What I am about to propose might just be crazy. It might even seem nonsensical. It certainly is not backed up by statistics, and it definitely is not likely or perhaps even within the realm of possibility based on the conservative culture of the NFL and, more specifically, the Indianapolis Colts.
Yet, in these knee-jerk moments after the Colts elimination from the playoffs, I cannot help but feel that the wild notion I am about to discuss might just be…right.
I’ll state my case and then let you be the judge.
And here is the case I will attempt to make: the Indianapolis Colts should fire a coach who in two seasons is 24-8 in the regular season, has been to the playoffs both years, and is damn close to having a Super Bowl victory on his resume.
I told you it might seem nonsensical. Now let me see if I can convince you that I’m right.
Winning football games in the NFL is very difficult to do, even when you have one of the best signal-callers in the history of the game calling your signals. Yet that is what Jim Caldwell has done in the two seasons since he was hand-selected by previous coach Tony Dungy to lead the Indianapolis Colts into this new decade. And based on the numbers, Caldwell has succeeded.
If I were writing this post in defense of Caldwell, there is a plethora of evidence I could cite to defend him against wild and crazy suggestions that he should be fired.
- The numbers I already stated are a good start: 24-8 regular season record; two playoff appearances; one Super Bowl appearance.
- The Colts were 14-0 last season, and very well might have gone 16-0 had they not made the decision to sit starters during the season’s final two weeks. Two more wins would have made Jim Caldwell one of three coaches in NFL history to finish the regular season undefeated. He would have joined an exclusive club that includes NFL royalty Don Shula and Bill Belichick.
- The Colts were 6-6 this season, teetering on the brink of collapse, with an injury list filled with players the team was counting on coming into the season. Yet they somehow righted the ship, won four straight, and captured yet another AFC South crown. The coach has to get some credit for that right?
I will sum up the defense of Jim Caldwell with one fact: in the history of the NFL, few head coaches if any have have been more successful during their first two years as Jim Caldwell has been.
So then why can I not shake this nagging feeling that the Colts need to make the seemingly unthinkable decision of relieving Caldwell of his head coaching duties?
A head coach with Caldwell’s already voluminous list of accomplishments should not be mocked and derided. Yet time and again, including right here on this website, Caldwell’s coaching acumen is called into question. Of course, making decisions based on bloggers’ opinions and Twitter sentiment would be foolish, so this is really beside the point.
What is germane to the point is that perhaps it is time for the Colts to peel back the layers of those blog opinions and Twitter sentiment to see why they exist. And if you want the quintessential example of why so many people are critical of Caldwell despite his resume, look no further than last night.
Here is a quick recap, from a Pro Football Talk article titled “Jim Caldwell’s timeout explanation doesn’t make sense.”
With 29 seconds left, the clock running and the Jets having the ball at the Colts’ 32-yard line, Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell made a surprising decision: He called timeout.
The TV cameras caught the look on Peyton Manning’s face on the sideline, and Manning was obviously thinking the same thing many of us were thinking: “What in the world is Caldwell doing?”
You know the rest – the Jets used the extra play gifted by Caldwell to hit Braylon Edwards for an 18-yard completion that set up a chip shot game-winning field goal for Nick Folk – but I’m not sure the result is really what is important. Everything you need to know about my opinion of Jim Caldwell as the Colts head coach is summed up in the two sentences blockquoted above.
First off, Caldwell’s decision is more than just erroneous and misguided. It is downright negligent. There is literally no rational basis, defense, or explanation for taking a timeout there. None. In that moment, most people who have completed one season playing Madden were more fit to manage the clock than Jim Caldwell. This may sound like hyperbole, but it’s not.
Further complicating matters, Caldwell offered up an explanation for calling the timeout that makes such little sense I am not even going to post it here. Instead, just look at the picture below for a visual representation of Caldwell’s timeout excuse:
Actually, a better image to represent Caldwell’s decision to call a timeout would be the reaction of his quarterback, which – as has been pointed out all over the sports Interwebs today – really says it all. (And the video says even more.)
