Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel |
Winning not enough for Caldwell with Lions
It wasn't long ago that a 9-7 record would have been celebrated in Detroit. Now, it's considered disappointing enough that it cost Jim Caldwell his job.
Caldwell was fired the day after the season when the Lions missed the playoffs for the second time in three years. One of the NFL's darlings to start the season, the Lions had a legitimate chance to win their first division title since 1993 when Aaron Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in mid-October. But rather than contend for the NFC North, they stumbled to the finish with three losses in their final six games and proved once again they couldn't beat the best teams on their schedule.
General manager Bob Quinn said he thought the Lions' talent merited more than nine victories, and in some ways he was right. The Lions got a strong season out of Matthew Stafford and the passing game, they fielded an opportunistic defense that forced 32 turnovers, third most in the league, and they had one of the best special teams units in the NFL.
Unfortunately, they also lacked depth on both lines, and that caught up to them as the season wore on. The running game was non-productive ... again. The Lions started 11 different units on their offensive line, and never got enough pass rush out of their defensive front. Ziggy Ansah once again battled injuries at defensive end, major free-agent additions Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang underperformed their contracts, and the Lions now await to see who will be their next coach.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: The Lions had the seventh-highest scoring offense in the NFL as Matthew Stafford took advantage of a deep group of wide receivers. Stafford finished third in the league in passing, and Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay emerged as viable deep threats. On defense, Darius Slay tied for the NFL lead with either interceptions, and punt returner Jamal Agnew had two of the Lions' seven defensive or special-teams touchdowns.
WHAT WENT WRONG: The offensive line was a major disappointment as injuries and inconsistent play wreaked havoc on the unit. The Lions started 11 different combinations up front, Stafford was the second-most sacked quarterback in the NFL, and the Lions couldn't run the ball no matter how hard they tried. Defensively, the Lions were equally as bad against the run after Haloti Ngata was lost to a torn biceps.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Rick Wagner. The Lions made him the highest-paid pure right tackle in the NFL and he certainly didn't play that way. Wagner gave up a handful of sacks early in the season as he adjusted to his new surroundings, then struggled with an ankle injury in the second half of the year.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: Quandre Diggs. Diggs appeared to be on the outs after a disappointing and injury-shortened 2016, and the Lions spent a second-round pick on Teez Tabor and some free-agent dollars on DJ Hayden for the cornerback position. But Diggs won the nickel job in training camp, then transitioned to safety late in the season after Tavon Wilson's injury. He intercepted three passes in December and should have a new position going forward.
ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: Cornerbacks coach Tony Oden. Historically a weak spot, the Lions' secondary was a strength in 2017. The front office stocked the unit with good depth, and Oden helped transform Tabor into a valued contributor as the season went along. Darius Slay is the star of the unit, and he's improved every year under Oden's tutelage.
Jim Caldwell was one of the most successful Lions coaches in the Super Bowl era, but general manager Bob Quinn said he made the difficult decision to fire him early Monday morning because he did not believe Caldwell could take the organization to a Super Bowl.
"We didn't get there," Quinn said. "We worked at it for two years and we didn't get there. So that's the decision that I came to."
The Lions went 36-28 in Caldwell's four seasons as head coach, but failed to win a playoff game.
Quinn said he was swayed to try and find new leadership in part because of the Lions' struggles against good teams. Under Caldwell, they went just 5-23 against teams that finished with winning records, and had bouts of major sloppiness in this season's final month.
Now, the third-year general manager will make the first coaching hire of his career - he inherited Caldwell when he took over for Martin Mayhew in January of 2016, and was never part of a coaching search in his previous stint with the New England Patriots - and he said he has several traits in mind for Caldwell's successor.
"Leadership. Situational football. Willingness to adjust and adapt to scheme to players. Really just someone that can lead this team with the players we have and the players that we will acquire and put them in the best position to win," Quinn said. "Being a head coach in the National Football League is not an easy job, so they come in all shapes and sizes. Offensive coordinators, defensive coordinators, special teams coaches, so it'll be something that's going to spend a lot of time researching, that I've started to do this morning, and we'll continue down that road."
The Lions' search focused on mostly defensive-minded assistants and it is expected that Patriots defensive coordinator will be officially hired after the Super Bowls.
As for Caldwell, Lions players said they were sad to see him go, but understand the nature of the business.
"Obviously we didn't do what we needed to do and obviously we wish something would have happened differently to create a different outcome," wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. said. "But the fact of the matter is we didn't, so it's always tough."