It's clear the Lions can't bring Caldwell back as coach, and if they weren't sure before, they should be now, after playoff hopes were squashed in a miserable loss at Cincinnati. It's a harsh truth, and the harsher truth is, firing Caldwell isn't the full answer, merely the first one.
Very soon, the pressure shifts squarely to GM Bob Quinn, who'll deal with the hangover shortly after the Lions (8-7) close against Green Bay on New Year's Eve. We're about to find out if his Patriots pedigree truly is a difference-maker because this team needs more than just a new coach — it needs a bolder philosophy, a system that isn't all about winging it and hoping with Matthew Stafford.
In his second season here, this is Quinn's chance to officially implement his plan. It was worthwhile to retain Caldwell initially, and a playoff berth bought him another season and a modest one-year extension. Now owner Martha Ford and team president Rod Wood have to further trust the man they entrusted with the franchise's direction. I believe Quinn was fine keeping Caldwell for two seasons, whether Ford urged him to do so or not, but change is needed now.
Quinn has proven to be a solid talent acquirer so far — drafting and free-agent signing — and the Lions have pockets of good players, especially in the secondary and at receiver. Rebuilding the trenches has been a problem, plagued by injuries, but there will be ample opportunity to break down the roster.
For Quinn, it should start with a new coach, someone younger and more innovative. It could be a defensive-minded firebrand such as Patriots coordinator Matt Patricia, or a purported quarterback guru in Josh McDaniels. Caldwell did decent things in four seasons —35-28, two playoff appearances — but the Lions are too soft, in manner and in method.
This is not hindsight, by the way. It remains one of the great mysteries to me that the Lions never went out and got a big running back to complement their smallish group. That's all on Quinn. It remains an equally great mystery the coaches still game-planned as if they could run the ball. The Lions are last in the league in rushing, incapable of gaining 1 or 2 tough yards when needed, usually around the goal line.
The Lions rank in the lower half in key defensive categories too, including sacks.
They mostly play hard under Caldwell but without sustained aggressiveness, except for his first season when they had one of the NFL's best defenses and went 11-5.
That looked legitimate, right up until the crushing 24-20 playoff loss at Dallas, and since then, the Lions have been patching and scratching.
In the most important games this season — home to Minnesota, at Baltimore, at Cincinnati — the effort and concentration were dreary. On Sunday, it was as if the Lions figured they'd beat the blah Bengals with minimal exertion. No spark, no creativity, a lot of weak runs on first and second downs, setting up predictable third downs.
There's a blessing and a curse to Stafford, just as there were with Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson. Singular talents don't win in the NFL unless you're Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, but they do raise expectations and can hide flaws.
Stafford is no Brady or Rodgers, but the highest-paid player in the NFL doesn't get a free pass, even if saddled with an historically awful rushing game.
Coaches and coordinators have changed in Stafford's nine seasons, and the constant remains a numbingly futile attempt to balance the offense.
After early success under coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, the secret was out about the Lions' one-dimensional approach.
To their credit, they almost always beat the bad teams — 31-5 against opponents who finished .500 or below (4-25 against winning teams). The 26-17 loss in Cincinnati, though, looked revelatory, as if Caldwell had taken the program as far as he could.
To be clear, changing coaches has never worked for the Lions, going on 60 years without a championship, with one playoff victory during that time.
But keeping coaches hasn't worked either, and since his first season here, Caldwell's record has declined.
Caldwell has shown admirable restraint amid mounting criticism, but the problem is, grace under fire cannot be the prevailing demeanor of a coach, certainly not a successful one.
"You've never heard me try to defend myself at any point in time and I won't do it today," Caldwell said after the loss to the Bengals, sticking to his no-excuses platform.
That's why I think he knows it's time too. And that's why the heat will be on Quinn, who could lean on his Patriots roots for a new coach among several candidates — Patricia, McDaniels, Mike Vrabel, even Texans head coach Bill O'Brien, if he's fired.
Four years ago, Caldwell was a safe hire, a veteran coach who steadied the turbulence left in Jim Schwartz's wake.
Quinn needs to make an inspired hire, and there are prominent examples of teams that got it right.
The Rams were wallowing with young quarterback Jared Goff and tabbed Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay, who's amazingly still only 31. Goff blossomed thanks to a sound defense and a pounding run game with Todd Gurley, and the Rams just won their division.
Philadelphia was another example, with young quarterback Carson Wentz in need of guidance. The Eagles hired Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson and are vying for the best record in the league. Quarterbacks need more than just a football — they need a fit.
Look how quickly Jimmy Garoppolo has lifted the 49ers. If Quinn opts for the quarterback-coach dynamic, Patriots coordinator McDaniels remains an interesting option, still only 41, although he went 11-17 in two seasons as Denver's head coach.
The fact is, Quinn hasn't delivered two key elements — a running game and a pass rush, although injuries on the offensive and defensive lines are major factors.
That doesn't absolve the coaching staff of such staggering lapses as getting caught with nine or 10 men on the field, or digging holes with lackluster first halves.
Caldwell is a respectable coach, and compared to previous regimes, he has done a highly respectable job.
But it's time to stop measuring against the Lions' horrid past. It's time to demand more, and Quinn should not be drawn to safe or easy options.
After two years here, the toughest part of his job is just getting started.