January 3, 2018
2018 – the year of the new coach: Caldwell
exit follows Ausmus; Wings are on the clock
By KEITH GAVE
Say what you will about departing Lions coach Jim Caldwell, but my lasting memory of him will be of the final seconds of his final victory in Detroit as players came off the field. He was smiling. Beaming actually, as one by one his players greeted him with handshakes and hugs. Maybe a few tears, too.
“Should old acquaintance be forgotten. . .”
Not likely by this group, most of whom loved their coach like a second father. It’s a profession, I know. Big business. These guys are being paid big bucks to do a job and win enough football games to deliver a championship to a success-starved football town.
But at its core, what’s more, important to most of us when we send our kids out to the sandlots to play organized sports than who is coaching them? What is he teaching them? Are we comfortable with that? Are our sons or daughters in good hands? Are they safe?
As a coach, and as a man, Jim Caldwell ticks all my boxes. I’d be grateful to put my kids under his tutelage. They’d be better people for the experience.
Granted, despite his modest success – three winning seasons, two playoff appearances – Caldwell didn’t win enough in Detroit. He acknowledged. And there were some glaring deficiencies and a few outright gaffes.
I do not dismiss for a minute his team trying to defend with against the Pittsburgh with nine men on the field – just a week after they gave up a passing touchdown with only 10 defenders. This game more than difficult most weeks for the Lions when they played all 11 guys.
Nor will I dismiss his inability to win against the better teams in the league, or the crushing losses in must-win games against weaker teams like Baltimore and Cincinnati that cost the Lions another playoff berth, and, inevitably, led to Caldwell’s dismissal.
But let’s give credit where it’s due, too. In the four years, he was here, Caldwell changed the culture of a team with one of the worst reputations in the NFL – a team that was impossible to admire, hard to like even among its own fan base thanks to the despicable head coach Jim Schwartz and his team of deplorable.
Now the future lies in the hands of a man yet-to-be-determined. GM Bob Quinn came in two years ago and kept Caldwell on perhaps against his better judgment. Now he’s interviewing candidates with his own neck on the line. Quinn cannot afford to make the wrong hire, or he’ll be the next to be shown the door.
Among the candidates is Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who has interviewed unsuccessfully for several head coaching jobs in recent years. This is what’s known as a “courtesy interview.” No way Austin is getting this gig. Caldwell took the rap, but it was Austin’s defense caught shorthanded in consecutive weeks. That’s unacceptable for a rookie coordinator.
Other prominent candidates include New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, with whom Quinn has a longstanding relationship from his tenure with the Patriots, and Houston defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, who spent eight years on the Pats’ defense while Quinn was there.
Both seem like good candidates, but my preference is Vrabel – widely considered a rising star in the coaching ranks. He’s remindful of a young Bill Cowher, who won two Super Bowls in 15 wildly successful seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers. (The Lions kept Wayne Fontes and kept losing when they could have hired Cowher in 1992 when the Steelers did.)
Regardless of whom Quinn decides to hire as his coach, he’d better also deliver a key missing component or the new guy will have no chance. Vince Lombardi or Tom Landry couldn’t win with this team. Not without a shred of a running game. So Quinn’s challenge is double-pronged: hire the right coach and draft a kid who can carry the football. If that means trading every draft pick to move high enough up to get Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, then so be it.
Caldwell’s departure follows Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus, whose firing for most of us came two years too late. And the drumbeat continues in downtown Detroit, where the ax can’t fall soon enough on Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill.
If the Wings can’t find some semblance of consistency – at least tease fans enough by at least competing for a playoff spot that may already be out of reach – then-GM Ken Holland (under the gun himself these days) will have no other choice than to make a change. This franchise cannot afford to see many more empty seats at its new arena.
All this said, there’s absolutely no guarantee that a new boss on the bench or sidelines will change anything at all. The Tigers, who finished last in the majors this season, will almost certainly approach 100 losses again. The Wings, truth be told, would be better off tanking for the best shot at drafting defenseman Rasmus Dahlin (remember that name, folks). Both teams, whether Holland acknowledges it or not, are in full rebuild mode.
The Lions, with some serious playmakers on both sides of the ball, ismuch closer to delivering an inspiring playoff run, which makes this coaching vacancy one of the most coveted of many in the NFL.
In other words, the new guy should come in just as Caldwell left.
Let’s hope for a happier new year
Good riddance to 2017, a massive year for sports news in our neighborhood – too much of it bad. Here’s a recap of some memorable moments:
10. Lions quarterback Matt Stafford signs the richest-ever NFL contract.
And he earned every penny. As Terry Bradshaw said on FOX’s NFL telecast: “If a flea can pull a wagon, hitch him up.” Stafford hitched this team to his golden right arm and carried it to a 9-7 record that, save a ridiculous NFL rule that cost the Lions a game against Atlanta, and ultimately a playoff berth should have been 10-6.
9. Piston’s advance to the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.
Good timing, too. “April in the D” could have been awfully boring without them.
8. Lions back into the playoffs, but fail to score a touchdown in a first-round loss.
In losing their final three games, they blew a chance to host a post-season game at Ford Field.
7. Michigan State flips their 3-9 record from the previous season.
And then the Spartans routed Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. (PS: The would have won similarly in the Outback Bowl, which for reasons on its committee can explain, selected Michigan over Michigan State. They're bad.)
6. Michigan loses at home to both Michigan State and Ohio State and finishes 8-4.
And for an encore, the Wolverines blow a 19-3 lead late in the third quarter and fall to South Carolina, 26-19, in the Outback Bowl. Coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t going anywhere, of course; who would have him? But he’d better start delivering for all that money he’s collecting (I didn’t say earning.)
5. Justin Verlander gets his World Series ring.
Yeah, it was with the Houston Astros. Still, one of the rare feel-goodmoments for us last year, wasn’t it?
4. Michigan State doctor accused of rampant sex abuse of dozens of athletes, including champion gymnasts, pleads guilty of child porn-possession.
This story is long from over; Michigan State may face the same kinds of repercussions that Penn State did in the Jerry Sandusky aftermath.
3. Red Wings’ “tradition” of making the playoffs for 25 straight seasons is over.
Right now, they’re a long, long way from getter back into the Stanley Cup tournament, as well.
2. Tigers begin their rebuild with a massive sell-off, starting with J.D. Martinez and continuing with Justin Upton and, eventually, Justin Verlander.
It continues over the off-season, too, with Ian Kinsler traded. Who’s next, Michael Fulmer? Maybe, if not likely. It’s going to be ugly for a few years, folks.
1. Mike Ilitch dies.
Arguably no man in Detroit history had a greater impact on sports in the city than Ilitch – and he would have it no other way. He owned two teams and, with his generous checkbook, built two dynasties – although his Tigers, despite four straight Central Division titles and two trips to the World Series, failed to deliver a Series title.
In the end, some of his decisions and questionable spending put both of his teams in dire straits. Still, fans of both teams forgave him because he tried. Damn it, he tried. And that’s all we can reasonably expect, right?
Happy 2018, everyone.
Keith Gave’s new book, “The Russian Five, A story of espionage, defection, bribery, and courage,” is available for pre-sale on Amazon.com. Watch this space for local appearances and book-signings.
Follow on twitter @KeithGave