Grading Jim Caldwell

Colts’ head coach Jim Caldwell is anything but a lightning rod.  Sure, fans get bent out of shape when he does something they don’t like, but for the most part he’s the forgotten man in the Indianapolis equation.  Obviously, it’s hard to criticize a coach who took his team to a 14-2 season and a Super Bowl berth in his first year.  On the other hand, Indy lost that Super Bowl and the two losses were controversial thanks to his decision to pull the starters.

Bill Simmons seems personally bent on propagating the myth that Caldwell never blinks, talks, or does anything.  Of course, Simmons rarely watches games in depth, and doesn’t see that Caldwell does show emotion and is clearly engaged in the action.  In Caldwell’s case it’s impossible to judge him just by wins and losses, given that he has Peyton “the win machine” Manning at quarterback.  Instead of a simple look at his record (which is the best in football since the start of last year), let’s examine the effect he has had in the primary areas of responsibility for the head coach.

Organizational Culture

Caldwell had an easier task than most here.  He did not need to create a successful culture in Indianapolis, he only needed to maintain it.  While not immune from the league wide epidemic of contract squabbles related to the expired CBA, there hasn’t been much dissonance in Indianapolis.  The team suffered a painful loss in the Super Bowl, but there wasn’t a lot of finger pointing (other than Polian blaming the line…but I’m not going to hold Caldwell responsible for his boss’s words).  Moreover, a wave of injuries has crashed over the team, but the mantra of ‘next man up’ is being chanted as loud as ever.  Frankly, if you didn’t know there was a regime change in Indianapolis, you’d be hard pressed to find evidence for it in the post-game quotes.

Grade: A (for keeping things the same).

Discipline off the Field

The Colts have had a spate of minor alcohol related arrests recently.  That’s definitely worrisome.  Caldwell took responsibility, and the team has responded by coming down hard on Pat McAfee. Though many question the inconsistency of suspending a player who wasn’t driving at the time of his intoxication while Fili Moala’s DUI went unpunished, personally I think the move makes sense.  The team should have suspended Moala.  He was allowed to play the following week in Houston.  Following up one mistake (not suspending Moala) with another mistake (not suspending McAfee) is not wise.  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.  The Colts showed some humility in altering their course.  I give credit for that.

Grade: B- (the incidents were minor, but not suspending Moala was a mistake, suspending McAfee took guts)

Media/Fan Relations

It matters how people view the head coach.  By all accounts, Caldwell is a more emotional, fiery coach than Dungy was.  However, when he steps in front of a microphone he acts like he is comatose.  I suspect that part of the reason that Colts fans feel so insecure about this team is that Caldwell does not project well in the media.  He seems like a thoughtful and brilliant man, but doesn’t let that side of him show.  Paul Kuharsky had a nice take on him the other day.

I know the Colts operate under a shroud of secrecy, and that is their prerogative. But at some point, the part where they play the media for fools gets a little old.

A good question at a Caldwell presser that doesn’t touch on health or game strategy can produce a thoughtful reply.

But in instances when reporters are looking for actually information, Caldwell is up there mostly politely filling time with pleasant answers that provide none. We know the Colts know we know it. Everyone goes through the exercise because they have to.

This is precisely the problem.  Perhaps it goes back to the organizational philosophy topic, but if the Colts are unwilling to discuss injuries, fine.  They have been more forthcoming in terms of announcing players out earlier in the week.  However, the coach ought to give thoughtful answers to questions about game strategy. There’s no point in stone-walling.  In general, I don’t consider media relations as important as some do. I’m more concerned with what happens on the field.  However, perception has a way of becoming reality in the NFL.  If Caldwell acts like a stiff, and the fans think he’s a stiff, he’ll get a rep for being a stiff.  Players watch TV.  They listen to the radio.  It wouldn’t hurt Caldwell to show a little personality and openness.  In the long run it will help him with the fans, and possibly even his players.

