Jim Caldwell's first season with the Detroit Lions went about as well as could reasonably be expected. A team that had finished 7-9 the year before tacked four additional wins onto its total and made the playoffs for just the second time this century. The Lions had one of the most dominating defenses in the NFL, especially against the run, and came within a questionable call and some bad clock management of beating the Dallas Cowboys in the opening round of the playoffs.
Caldwell's second season did not go quite as well. The team lost defensive stalwarts Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley to free agency, then saw DeAndre Levy miss almost the entire season due to injury. The defense regressed from allowing 17.6 points per game to 25.0 and even the offense taking a step forward wasn't enough to make up for that downturn. The Lions regressed to 7-9, missed the playoffs, and then their best player (Calvin Johnson) retired early in the offseason.
Given that regression, one might expect Caldwell to be on the hot seat entering the 2016 season. Not so fast my friend. Lions GM Bob Quinn said, "There is no mandate of number of wins and there is no mandate of playoffs" for Caldwell to keep his job, per the Detroit Free Press.
Instead, Quinn will use a combination of more nebulous factors when determining whether or not to keep Caldwell on beyond this season.
"So listen, it's a combination of wins-losses, decision making," he said. "How's he handle the team? How does he handle adversity? Got players go down, I'm trying to shuffle guys in. Can we get those guys up to speed and get them ready to play? It all goes into it; it's not just one thing."
He continued: "Yeah, I decided to keep Jim, but we're in this together and we have to improve. That's the bottom line. We were (7-9), they were (7-9) last year. Improvement is what everyone strives for. Now is that equated to wins and losses? It's hard to say. It's hard to say because of injuries. Things happen during the course of the season."
It's tough to say what would constitute enough improvement, then. Presumably, getting that defense back up to speed and into the top-10 again would be a good start. And if they can merely stave off a huge drop offensively without Calvin Johnson, that would have to be considered a pretty decent win. The Lions will obviously be making big changes on that side of the ball, likely involving a move to a shorter, quicker passing attack that takes advantage of the skills of players like No. 1 wideout Golden Tate and pass-catching back Theo Riddick. Matthew Stafford excelled down the stretch of the 2015 season and if he can take another step forward, that'd be a good sign for both Caldwell and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.
The Lions are in a tough division, with both the Packers and Vikings expected to be among the best teams in the NFC. They do have the fortune of facing one of the league's easiest schedules (based on 2015 winning percentage), though, as they are tied with the Bengals at 27th in strength of schedule. If they can take advantage of that fact, it would go a long way toward keeping Caldwell in place.