O'HARA: Caldwell has the best chance to win ... now

Posted Jul 27, 2014

Unlike his predecessors, head coach Jim Caldwell has not inherited a rebuilding project.

Dominic Raiola sees an advantage Jim Caldwell has that was lacking for the four previous Lions head coaches Raiola played for in their first training camp.

Caldwell has a chance to win.

Unlike Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, Rod Marinelli and Jim Schwartz, Caldwell has not inherited a rebuilding project. Caldwell and his staff should be putting the finishing touches on a team that did not play up to its talent level the last two seasons under Schwartz.

The atmosphere for the first practice of training camp Monday afternoon at Allen Park is one of a team that has an expectation – and possibly a mandate – to win.

Jim CaldwellCoach Jim Caldwell (Photo: Detroit Lions)

“This is the best chance of any head coach who’s come in, in the first year, to win,” Raiola said Sunday afternoon.

“This is the best chance to win – right now.”

Mornhinweg was a rookie head coach who had a good reputation as an offensive coordinator when Raiola got to the Lions in 2001 as a second-round draft pick. Mornhinweg inherited a roster of aging players that was depleted by injuries throughout the 2001 season.

The Lions lost their first 12 games under Mornhinweg and finished 2-14.

Mornhinweg’s successors did not fare much better in their first seasons with the Lions. Their won-lost records ranked near the bottom of the league: 5-11 under Mariucci in 2003; 3-13 under Marinelli in 2006; 2-14 under Schwartz in 2009.

There is no way the Lions should come close to any of those records this year. They ought to contend with the Packers and Bears for first place in the NFC North.

The Lions did not sign a bunch of aging veterans this past offseason like those in previous regimes who were brought in as much for how they could change the team’s culture as for what their talent could contribute on the field. And in many cases, those contributions were minimal and short-lived.

Free-agents signed this year were for specific talent upgrades, led by wide receiver Golden Tate and safety James Ihedigbo.

The Lions were 7-9 last year but had the talent – and opportunity – to do considerably better. They had a stranglehold on first place in the NFC North with a 6-3 record but faded badly, going 1-6 the rest of the way to miss the playoffs and cost Schwartz his job.

Raiola made a reference to the roster Schwartz inherited in 2009. Schwartz took over a team that had the  historic 0-16 record in 2008. The roster has been steadily upgraded since that low point in franchise history.
Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew and DeAndre Levy were part of the 2009 rookie class. Calvin Johnson was in his third season. Ndamukong Suh was in his final season at Nebraska.

“It was a complete overhaul,” Raiola said of the ’09 team. “We’ve been a part of a couple of them. It’s not a complete overhaul (this year).

“The cornerstones of this team are older. We have them here already. You’re not trying to develop it.

“They’re here.”