Grade: D- (He’s active in the community and that keeps this from being an F)

Motivation

If you don’t think there’s a Super Bowl hangover, take a gander at the Saints.  I questioned the Colts’ enthusiasm after the opening loss to the Texans, but it has not been in question since.  The team came out loaded for bear the next week, and even against the Jaguars, they started strong, marching down for an opening touchdown.  The Colts have not been flat.  They’ve played hard.  I don’t blame Caldwell for the first loss of the season.  The line was a work in progress thanks to injuries, and the Texans were playing the biggest game in franchise history.  I still get the sense that the Colts are hungry. It’s hard to keep that fire burning after a decade of winning.

Grade: A- (they look hungry)

Discipline on the Field

The Colts are the tied for the second least penalized team in football (3rd in yardage), averaging just over four penalties a game (Miami is first at 4 a game).  We haven’t seen a plethora of stupid mistakes and dumb penalties this season.  This means that the Caldwell still has the players’ attention and that they are are maintaining focus.  There have been some mental lapses on defense, but they are of exactly the same kind we used to see under Dungy.  My suspicion is that they have to do with taking aggressive players and asking them to hold their responsibilities instead of chase the ball.  For now, I tend to lay those mistakes more at the feet of the defensive coaches and the players themselves than the head coach.  Under Caldwell, we haven’t seen a lot of dumb personal fouls and lazy penalties.

Grade: A+ (no penalties, no problem)

Game plan

Do the Colts look lost from week to week?  Do they seem phased or surprised by the tactics of other teams? I have to say no.  The Indy offense has done a good job countering any defensive strategy used against them.  The Indy defense has not always executed their strategy well (see missed tackles in Washington), but at least the philosophy seemed sound.  Indy isn’t a ‘scheme’ team as much as an ‘execution’ team, so this isn’t necessarily a complicated category for Caldwell.  Still, he gets credit for me never having to say, “Wow. Indy didn’t see that coming!”.  Even in the two losses, everyone and their brother knew what Houston and Jacksonville were trying to do.  The players just didn’t execute.

Grade: B+ (I’m grading on a curve)

Strategy

This is the most tightly scrutinized aspect of the head coach’s job.  It’s important to be consistent when judging strategy.  Two of Caldwell’s most controversial decisions failed this season.  He called a timeout against the Jags, and Indy ran three pass plays late in the Redskins game.  The first decision I felt was defensible, the second I felt was absolutely the right call.  I prefer a coach to be aggressive.  I believe NFL coaches are too conservative when it comes to fourth down.  In both instances, Caldwell made an aggressive decision.  Seeing as how I feel his decision to run three times at the end of the first half of the Super Bowl was a critical mistake, I’m certainly not going to ding him for throwing three times at Washington.  Not all decisions will work out.  What is important is that they are philosophically and statistically defensible given the circumstances.  On both his most criticized calls, I think Caldwell clearly had a case.

HOWEVER, there have been mistakes.  Indy has punted too often on fourth and short.  The Colts foolishly kicked a field goal with :07 left in Washington, holding a timeout.  There was time for Indy to attempt another play, but Caldwell elected not to.  On the whole, I like Caldwell more than I dislike him.  In his favor is that he clearly believes in the Manning offense’s ability to score in under :30.  He is aggressive with timeouts to end games and halves, and it usually pays off.  He is way ahead of the game in this regard and is often playing chess when other coaches are playing checkers at the end of the half.

On the negative, he still plays a field position game too often.  He also loves getting the opening kickoff.  This is a commonly held belief that Indy should start with the ball, but I’d rather start the second half. Because of the quick strike ability of the Colts, I love the opportunity to get a quick end of half score, then follow it up after Peyton has had time to make half time adjustments.  Plus, I believe that at home with a raucous crowd, teams should put their defense on the field first to take advantage of the energy and noise of the spectators.

On the balance, Caldwell is less conservative than Dungy was when he arrived in 2002, but not nearly as good as Dungy was by the time he left.

Grade: B- (my hope is that he gets more bold as his tenure lengthens)

OVERALL GRADE

At the end of the day, you can count on one hand the number of games the Colts have lost under Caldwell.  However, that hand is also not wearing a ring in part because of his decisions.

I think he’s a B coach.  Actually, if he would manage the media better, I’d say he was an B+/A- coach.  You can’t give a guy who has his record anything less than a B.

After watching what Norv Turner and Wade Phillips have done to talented teams, Colts’ fans should be thankful.  It’s a lot easier to screw up a good team than it is to maintain success.

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