Why Jim Caldwell Won't Work in Detroit
My favorite part of the 2008 blockbuster that finally put comic book movies on the map in Hollywood, The Dark Knight, is the final scene. Bruce Wayne is the embodiment of all of life's material pleasures, a millionaire playboy whose extraordinarily successful business is merely another toy in his collection. But here, we see him as Batman, "The Dark Knight", an incorruptible character, yet one of vengeance and distrust. Batman tells Commissioner Gordon to pin Harvey Dent's accident on him in order to martyr him. As Batman runs into the night, Commissioner Gordon's son comments, "He didn't do anything wrong," and Gordon replies, "He's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now."
So, why do I draw so dark of an analogy for the hiring of Jim Caldwell to be the next Detroit Lions' head coach? This hiring should be a sigh of relief for Lions fans everywhere: a coach who was partly responsible for the Colts' 2006 Super Bowl title and 2009 appearance in the championship game is now heading their organization. They should be thrilled that the interim offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens during their own magical 2012 Super Bowl run was, in fact, Jim Caldwell.
Heck, they should even be pretty pleased with Caldwell leading the 2011 Colts to two wins with the "sterling" talent of Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky, and Kerry Collins under center while Peyton Manning went under the knife (seriously, that's kind of impressive).
Should people be upset about this hiring?
There has been a widespread negative reaction (on Twitter at the very least) to the hiring of Jim Caldwell, but what do the numbers say? Owners and fans tend to judge a coach on his wins and losses, but we know better than that. By using the Net Expected Points of the offenses Caldwell coached for, we can truly see just how effective or ineffective he has been as an NFL coach since coming into the league in 2001. To do this, we'll consider not just the years he was a coach, but also the years prior and after, to see just what kind of effect he had on the teams during his tenure.
In 2000, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers skidded along to a middle-of-the-pack 16th-ranked Adjusted Pass NEP (adjusted for strength of schedule), and starting quarterback Shaun King earned himself a fairly dismal 20th-ranked Passing NEP score among qualifying quarterbacks (min. 300 pass attempts) that year as well.
The following offseason, former Washington quarterback Brad Johnson was signed to helm the offense, and Jim Caldwell was hired to revamp the team's mediocre passing attack. In 2001, Caldwell's effect should have been felt, but the Buccaneers' Adjusted Passing NEP rose only to 12th in the league, while Johnson (who himself had ranked 16th in Passing NEP the year before) barely improved his own performance to 14th. Caldwell left after just one season with the Bucs.
We must consider, however, what happened after Caldwell left. In 2002 and 2003, Tampa Bay's team offense slipped to only 13th in the league, while Johnson himself leapt up to 8th and 12th, respectively. Caldwell's arrival brought with him a slight offensive improvement, yet the after-effects of his tenure seem to indicate that this was more of a result of better quarterback play on the whole than Caldwell's coaching in specific. For the Buccaneers specifically, at least.
The Colt Knight
In 2002, Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy hired Caldwell to be his assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach to Peyton Manning, and Caldwell's career appeared to be on the rise too. For a quick background, in 2000, without Caldwell, Indianapolis ranked second in both total team Adjusted NEP and team Adjusted Pass NEP. 2001 saw them fall to sixth and eighth in the respective categories.
Caldwell's first season with the club didn't bring change, however, as the 2002 Colts ranked eighth in Adjusted NEP and sixth in Adjusted Passing NEP.
But the next season, something seemed to click, as the club ranked first in both categories for four straight years. They would not even finish outside the top three in either category from 2003 to 2008.
It's hard to say whether this dominance was more a result of Peyton's greatness, Dungy's offensive genius, or Caldwell's effect on his star signal-caller. Two key things to consider, though, are that Reggie Wayne broke out in a big way in 2003, his third in the league, and the Colts also drafted a dual protector and target for Peyton that year in tight end Dallas Clark.
