As fantasy football teams go, the Detroit Lions have been lights-out good.
As NFL teams go, not so much.
So the plan is to turn all those yards and points into wins; certainly more wins than the 29 (against 52 losses) the Lions accomplished during Jim Schwartz’s five years at the helm.
The Lions open the 2014 exhibition season against the Cleveland Browns on Saturday night at Ford Field.
It is an interesting contrast. The Browns cleaned house after last season and hired Mike Pettine — he was the defensive coordinator in Buffalo, which is now Schwartz’s job — to bring some fire and excitement to the Browns.
Near the other side of Lake Erie, the Lions hired 59-year-old Jim Caldwell to turn down the flame with an even-keel, steady hand. They tried Schwartz’s emotional, sometimes hot-headed style. They have been plenty exciting. It hasn’t been enough.
So, the Lions hired for stability, sanity, discipline, and accountability, not to mention for a coach who has considerable experience with high-end, Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.
Caldwell spent eight years as quarterbacks coach and three years as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He was a bit invisible behind Peyton Manning’s arm and, as head coach, Tony Dungy’s ever-present shadow. Invisible only to the public, though.
“Jim Caldwell has meant a great deal to me in my career,” Manning said last January while preparing for the Super Bowl with Denver. “I felt like once he got to Indianapolis and became my quarterback coach that my game really improved. It took a step up, and I thought Jim had a great deal to do with that.”
Compare any of Manning’s statistics and awards in his first five seasons without Caldwell to all that followed and it supports that statement.
When Caldwell’s name first surfaced in the Lions’ coaching search, Manning made an unsolicited phone call to Detroit GM Martin Mayhew to endorse Caldwell. The Lions, of course, have a quarterback named Matthew Stafford, just 26 years old but a starter in all 61 games he has played in the NFL. Like Manning, he seemingly has all the tools. Like the early version of Manning, he hasn’t made it pay off yet.
In Detroit’s one winning season under Schwartz, 10-6 in 2011, Stafford completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 5,038 yards, 41 touchdowns, and a 97.2 QB rating. During the two seasons since, the numbers dropped off, some considerably, in every category.
Receiver Calvin Johnson’s set a record for receiving yards in 2012 and the Lions went 4-12. The team added Reggie Bush last season and Detroit won but seven games, failing to walk through a wide-open door in the NFC North and into the playoffs.
When a team produces the kind of numbers the Lions’ offense does — fantasy numbers — and still doesn’t win, there’s a problem.
The problem/solution is usually at quarterback, and Caldwell was hired to fix it. Stafford may have one of the best arms in the NFL and he may be a tough-guy playmaker, but his mechanics have been questioned and his aggressiveness is occasionally reckless.
Quietly, stoically, almost invisibly, Caldwell should turn it around. Having receiver Golden Tate in the fold with Johnson almost always drawing double-coverage should help. Megatron can help himself by running more precise routes, and Bush can help balance the running attack by being less tentative at the point of contact.
It is all a mishmash of accountability and preparation, and the Lions, light on each under Schwartz, should be a different product under Caldwell. He has been to three Super Bowls, one as a head coach, and the most recent as offensive coordinator in Baltimore, where he mentored QB Joe Flacco.
“I think our biggest free-agent signing has been Jim Caldwell,” Bush said recently. “I think he’s exactly what this team needed. Every team meeting … I’ve left that meeting a better person.”
There’s no reason not to expect a better team, too; more than just a fantasy team.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.