BY DAVE BIRKETT — USA TODAY Sports
Jim Caldwell watched every pass Matthew Stafford threw this year to prepare for his interview with the Detroit Lions. Next year, he’ll have an even better vantage point.
The Lions hired Caldwell to be their 26th head coach Tuesday, ending a search that spanned more than two weeks and saw the Lions miss out on at least one of their top candidates.
“On behalf (of) my entire family, I want to express how thrilled we are with the appointment of Jim Caldwell as our new head coach,” Lions owner William Clay Ford said in a statement released by the team.
“We believe Jim is the right man to lead our team and deliver a championship to our fans I also want to commend (Lions president) Tom (Lewand) and (GM) Martin (Mayhew) on the thoroughness of the coaching search. We had a very specific plan and profile for our next head coach, and I am convinced that we found that man in Jim Caldwell.”
ESPN and NFL Network first reported his hiring.
Caldwell, the Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator, succeeds Jim Schwartz, who was fired Dec. 30 after the Lions closed the season on a four-game losing streak.
He went 26-22 in three seasons as Indianapolis Colts head coach from 2009-11 and comes equipped with the offensive pedigree and championship background the Lions desired.
Caldwell, who was promoted to offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, called plays during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run last winter. He also won a ring as an assistant with the Colts, and led Indianapolis to another Super Bowl appearance as head coach.
After making the playoffs his first two years in Indianapolis, Caldwell was fired after a 2-14 season in 2011 when Peyton Manning did not play because of a neck injury.
Manning has long credited Caldwell with fine-tuning his game as a quarterback, and former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who worked on Caldwell’s staff in 2011, said Caldwell was a “visionary” for Manning throughout their 10 seasons together.
“Peyton would have 9,000 questions,” Tressel said. “He’d want to go back to the 2002 game against the Vikings when the defensive coordinator was the guy that’s now the secondary coach of the team we’re playing and he remembers a coverage, so Jim was always kind of the guy that visionated with Peyton as I listened (to people talk about their relationship).
“I think Peyton really counted on him to be that researcher with him because Peyton loved to research.”
The Lions are counting on Caldwell to work more of his quarterback magic with Stafford, whose late-season struggles were a big reason they slumped to 7-9 and missed the playoffs this year.
Stafford, who met with Caldwell as part of his interview, saw his passing numbers decline for a second straight season and threw 19 interceptions this year, his most since his rookie season.
“As I think about the Lions, which I think conventional thinking is that it’s probably the best NFL job available right now,” Tressel said. “With the talent you’ve got, the solid quarterback, when I saw that he was being mentioned for that job, I said you know that makes a lot of sense because he’s got that ability to keep people together.”
Lions general manager Martin Mayhew said on the day Schwartz was fired that harnessing Stafford’s considerable talents was one of his priorities in this search.
More than a great teacher, though, Mayhew said the Lions wanted a leader who would help change the culture of an organization that’s been to the playoffs just once in the last 14 years and squandered a golden opportunity to win a wide-open NFC North this fall.
The Lions started the season 6-3, but lost six of their final seven games. Last year, they closed the season with eight straight losses despite a solid nucleus of talent that includes Stafford, receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
“I think if you go back to 2009, we really were starting from the very bottom going 0-16 and hiring a new coach,” Mayhew said two weeks ago. “We’re not at that point right now. We think we’re further advanced than that. We think we’ve come a long way and Coach Schwartz brought us a long way, but we think it’s time for somebody who can put us over the hump and take us to the next step.”
For much of the search, it looked like that person would be former San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who played with Mayhew in Washington and like Caldwell had prior experience as a head coach and an extensive offensive background.
But Whisenhunt spurned the Lions and shocked much of the NFL Monday when he agreed to replace Mike Munchak as Tennessee Titans head coach. The Lions had a private plane in Detroit waiting to fly to San Diego to pick up Whisenhunt.
The Lions also formally interviewed Munchak and ex-Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak in their search, but ultimately decided to turn their team over to Caldwell, a 37-year coaching veteran who turns 59 on Thursday.
While many Lions assistants remain under contract from last year, Caldwell hopes to hire Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin, a former assistant at Michigan, as defensive coordinator, and Kansas City Chiefs assistant head coach David Cully as offensive coordinator, Fritz Pollard Alliance chairman John Wooten said. Regardless of his coordinators, Caldwell might retain play-calling duties on offense, Wooten said.
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