Septeber 19, 2016
Same old Lions? Not quite. Caldwell
knows it, and feels pressure already
By KEITH GAVE
If the Lions play many more games like Sunday’s debacle against Tennessee at Ford Field, coach Jim Caldwell won’t finish the season.
Don’t misunderstand me. In more than 30 years of sports writing and broadcasting, I’ve rarely called for the firing of a coach or manager (though I’ll confess to questioning the Tigers’ inexplicable infatuation with Brad Ausmus). I don’t do that. Those guys have really hard jobs – as easy as it seems to us when we’re watching from the couch with a beer in our hands.
I believe Caldwell is a good man – and a good coach. I thought so when they were 1-7 to start last season. But there’s simply no reasonable explanation for all that yellow laundry on the turf at Ford Field other than a dearth of discipline and accountability that cost the Lions a victory.
They were flagged 17 times for 138 yards against a team they were dominating early in the game. Penalties cost them dearly on both sides of the ball in a game that ended 16-15 when the defense couldn’t stop the final Titans’ drive that ended in the go-ahead touchdown. Detroit got the ball back with more 1:37 remaining and three-time outs, but its drive ended when Matthew Stafford threw an interception.
It should never have come to that, though, and Caldwell knows it. He also knows it’s on the coaching staff.
“Too many penalties, without question,” Caldwell told reporters after the game. “I mean, time and time again we take it into the end zone, it’ll get called back for one infraction or another, and (after) some pretty sizeable gains as well. We let them off the hook a couple of times with a couple of defensive penalties. Seventeen penalties, that’s disappointing. We’ve got to get that straightened away – and get it straightened away quickly.”
The Titans were called for 12 penalties, costing them 83 yards. But Stafford believes they should have been called for one more when he was cut down by a defender with a questionable hit in the final drive.
“I felt like I got a low hit,” said Stafford, who was animated in his discussion with an official after the play. “The ref said if he wraps up, then it’s OK, so I don’t know that rule well enough, apparently.”
Which penalty was most costly? Take your pick, but arguably it was one the Lions said they didn’t deserve when tight end Eric Ebron was flagged for pushing off before catching an apparent touchdown pass, part of a 17-play drive that failed to end with six points.
“That was a tough one,” Stafford said. “How many penalties did we have, 15, 17? Can’t do that. It’s tough to get into a rhythm. But you know, we did it to ourselves out there. Mistakes, drops, penalties. You name it, we did it. It’s on everybody.”
No, it’s on Caldwell, and two games into the season he’s well aware that he has a crisis on his hands.
“All I know is we need to stop the infractions, plain and simple,” he said. “That’s my job. I’ll get those guys straightened out in that area.”
He’d better, because as much as his team looked like those “same old Lions” to a lot of us, he understands there is one monumental difference. This is a franchise that no longer is willing to stay the course, when the course is mediocrity (or worse). A welcome sense of urgency has descended on the team’s Allen Park headquarters, and it’s been that way since Martha Ford took control of the team and ordered a thorough house-cleaning in the front office.
The mandate was explicit: win, or we’ll find people who can. That new front office has this holdover coaching staff on a short leash. Whether those penalties are the result of a lack of discipline or simply competing too hard – which Caldwell is prone to think – he’d better fix it fast.
His team will need to play better in Game 3 of the season this weekend at Green Bay, which will be in angry mood after squandering a lead and the game in a loss Sunday at Minnesota
It would help, too, if Caldwell could get some of his banged-up defenders back on the field. The Lions were missing five of their top six linebackers on Sunday – yet they still played well enough to win.
“You can’t use stuff like that as an excuse,” a testy Caldwell said at his Monday news conference. “Our job is to get guys in position to get out there and play. We’ve got to get guys ready to step in and do the job, which we did.”
The penalties are another matter, and already he was sick of talking about it.
“That’s how it goes,” he said, clearly losing patience with the line of questioning from reporters. “All too often, teams that lose wind up talking about ‘what if.’ We’ve got to make our own breaks. We don’t make any excuses about anything.”
That was the best and smartest thing Jim Caldwell could have said, because he knows better than anyone there is no reasonable excuse for the way his team played Sunday.