Jim Caldwell fired after 4 seasons as Detroit Lions coach

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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Jim Caldwell leaves the the field after the 30-23 loss to Vikings at Ford Field, Nov. 23, 2017.

Jim Caldwell led the Detroit Lions to three winning records in his four seasons as coach, but the team’s inability to do anything more ultimately cost him his job.

The Lions fired Caldwell and offensive line coach/assistant head coach Ron Prince on Monday morning, one day after they closed the season with a 35-11 win over the Green Bay Packers.

Caldwell posted the highest regular-season winning percentage (.563) of any full-time Lions coach in the Super Bowl era, but his 36-28 record included just four victories over teams that finished above .500, and he went 0-2 in the playoffs.

"I believe Jim is one of the finest leaders we’ve ever had as our head coach," Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford said in a statement released by the team. "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.

“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. We wish Jim, his wife Cheryl and the entire Caldwell family all the best that life can offer."

General manager Bob Quinn will embark immediately on a search for a replacement, one that’s expected to include two of his former colleagues with the New England Patriots, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

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Patricia, 43, has never been a head coach at any level, but he’s widely respected as a defensive mind. This year, his unit overcame a slew of injuries to finish in the top 10 in scoring defense.

McDaniels went 11-17 in his only previous stint as a head coach, when he was fired during his second season with the Denver Broncos in 2010. Now 41, he's in his second go-round as play caller for the Patriots, who led the NFL in total offense this year.

Jim Caldwell reacts in the first half of the Lions' 52-38 loss to the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Oct. 15, 2017 in New Orleans.

The Lions can begin interviewing potential replacements immediately, though candidates on playoff teams cannot be hired until their season is over. Assistants on teams that play in the wildcard round this week must wait until after their first game to interview, while coaches on teams with first-round byes — like the Patriots — have until Sunday to conduct their first interview.

Already, the team has formally submitted interview requests for Patricia, Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel and Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, according to reports.

With eight to 10 projected vacancies this year, the Lions could have competition for some of the top candidates.

The New York Giants job, considered one of the best in the NFL, came open last month, the Oakland Raiders and Indianapolis Colts jobs came open Sunday and the Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals are among other expected vacancies.

Caldwell, who turns 63 on Jan. 16, inherited a team coming off back-to-back losing seasons when the Lions named him their 26th head coach on Jan. 14, 2014.

He led the Lions to an 11-5 record and wildcard appearance in his first season as coach, before leveling off the past three seasons. The 11 wins tied for the second most in franchise history.

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Lions coach Jim Caldwell with quarterback Matthew Stafford before a game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 18, 2017.

The Lions started the 2015 season with seven losses in their first eight games, then rebounded to go 6-2 in the second half of the season. Quinn replaced Martin Mayhew as general manager after the season, and after a week of mulling his options decided to keep Caldwell as coach.

Last year, the Lions stumbled into the playoffs with a 9-7 record – they lost their final three games of the regular season, including a Week 17 game at Ford Field against the Packers that decided the NFC North – and didn’t score a touchdown in a wildcard loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

And this year, they won another nine games, but couldn’t take advantage of a wide-open division after Aaron Rodgers broke his right collarbone. The Lions went 3-3 down the stretch, with a home loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving and no-show performances on the road against the Baltimore Ravens and Bengals.

The Lions had nine defenders on the field for a key third-down play against the Ravens, and they were eliminated from playoff contention last week in Cincinnati.

Caldwell declined in recent days to speculate about what his team’s feeble finish would mean for his job status, though many across the league expected a change would be made.

Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, left, and president Tom Lewand, right, with new head coach Jim Caldwell at Ford Field on Jan. 15, 2014.

At the news conference to announce his hiring four years ago, Caldwell declared he believed in providence and that "there’s a reason why I’m here. And I think without question that is to win a championship."

More recently, he acknowledged the Lions have been “just a little bit above average” during his time in Detroit and that “a little bit above average is not good enough."

Many Lions players voiced their support for Caldwell before and after Sunday’s season finale, saying they felt he was the right person to lead them into 2018 and beyond.

All, though, acknowledged the reality of the situation he was in.

"Whenever you don’t make the playoffs heat’s coming, especially with the way our division was set up," safety Don Carey said. "So as the head man, he has to take it on."

Contact Dave Birkett: Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett

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