DETROIT – Jim Caldwell came to Motown with low expectations. In fact, most considered his hiring as the Detroit Lions backup plan.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with the success of Caldwell’s first season as Lions’ head coach. An 11-5 record and playoff berth is reason to expect big dreams in 2015.
The Lions kickoff the exhibition season tonight at Ford Field against the New York Jets.
It’s the first chance to see if Caldwell really has the Lions taking a step forward or whether 2014 was just a fluke first season. That’s because making the playoffs doesn’t always mean you have arrived or turned the corner, especially in the National Football League.
There have been plenty of teams that fall back and stumble the next season after a postseason trip. The playoffs one season doesn’t guarantee you a trip the following campaign.
“We talked a lot in the spring about how the mighty teams fall or are decent one year and end up being poor the next year,” Caldwell said. “There’s a lot of things that enter into that.”
Hence, many NFL experts see the Lions falling back in 2015. Many see seven or eight wins and no playoffs.
Sounds about right and the reason is pretty simple.
It’s because who you beat also counts in the equation. Last season, the Lions feasted on lesser competition. They were 10-1 against teams that finished at or under .500. Against teams that finished with an over .500 record, they were 1-5.
“I’m certainly aware of any statistic that you can bring up in regard to our team,” Caldwell said. “Every single win is important regardless of who it’s against.
“But the fact of the matter is we want to be a better team than we were last year.”
Their lone win against a good team was a home victory over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
And while that was reason to celebrate, it wasn’t anything new. Over the years, even dating back to Brett Favre, the Lions were able to win at home against Green Bay.
But when it comes to beating the Packers on the road, it’s business as usual. The Lions haven’t won in Wisconsin since 1991, an incredible streak in pro sports.
Still, Caldwell had a chance to change all that in the last game of the regular season. The stakes were high for the Lions. Indeed, it was a franchise-hanging moment.
All the Lions had to do was win a football game on Lambeau Field. It would have quieted all the negative talk about this franchise, which it hasn’t been able to stop since their last playoff win in 1991.
The Lions entered the game with the league’s No. 1 run defense, yet they allowed a season-high 152 yards on the ground to the Packers.
A hobbled Rodgers, playing with an injured left calf muscle, threw for two TDs and rushed for another in the Packers’ 30-20 win. It gave Green Bay its fourth straight NFC North championship and the Pack got the bye and a home playoff game. It was a golden opportunity lost for the Lions, who ending up going to Dallas to play the Cowboys, a game they would eventually lose. Yes, there was controversy towards the end of the game, but the game was a winnable one for the Lions and unfortunately the end result was more of the same for the team.
Caldwell said he doesn’t live in the past – good or bad. He has warned his team not to think they are entitled to anything this coming season.
“Last year was last year,” Caldwell said. “It does not hurt that we were able to win a decent number of games.
“Our goal is to be better than we were last year. There’s no question about it, building upon that kind of platform helps you. It gives you a little bit of momentum heading into the season, but it certainly doesn’t answer a lot of questions.”
And yes, the Lions have questions. Will the defense be as good without Ndamukong Suh? Will quarterback Matthew Stafford finally arrive and emerge from the middle of the pack to become a star QB?
For sure, there are reasons for Lions fans to be optimistic. Caldwell’s first season produced the second most wins in a Lions’ season.
Plus they believe that, despite the loss of Suh, the defense will still be good and give them a fighting chance each and every week.
But a stumble, a fall backward and missing the playoffs will signal that Caldwell’s first season was nothing special, nothing this franchise could build on.
Let’s see if Caldwell can prove the doubters wrong about him and his team.