For rebuilding Colts, firing Caldwell was the only real move
The surprise isn't that the Indianapolis Colts finally followed through and dismissed head coach Jim Caldwell on Tuesday. It's that they even considered retaining him for 2012 in the first place.
In the NFL, the arrival of a new general manager almost always means a new hand-chosen head coach is his first move, and the Colts last week hired Ryan Grigson to lead their revamped front office. Keeping Caldwell around as part of the new administration would be a little like having one foot in the past even while trying to step into the future.
Caldwell was well-respected and well-liked, by both Colts owner Jim Irsay and his players, but his popularity shouldn't have saved his job, and in the final analysis it didn't. Like any other coach in any other job, it came down to wins and losses, and Caldwell this year had way too many of the latter and not nearly enough of the former.
We don't know much about Grigson and his approach to his rebuilding project in Indianapolis, but to ask him to retain Caldwell and still steer the franchise on a dramatically new course just seemed at odds all along. In an offseason that is shaping up as anything but status quo in Indy, Caldwell represented where the Colts have been, not where they're going.
It's a mostly glorious recent past the Colts have enjoyed, but that past didn't help them win one bit in 2011, and that's why it didn't make sense to stay committed to any significant part of it. The bottom dropped out in Indianapolis this season, and Caldwell was at least part of that rapid descent. The father-son front office tandem of Bill and Chris Polian paid for the Colts' plummeting fortunes with their jobs earlier this month, despite a gaudy track record of success, and Caldwell simply didn't have anywhere near as much capital stored up by comparison.
The reality is that Caldwell's coaching era in Indy was an example of the laws of diminishing returns. He took over for the retiring Tony Dungy in early 2009 and kept the perennial playoff contending Colts humming right along, becoming the first rookie head coach to win his first 14 games. Indianapolis took a 16-2 record into the Super Bowl that season and were favored to beat the Saints in South Florida in early February 2010.
But Caldwell's Colts didn't finish the job, and the loss to New Orleans was really the beginning of the end of his tenure in some ways, opening him up to his first dose of real criticism in the job. After that eye-popping 16-2 start, Caldwell went 12-22 in Indianapolis, giving him an overall record of 28-24, including 2-2 in the playoffs. He coaxed a 10-6 division-title winning finish out of the injured-ravaged Colts in 2010, but their one-and-done playoff appearance -- with a loss to the wild-card Jets at home -- proved to be his last taste of success in Indy.
The 2-14 train wreck that unfolded for the Colts this season was certainly not all Caldwell's fault, but when is it ever for a head coach? He clearly didn't do his best work with the Peyton Manning-less Colts, failing to come up with any real adjustments or answers for a team that went from contending to almost wholly uncompetitive in the blink of an eye. Good coaching can at times be like an act of triage. If you can get the bleeding stopped, you can save the patient. In Indy this season, the bleeding never stopped, and the losses kept mounting.
Like new Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie reminded us just last week when he fired Oakland's first-year head coach Hue Jackson, if you're going to make a fresh start, you have to be willing to make a change. A clean break can't be accomplished any other way. As much as Irsay is fond of Caldwell and appreciative of the job he did, Grigson has no such loyalty to the Colts coach and shouldn't be expected to. That's just the way these things have to work.
And so, as I've written before, the fallout from Manning's ever-so-consequential neck injury continues in Indianapolis, and another victim has been identified. Potentially, the only horseshoe left to drop is an obvious one: Will the Colts' veteran quarterback heal up and resume his role as the face of the franchise this year, or will the changes that have begun in Indianapolis perhaps eventually include even him?