Jim Caldwell may have been the Detroit Lions’ most successful coach in the Super Bowl era.
That was not enough to save his job.
The Lions fired Caldwell on Monday after a season in which the team raised hopes before fading and missing the playoffs for the second time in three years.
Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford called Caldwell “one of the finest leaders we’ve ever had as our head coach.”
“Not only did he guide us on the field to three winning seasons, but he also set a standard of excellence off the field that had a tremendous impact on everyone in our organization and our entire community,” she said in a statement.
“As many of our players have already said, his influence on them transcended the game of football and will positively serve them throughout their lives. Our organization is better because of Jim, and we are forever grateful.”
Caldwell received a multiyear contract extension before the season, but the team didn’t announce the move for months.
The Lions beat Green Bay 35-11 Sunday to finish 9-7, their third winning record in Caldwell’s four years. Detroit met relatively modest expectations this season after a promising start that left the team at 3-1 and 6-4. But the Lions then dropped out of post-season contention by losing three of their next five.
Caldwell was 36-28 with Detroit and 0-2 in the post-season. Including three years with the Indianapolis Colts, he is 62-50 and 2-4 in the playoffs.
When Caldwell was hired almost four years ago, he was working for a franchise with only one winning season in a 13-season stretch.
“We’re going to be smart,” Caldwell said when he was hired Jan. 14, 2014. “We’re going to be a football team that takes the field that’s not going to shoot itself in the foot.”
Detroit’s defence, though, was short-handed in consecutive games late in the season.
The Lions were down a player for a snap when Minnesota scored a touchdown in a win at Detroit on Thanksgiving and were missing two players when Baltimore converted a third down to help it take a two-TD lead in a victory. After bouncing back with two straight wins, the Lions lost what shot they had to rally for a spot in the playoffs by losing to Cincinnati in Week 16.
Even as it became clear Caldwell’s job may be in jeopardy, he took it in stride.
“That’s part of our business,” he insisted going into his last game as Detroit’s coach. “That’s kind of the way it goes. That’s every year, right? I told you guys a story a long time ago about Marty Schottenheimer. He got fired at 14-2. So anything less than a Super Bowl, obviously it could happen.”
The Lions have never played in a Super Bowl. And since winning the 1957 NFL title, they have won only one playoff game and that lone victory was in 1992.
Caldwell, who led the Colts to the Super Bowl nearly seven years ago in his first season as an NFL head coach, got off to a solid start in Detroit with 11 wins in 2014 that was the franchise’s best regular season since 1991.
His second season got off to a slow start with a 1-7 record. But the team rallied for a 7-9 finish, and general manager Bob Quinn stayed with him. When the Lions hired Quinn shortly after the 2015 season, he kept Caldwell around for a third season. The Lions were 9-7 in 2016, putting Caldwell in company with Bobby Ross and Buddy Parker as Detroit coaches to earn playoff bids in two of their first three seasons.
He became Detroit’s first coach to have at least three winning seasons in his first four years since the early 1950s.
Caldwell didn’t scream at his players and showed an interest in their lives off the field.
“I love Caldwell,” receiver Marvin Jones said. “I’ve been here for two years and he’s the best coach I’ve ever had. Everybody is quiet two minutes before his meetings because he demands respect without yelling. He doesn’t yell at all. You never want to disappoint him. We just had to make more plays for him.”
He went 16-8 against NFC North teams, but wasn’t able to help the franchise win its first division title since 1993.
In each of Caldwell’s four years of leading the Lions, they ranked among the NFL’s worst in yards rushing. That glaring weakness put a lot of pressure on quarterback Matthew Stafford and a shaky line, leading to an offence that struggled to move the ball and score consistently.
“He does a great job in our locker room help getting us ready to go play football,” Stafford said days before the season finale. “And the rest is up to the players to go out there and make plays and win games.”
Larry Lage, The Associated Press