Does any of this matter? That is what Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford, and the front office personnel she puts in place, has to figure out over the coming days.
Ford's team won in New Orleans on Monday night, 35–27, its fourth victory in the past six weeks. Were it not for a controversial face mask and a subsequent Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary, the Lions might still be riding a hot streak that started in Week 10, with a win at Green Bay.
And ... well, so what?
Detroit is going to finish under .500 and miss the playoffs, the 13th time since 2000 that combination has been the end result for this franchise. Is the Lions' second-half improvement, now including a win over arguably the worst Saints team in Sean Payton's tenure, enough to convince Ford to keep Caldwell and his staff around?
“I ... want to make clear that we have no intention of giving up on the season,” Ford said back on Nov. 5, when she announced the firings of team president Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew. “We expect our team to compete, improve and win.”
Save for a dud in St. Louis last Sunday, the Lions have done all that Ford asked. They came back from their bye, minus a president and with an interim GM, and broke a 24-game losing streak at Lambeau Field. They followed up that performance by knocking off Oakland and then humiliating Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day.
The perception now is that the Lions are much better than their 5–9 record might indicate—especially taking into account heartbreaking losses to Seattle and Green Bay, playoff teams both.
But is that the reality? It will not be an easy discussion in the Motor City. And to this point, no one's even sure who will be leading the conversation. Ford has made it clear that she will be involved in the decision-making process, as well recently hired consultant (and longtime former NFL GM) Ernie Accorsi and likely new team president Rod Wood, who readily admits that he's “not a football guy.”
Beyond that, who knows.
Nights like Monday make it slightly easier to understand why Ford and co. might want to stay the course for another season. As they have done with regularity since Jim Bob Cooter took over for Joe Lombardi as offensive coordinator, the Lions came out firing on offense. True, they again failed to utilize Calvin Johnson (one catch on one target), but nine players caught passes from Matthew Stafford on the night.
Stafford's apparent rapport with his new coordinator complicates the matter further. The Lions' quarterback finished 22-of-25 against New Orleans' porous defense, setting a franchise record for single-game completion percentage (88%). After going through the motions under Lombardi's watch, Stafford has elevated his game with Cooter.
Detroit could try to move on from Caldwell and retain Cooter (the latter worked with potential head coaching candidate Adam Gase in Denver, for what it's worth). Giving Caldwell a third year at the helm might be easier for all involved.
“Jim Bob is doing a phenomenal job at seeing what guys do well and putting them in a position to succeed,” receiver Golden Tate told the NFL Network, “and that's what we're trying to do late in the season and it's working out. We're moving the ball, we're putting up points and winning games.”
The defense has a handful of pieces in place, too, led by cornerback Darius Slay and DE Ezekiel Ansah. Both of those young players have developed into standouts under the watch of defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who also could be coaching elsewhere in the near future.
Let's not forget that Detroit finished last season 11–5 and came within a picked-up penalty flag or a late defensive stop of downing Dallas in the postseason. Many of the key pieces on that roster remain, highlighted by Stafford and his offensive weapons.
How much credit does Caldwell deserve for the 2014 showing? How much blame should fall on his shoulders for 2015's disappointment?
In case you haven't noticed yet, there are far more questions than answers for the Lions, as is to be expected when a team stumbles through a season like this. Caldwell's time appeared to be just about up when Ford started cleaning house. Reports ever since, though, continue to stress how she is fond of Caldwell, and the mere fact that he was not let go alongside Mayhew and Lewand left open the door for a continued engagement.
From the failed Hail Mary defense to botched challenges to personnel errors, there has been ample evidence provided throughout this season to build a case for Caldwell's dismissal. He has tried to offer a counter-argument of late, as his team keeps scrapping toward the season's inevitable end.
Has anyone noticed? Does anyone care? We'll find out soon enough.