And you know what may actually be worse than the fact that Caldwell made such a bad decision last night? The fact that he made a similar decision earlier in the season, yet apparently did not learn from it at all. This is why I think Caldwell’s error cannot just be chalked up as a normal error (one in which there are reasonable options on both sides but the wrong option was chosen) or a brain fart (where a coach makes a boneheaded decision he almost immediately regrets).
What happened last night was negligence. Gross coaching negligence. Even the prettiest of regular season records does not inoculate a coach from rebuke and accountability for stupidity – yes, stupidity – of this magnitude, especially when it has become an easily recognizable and uncorrected pattern.
Let’s go back to Manning now, because it is his presence as the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts that really is the crux of my feeling for why the Jim Caldwell Era in Indianapolis needs to end.
I have already stated why, in normal circumstances, discussing Jim Caldwell’s firing would be ludicrous. His head coaching accomplishments in two years are preposterously good. Yet, the key phrase in that sentence is normal circumstances. These are not normal circumstances because Peyton Manning is not a normal football player. He is a transcendent football player with an other-worldly ability to manage an offense. Unfortunately, he sometimes has to compete against 11 defenders and the ineptitude of his own head coach.
You know who never has to compete against his coach’s ineptitude? Manning’s chief “rival” for the title of Greatest QB Right Now (And Maybe of All-Time): Tom Brady. In Bill Belichick, Brady has a coach who provides significant value to him. What makes Brady and Belichick so special is that their sum is so much greater than either would be individually. It is a synergy that, like Walsh-Montana, comes along maybe once in a generation.
I am not saying that Jim Caldwell needs to be Bill Belichick to be deserving of being Peyton Manning’s coach, and there isn’t another coach out there who comes close to Belichick that the Colts could consider as an alternative anyway. However, at a minimum, Manning should expect a coach who complements his greatness, who provides value to him, and who can manage the defense, special teams, and the clock so that Manning can manage his offense. Jim Caldwell failed to do this last night, in one of the few situations during his Colts tenure when he has been on point to make a really important decision that could decide the outcome of a game. And he failed spectacularly.
Colts fans and non-fans alike often joke that the Colts should just name Manning the head coach. He pretty much coordinates his own offense, and no one believes that Caldwell’s opinions wield anywhere close to as much power in the Colts organization as do Manning’s. The rub is that, had Manning been the head coach last night, he never would have called a timeout in that situation. His reaction proved it.
Would the Jets still have won without the timeout? Maybe, although the stats suggest that Nick Folk (who was 5-11 on kicks of 40 or more yards this season) would have missed a 50-yard field goal more often that he would have made it. What has to grate at Manning, his teammates, and every Colts fan in the world, is the fact that Folk was one egregious Caldwell decision away from having to attempt his game-winner from that longer distance, rather than from just 32 yards away. A “car on ice” loss indeed.
Okay, it’s time to take a step back now. I do not want you to be too distracted by the trees as I try to get you to see the forest. Plenty of coaches make bad decisions. Caldwell made an indefensible decision last night and has made others during his tenure, including a pretty poor challenge call early last night as well. Does that really supersede his sterling record and mean he is not fit to coach the Colts?
Five years ago, perhaps not. Five years go, the now 34-year old Manning was still in his 20s. He still had at least a decade of supreme QB play left him. At that time, there remained ample time for patience, be it with a young player or an inexperienced coach, because the clock had not begun ticking towards the twilight of the Manning Era.
The clock is now starting to tick, ever so softly, and it creates the extreme reality where winning 75% of your regular season games and going to a Super Bowl is not enough to save a your job if you are a head coach with little on your resume besides wins that Peyton Manning led you to. Looked at from the perspective of the Colts organization, when you have a Peyton Manning, and you know that he has at max just 3-5 years of his prime left, you have to view the qualifications of your head coach differently.
