KRAVITZ: Caldwell, a victim of timing and circumstances, has the Lions on the right path

Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell watches from the sideline in the second half of an NFL football NFC wild card playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - He punted on the Colts’ perfect season. That is what the locals will remember about Jim Caldwell, currently the Detroit Lions’ fourth-year head coach.

He lost the Super Bowl. That is what the locals will remember about Caldwell, despite the almost unquestionable fact that if the onside kick hadn’t hit Hank Baskett in the facemask, the Colts would have won that game and won their second Super Bowl during the Indianapolis era.

He called an ill-conceived timeout. That is what the locals will remember about Caldwell, how he called a foolish timeout with the Jets driving for a game-winning score in the playoffs, gift-wrapping a chance at another play, which resulted in an 18-yard pass completion to Braylon Edwards and ultimately resulted in the game-winning field goal.

He went 2-14. That was what the locals will remember about Caldwell, whose management team failed to have a backup plan for the injured Peyton Manning and collapsed like a house of cards.

Here’s what the locals don’t remember, beyond the man’s basic humanity, decency and deep intellect.

They don’t remember that it was Bill Polian, the stubborn and strong-willed general manager, who made that regrettable decision, a decision that still sits badly with fans and most of the players on that team. Caldwell always said he was fine with that decision; he is, above all, a good soldier and understands how the organizational chart works. But if you shot him up with sodium pentothal, I still wonder what he might say about that call.

“He was a great guy, but I just think his hands were tied, to be honest with you,’’ Robert Mathis said after Caldwell was fired after the 2011 season. “He didn’t have the flexibility to do all that he wanted to do. However you want to take that, that’s just the truth of the matter.’’

They don’t remember that the Colts were well on their way to taking out the Saints in the Super Bowl, leading by 10 early in the game, only to come undone when Pierre Garcon dropped a pass right in his hands, followed by the Baskett miscue. Remember, too, that Dwight Freeney was playing on a bum ankle that looked like a bowling ball in the days leading up to the game

They don’t remember that in his second year, he did one of the best coaching jobs in the league, leading the Colts to a 10-6 record and the AFC South division title despite a spate of injuries, especially to the receiving corps. That playoff loss to the Jets, Blair White (remember him?) and Jacob Tamme combined for 11 catches and 100 yards, just to give you an idea how decimated the Colts were.

They don’t remember that it was Polian, not Caldwell, who failed to come up with a decent backup plan should Manning, who was coming off neck surgery, fail to play that season. I’m sorry, but Vince Lombardi couldn’t win with Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky. Even through that horrific season, the Colts continued to play hard but not particularly well.

In the end, Caldwell was a victim of circumstance and bad timing, and isn’t timing just about everything in life? When Jim Irsay realized that Chris Polian couldn’t get the job done, resulting in Chris and Bill Polian’s exit, the coaching decision was left to the new guy, Ryan Grigson, who ultimately decided he wanted his own guy. That ended up being Chuck Pagano.

Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell answers a question from a reporter during the NFC Head Coaches Breakfast at the NFL football annual meetings Wednesday, March 29, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

I’m not going to sit here all these years later and insist that Caldwell shouldn’t have been fired after the 2011 season. It’s not that he didn’t do the job or couldn’t do the job, but a new GM should always have the freedom to surround himself with his own guys, and Caldwell wasn’t Grigson’s guy. (In the end, Pagano wasn’t Grigson’s guy, either, but that’s another story.) The Colts were in massive-rebuild mode, moving from Manning to Andrew Luck, so it only made sense to clean house and start with a tabula rasa.

It’s nice, though, to see that Caldwell not only moved on, but had massive success. He replaced Cam Cameron as the offensive coordinator in Baltimore and guided Joe Flacco and that offense to a Super Bowl victory over San Francisco. Now, heading into his fourth season in Detroit, Caldwell has been to the playoffs two out of three seasons, a feat that’s downright Herculean when you consider Detroit’s sad football history.

“It’s just his consistency, how steadfast he is, when maybe you haven’t seen success on Day One, he’s still consistent in what he does because he knows what the results will be,’’ said Alan Williams, the Detroit secondary coach who worked as a Caldwell assistant in Indianapolis. “His methods are tried, true and tested. He knows what he’s talking about offensively and defensively, he knows how to motivate people.

“I’d hate to say he’s the same coach he was here [in Indianapolis] because that suggests he hasn’t grown, but he’s improved. He’s been in Baltimore, too, so he learned some things there and certainly cut his teeth with Coach Dungy. I don’t know if there’s one thing specifically because he’s always motivated people well and he’s always run a tight ship, people love playing for him, so those things are still true.’’

During his time as the Colts’ head coach, Caldwell came across as quiet and understated, speaking so softly, the media had to strain to hear him. Then I saw his introductory press conference in Detroit, where his oratory blew everybody away, and it was like he was a new man.

“You all [in the media] may not have heard it, but we [as a staff] we heard it,’’ Williams said. “Sometimes they say a prophet is never welcomed in his own home. People hear about a great man and they think, `Well, he’s a weak coach,’ but that’s not the case whatsoever. He’s as strong a coach and disciplinarian as there is and that’s something people on the outside don’t see sometimes.’’

It’s hard to argue with the results. The Super Bowl run in 2009. The championship in Baltimore. Two playoff appearances in three years in Detroit. And that doesn’t even mention his work as Indy’s quarterbacks coach, when he tutored Peyton Manning and helped him produce some of his best-ever seasons.

Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell talks with Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano during practice at the NFL team's football training camp Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

It was like old home week for Caldwell these last two days at the Colts practice facility, Caldwell making the rounds and saying hello to several of the support personnel who were here when he was in Indy. I said hello, too, and I did what I always do, what I always did when Caldwell was here: I asked him for a book suggestion. You think Andrew Luck has a book club; he’s got nothing on Caldwell, a voracious reader. “Book suggestions?’’ Williams said, smiling. “He suggests libraries. The man just devours everything. He’s one of those people who can sleep four, five hours a night.’’

On this occasion, Caldwell suggested “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win.’’

“Tell me what you think after you read it,’’ he said.

Excuse me now: I’ve got some reading to do.

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