2009 rolled around and Tony Dungy retired, leaving the team in the hands of his personally selected successor. It seemed to be a match made in heaven: Dungy's protégé and Peyton's mentor, Caldwell, would now be running the whole show in Indy. That year the Colts didn't miss a beat, ranking third in both Adjusted NEP and Adjusted Passing NEP. They also made their second Super Bowl with a team nearly unchanged from the Dungy regime.
Still, like The Dark Knight was the high water mark of the new Batman franchise, so was Super Bowl XLIV for the Jim Caldwell-led Colts. In 2010, the offense still hummed, but was clearly faltering. Were Manning not the quarterback, it might have been much worse, but even with him the Colts dropped outside the top three in Adjusted Passing NEP for the first time in six years. Manning himself, after ranking first in passing efficiency among qualifying passers every year but two since 2003, dropped to third again.
When Manning was lost for the 2011 season, the best the Colts could muster was a paltry 28th-ranked passing offense. Even the defense plummeted after Tony Dungy retired, finishing 15th, 19th, and 28th respectively from 2009 to 2011. Needless to say, Jim Caldwell was fired in disgrace.
Yet, as surprising as it may seem, in his darkest hour all was not lost for our coaching anti-hero. The Baltimore Ravens had assembled the 13th-ranked offense in the league before Caldwell took a humbling demotion to be the quarterbacks coach for the 2012 squad. Trapped behind offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's bland approach to play calling in the early part of 2012, however, Caldwell was able to have little input in the offense. On December 10th, Cam Cameron was fired by the Ravens, head coach John Harbaugh promoted Caldwell to interim offensive coordinator, and the Ravens supposedly roared their way to a Super Bowl title.
But is that the real story? From Week 13 on, the Ravens team offense rose to 10th from 13th in the league, and their passing game actually sank from 13th to 19th. In 2013, Caldwell was named the official offensive coordinator as a reward for his unit's "success" at the end of 2012. Yet, this year, the Ravens offense dropped exponentially, ranking 27th. One of the most telling indicators of a failure on Jim Caldwell's part in Baltimore was Joe Flacco's own performance. His rankings in Passing NEP among qualifying passers since being drafted: 24th, 13th, 13th, 14th, 17th (the year Caldwell became his QB coach). This year? 22nd, the lowest mark he'd seen since his rookie campaign.
There is nothing more damning to a supposed quarterback guru than a sharp drop-off in quarterback production coinciding perfectly with his tenure.
With Jim Caldwell now the new boss in Detroit, I don't expect many things to go well for the Lions. The data is pretty irrefutable that Caldwell's magic touch with quarterbacks seems to have waned. Some may point to Matthew Stafford having more natural talent than Joe Flacco, but we can certainly look at Passing NEP data among qualifying passers since Stafford's joined the league to see how they match up, and it's not so one-sided.
In Stafford's years in the league so far, he's ranked (excluding the injury-shortened 2010): 25th, 5th, 14th, 11th. While it's certain that Flacco does not have the high upside that Stafford does, it's also fairly evident that they played at a nearly identical level during their first four seasons in the league. While I hate to say this, there could be toxic results for a young quarterback who has said recently that he "doesn't do quarterback coaches" paired up with a head coach whose strongest credentials were essentially gifts from the greatest passer in history.
Add in the fact that Caldwell clearly didn't have a clue how to draft or coordinate the other side of the ball during his head coaching tenure in Indianapolis, and the Lions' supposedly-vaunted-but-actually-middling defensive unit (only 14th in Adjusted Defensive NEP in 2013) may gradually fall apart in a few years' time if Caldwell doesn't bring in a very good coach to fill his defensive coordinator position.
We'll see if this pans out, but until then I'll join the tweeting masses in panning the hire of Jim Caldwell in Detroit. Jim Schwartz was clearly not the head coach to take them to the next level, but I don't believe Caldwell will be either; much like the end of The Dark Knight Rises, we'll all be left wanting more and thinking about what might have been.