To me, there are three things the head of the Indianapolis Colts needs to do:
- Offer Manning some kind of game-planning or overall strategic value.
- Ensure that the defense and special teams are at a minimum adequate to ease the pressure on Manning.
- Manage games with competence.
I’ll be nice and say that the case can be made that Caldwell succeeds at #2. The Colts defense, for the most part, is adequate. Fairness demands that I acknowledge the injuries Indy suffered on that side of the ball this year. As for special teams, well, let’s just they are up and down, but injuries contributed to that too. Even with that point generously granted though, Caldwell still fails at the majority of the above criteria. To my knowledge, Caldwell does not offer Manning much game-planning or strategic value, and he certainly has proven time and again that he is at best below average as a game manager.
So, for all those who would cite Caldwell’s numbers as a reason for why it is ludicrous to suggest he should be fired, my question to you is: were those numbers and accomplishments achieved because of Caldwell or in spite of him?
Put another way, if there were a metric that measured coaches the way VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) measures baseball players, what would Caldwell’s VORC (Value Over Replacement Coach) be? Isn’t it at least reasonable to consider what an average replacement coach could have done with the division-winning machine and Hall of Fame QB that Caldwell inherited?
Caldwell’s underwhelming head coaching history prior to becoming the Colts head coach (26-63 in 8 seasons at Wake Forest) certainly suggests that Caldwell brought no special abilities – at least none he had proven – to the job. And while I will grant that comparing college football to the NFL is in many ways apples to oranges, wouldn’t you think that a good head NFL head coach could at least achieve reasonable success on the college level? Caldwell did not, which provides a little more weight to the side of scale that I think is tipping in the favor of Caldwell needing to go.
It is important to note that I grew up as the son of a college football coach. While my dad never got to be a head coach, I still have a pretty good understanding of the pressure coaches are under and the lack of control they often have to determine the outcomes that they will ultimately be responsible for. I explain this only to lend the following context to this article: I do not call for a coach to lose his job easily. In fact, my tendency is to give coaches the benefit the doubt, perhaps more than they deserve in many cases.
I also believe that, to be taken seriously, anyone who calls for a coach to be relieved of his duties should offer up legitimate alternatives. It is easy to say that Jim Caldwell needs to go, but what if there is no one else available who could be reasonably expected to do the job better?
For example, many IU basketball fans are frustrated with Tom Crean’s won/loss record and the team’s seeming lack of on-court growth. Fine. I am too. But to those who think Crean should be fired, I ask the following two questions: a) who could have done better in the little over 2.5 years Crean has had the job, given what he inherited; and b) what alternatives are presently available that offer more proven potential for the future? (For the record, the latter question, when actually answered, always elicits a good discussion about Brad Stevens, though it has yet to change my opinion.)
This point of having a replacement in mind before calling for a coach to be fired is of significant importance now that the Colts are entering this particular offseason. Let’s just start listing off a few names:
- Bill Cowher – Super Bowl champion
- Jon Gruden – Super Bowl champion
- John Fox – Super Bowl participant, multiple playoff appearances
All three of those guys have much stronger coaching resumes than Jim Caldwell. Is there anyone who does not think that any of these three guys would offer Peyton Manning and the Colts more value and leadership from the head coaching position than Caldwell? Reasonable minds certainly could disagree, and the comment section is yours to debate this, but in my mind all three of these guys are slam dunks as being better head coaches for the Colts than Jim Caldwell.
Inevitably, the discussion will turn, as it should, to continuity. One of the greatest predictors of sustained success in the NFL is GM-Head Coach-QB continuity. Look around the league and its history and this fact is undeniable. One of the reasons Caldwell was hired in the first place was to maintain continuity in the transition from the highly successful Tony Dungy Era. I get that, and I think for that very reason hiring Caldwell was the right move at the time. After he led the Colts to a Super Bowl in his first season, keeping him for another season was not even in question and shouldn’t have been.
