O'HARA: Jim Caldwell's biggest task is to stop the Lions from beating the Lions

Posted Jan 14, 2014

The quarterback is the single most important player in any professional team sport, but there is more that ails the Lions than Matthew Stafford's play

Jim Caldwell has to dig beyond the obvious and popular opinion to lift the Lions from a team that teases fans and threatens opponents to one that can be a consistent winner and playoff contender.

Caldwell, who was hired as head coach on Tuesday, has to fill the void of "leadership" that General Manager Martin Mayhew stressed as being a key quality in the press conference after Jim Schwartz was fired earlier this month.

Leadership can demand and instill discipline, and the Lions need more of both. It goes deeper than focusing on one element or player.

Much has been made of Caldwell’s comments about watching every throw Matthew Stafford made during the 2013 season. There is a perception among many analysts and fans that fine-tuning Stafford’s mechanics and reducing the turnovers that dogged him late last season will turn the Lions into a winning team.

Matthew StaffordQB Matthew Stafford (Photo: Gavin Smith)

The quarterback is the single most important player in any professional team sport, but there is more that ails the Lions than Stafford’s play.

Anyone who took the job as head coach of the Lions was stepping into a position with the pressure of a demand to win immediately. That would have been no different for Ken Whisenhunt, who was thought to be the Lions’ No. 1 candidate but signed with Tennessee on Monday, and it’s the same for Caldwell.

Caldwell has spent the last 13 seasons coaching in an environment that demands discipline. He was an assistant under Tony Dungy at Tampa Bay and Indianapolis from 2001-08 and succeeded Dungy as Indy’s head coach in 2009 after Dungy retired.

Caldwell was fired after the 2011 season with a 29-24 record, including playoffs, and a loss to the Saints after the 2009 season.

For the last two years, Caldwell has been quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, another rock-solid franchise that is a model of player procurement and development.

On Monday, Dungy spoke at length with Mayhew about the merits of hiring Caldwell, as did current Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who worked under Caldwell for nine active seasons.

In an interview with ESPN, Dungy was quoted as saying he stressed discipline when he talked to Mayhew about Caldwell.

"Jim made Peyton Manning an even better quarterback – look at the numbers and wins – and I think he'll do the same for Matthew Stafford," Dungy told ESPN.

"I know the Lions also want good character in the locker room. I’m not saying the other candidates can’t achieve those things, but those are Jim’s strengths with his background, especially from his influence under Joe Paterno at Penn State, and hopefully in our program in the NFL."

Many analysts have said the Detroit job was the best of those that came open after the 2013 season. On offense, the Lions have an All-Galaxy wide receiver in Calvin Johnson, a solid line, solid running backs and a quarterback in Stafford with elite ability.

The defense has a strong front four, led by tackle Ndamukong Suh, and solid linebackers, but needs upgrades in the secondary, and the addition of another pass-rusher.

Ndamukong SuhDT Ndamukong Suh (Photo: Gavin Smith)

Overall, there’s enough talent to do better than the 7-9 record that left the Lions in third place in the NFC North last year after a 6-3 start.

But there are enough bad habits inherited that has kept the Lions out of the postseason the last two years after making the playoffs in 2011 as a wild card with a 10-6 record. All of them surfaced in a late-season swoon that saw the Lions plummet with a 1-6 finish in the last seven games.

Penalties, dropped passes and fumbles have been a persistent problem, and the defense faltered consistently late in games.

Turnovers consistently hurt in the Lions in their stretch fade, especially an interception return by the Giants for a touchdown in a Game 15 loss that eliminated them from the North race.

In eight of the nine losses, the defense gave up the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter or overtime. Sometimes the Lions were victimized by poor plays, and other times they simply failed to take advantage of opportunities when they had a distinct advantage to protect a lead.

A short punt put the Bengals in position to win the game with a field goal on the last play.

Against Pittsburgh, the defense gave up a first-down pass on third-and-nine when it had the Steelers pinned at their four-yard line. That let the Steelers continue to a 97-yard, 16-play drive to the go-ahead TD.

In a Monday night loss to the Ravens, the Lions gave up a long completion on third-and-15 that led to the game-winning field goal in the final minute. And in a loss to the Giants the next week, a fourth-down completion put the Giants in position to kick the winning field goal in overtime.

No question, the offense had its faults, and Stafford shouldered some blame even though his overall stats of 4,650 yards passing, 29 TDs and 19 interceptions are an indication of his wealth of talent.

But the notion that all is well elsewhere is not based on the reality of how the Lions failed to perform to their talent level.

While they did not have the off-field issues that made them a national laughingstock after the 2011 season, their lack of discipline related to performance on the field made them their own biggest opponent in game after game.

The biggest task for Jim Caldwell – and perhaps the most difficult – is to stop the Lions from beating the Lions.