in the league by DVOA in Caldwell’s first season finished dead last in 2016. He also may have cursed the team, based on how many horrible calls have gone against Detroit since he took over.

New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has been floated as a possible replacement for Caldwell, but whoever Detroit hires will need to build upon the respect he earned in the locker room while fielding a balanced team that plays with more discipline. Lions fans should hope that the team can retain offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who has diversified Detroit’s passing attack and will be up for head-coaching gigs around the league. Caldwell made the Lions competent, but Detroit is still waiting for someone to make them great.