As great as Jim Caldwell’s resume in Indianapolis is, he is also the first coach since 2002 to preside over a team that won less than 12 games. Is that a damn near ridiculous criticism to state, and damn near a ridiculous standard to hold a head coach to? Absolutely. But guess what: Peyton Manning is damn near the greatest football player in NFL history, and his brilliance deserves a coach who, if not Belichickian, at the very least is competent. If you have the opportunity to replace a head coach who at times is incompetent with a head coach who could, without question, be considered at a minimum good – as Cowher, Gruden, Fox, and others all are – don’t you have to at least explore the possibility?
(As a quick but relevant aside: should the current labor uncertainty, and the fact that a new coach might not have a full offseason to implement his system and learn his team, factor into this? Of course. But Manning already has the offense covered, so for the Colts such a concern is only about half of what it is for most teams. Still, I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge that I have taken this reality into account.)
Let’s look at this another way: if the Colts have the chance to replace a current offensive lineman with a better one this offseason, won’t they do it in a heartbeat? Of course. The same goes at every position. Comparing the head coach to a normal player is another apples to oranges comparison, with drastically different ramifications, but the underlying motivation is not; and that motivation is to improve the pieces around Peyton Manning so you can maximize his quarterbacking genius while you still have it.
On the Indianapolis Colts, the head coach is just a piece around Peyton Manning – at least it is when the head coach is Jim Caldwell. If Bill Polian and Jim Irsay have an opportunity to get a better piece, or perhaps even someone who is an asset to Peyton Manning rather than a periodic liability, don’t they have an obligation to do so? I think they do, even as crazy as I know that sounds to say when the current piece (Caldwell) has such strong numbers. But last night, and in other games during Caldwell’s tenure, the Colts’ chances for winning have been needlessly lessened by his incompetence as their head coach.
For most franchises, those with lower measuring sticks of success, that wouldn’t be enough for a coach to lose his job. For the Indianapolis Colts, given their limited time left with Peyton Manning, it should be. At the very least, the possibility of replacing Jim Caldwell with a better, more proven head coach should be discussed in great depth by the Colts’ decision-makers, especially considering the names available on the current coaching free agent list.
The Colts’ 2010 season ultimately ended last night with the stench of head coaching negligence hanging over it. If Indianapolis begins next season with Jim Caldwell as its head coach, without at least seriously exploring the possibility of replacing him, then the 2011 season will begin with the same stench, this time wafting from the front office. And it will again be up to Peyton Manning to hold his nose as he tries yet again to deliver the sweet smell of success to the Colts organization and its fans. That would be as unfortunate as it is unnecessary.
Now tell me what you think. Vote in the poll below and leave your comment. I’m hoping this topic generates a lively and worthwhile discussion.
Update: A few hours after posting this article, friend of MSF @TheGallyBlog directed my attention to this article from Colts blog Stampede Blue. It discusses Jason Whitlock’s prediction that Jon Gruden will be brought in to replace Jim Caldwell as the Colts head coach. For what it’s worth, here is Whitlock’s full tweet:
Prediction: Jon Gruden is named coach of the Colts within a month. Manning window closing and can’t leave it to an amateur.
As noted by Stampede Blue in its article, Peyton Manning is now a free agent, and has maximum leverage to demand a new coach if he wants one. Would he? Who knows. I’m sure it would be explained differently to the media if that is what happens. Who knows. It is all conjecture at this point, and it remains very, very unlikely that the Colts will even consider a coaching change. Still, it’s very interesting to consider and it will be interesting to see if anything surprising ends up happening.
Update: This morning before I wrote this post I read Gregg Doyel’s spot-on take regarding the idiocy of Caldwell’s timeout call. I forgot to link to it when I posted this however. Wanted to correct that.
Update: For those of you who disagree with me, and I know there are more than a few of you out there, the good folks over at I See Deadline People wrote a very thorough and fair counter to my Jim Caldwell argument. Read it here.
* – Jim Caldwell confetti photo credit: Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images via Life.com
* – Jim Caldwell at podium photo credit: AP via SI.com