Sunday afternoon Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell returns to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the birth place of his NFL head coaching career. And while it may have gotten off to a good start, it did not end well for Caldwell or the Colts.
After taking over for a retired Tony Dungy in 2009, Caldwell led the Colts to Super Bowl XLIV, where they lost to the Saints. Indianapolis won the AFC South again the next season, but fell at home to the Jets in the wild card game. Then in 2011, it all came apart as Peyton Manning was lost to a neck injury before the season, one of the main reasons the Colts finished a woeful 2-14.
Although one positive outcome from that disastrous season was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, which Indianapolis used on Andrew Luck, owner Jim Irsay cleaned house following the 2011 debacle, firing Caldwell as well as front office lynchpins Bill and Chris Polian.
After being ousted in Indy, Caldwell spent two seasons in Baltimore, one as the Ravens quarterbacks coach, the other winning a Super Bowl and turning Joe Flacco into an elite quarterback (for one postseason) as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator. The end result was that Caldwell got another shot at being a head coach, as he was hired by Detroit in January 2014.
With Caldwell’s head coaching career coming full circle with his return to Indianapolis, it’s his successor, Chuck Pagano, who now finds himself in a similar situation. Despite a rather public falling out with general manager Ryan Grigson after a frustrating 8-8 2015 season that was marred by injuries to Luck, Irsay decided to stay the course, as both the GM and the head coach signed contract extensions in January.
Welcome back to the circus that is the NFL, everyone.
Detroit at Indianapolis
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 11 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Colts +3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Keeping Luck Upright
We saw last year just how important Andrew Luck truly was to the Colts. Take him away, and Indy may have the worst roster in the AFC this season.
Since drafting Luck in 2012, the Colts have done a rather terrible job at protecting their most important commodity. Instead of building a solid offensive line in front of Luck, general manager Ryan Grigson has made a plethora of head-scratching draft picks and free agent signings. I like to think of Grigson as the Adam Dunn of NFL general managers, for every home run he hits (T.Y. Hilton), he strikes out 30 times (Bjoern Werner, Trent Richardson, Todd Herremans, LaRon Landry, etc.).
The addition of rookie center Ryan Kelly from Alabama should have an instant positive impact for a Colts line that allowed 37 sacks and 118 QB hits a season ago, because frankly, it’s hard to be much worse.
2. “Who are we missing?”
The biggest factor in this Week 1 duel is who won’t be participating. For the Colts, injuries have already become an issue. The O-line is already being shuffled around as starting guards Jack Mewhort and Joe Haeg are listed as questionable. Both should be ready to go by game time, but how useful they will be against a stout Lions’ rush is unknown.
Another area where the Colts haven’t improved much, or at all, is on the defensive side of the ball. Their lack of depth will be tested on Sunday as cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Darius Butler have already been ruled out, as well as safety Clayton Geathers, and defensive tackle Henry Anderson. With such a depleted secondary the Colts will be using four cornerbacks that were added to the team on Aug. 22 or later.
If there ever was a silver lining for the Colts defense, it’s that Matthew Stafford won’t be throwing the ball to Calvin Johnson anymore. Breathe easy, guys.
3. Lions looking for offense
It wasn’t a pretty preseason for the Detroit offense, as the first team only managed three field goals and a red zone turnover. Granted, it’s the preseason, but still — the Lions need to find an offensive identity if they hope to stay above water this season.
Truthfully, the Lions’ offensive identity retired with Johnson this offseason, making perennial No 2. Wide receiver Golden Tate the new No. 1 for Stafford. Tate, along with Marvin Jones and the ageless Anquan Boldin are going to have to step up to help the offense avoid the early-season woes that plagued them a season ago.
And the time has finally come to see just how good Stafford is without the world’s greatest security blanket, Johnson. The jury has been out on Stafford since entering the league: Is he good? Is he overrated? Does he crumble in big situations? This year, his ninth in the league, will be a great test.
After the Lions started 1-7 last season, quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter was named the new offensive coordinator, and Stafford and the offense prospered. Stafford tossed 19 touchdowns and completed 70 percent of his passes during the second half of the season, as Detroit increased its scoring output (by 8 ppg) compared to the first eight games and finished the campaign on a 6-2 upswing.
The Colts and Lions aren’t the marquee matchup of Week 1 and there are many unknowns about both teams entering the season, but this game should be a good measuring stick in terms of expectations.
For me, it comes down to quarterback play. How efficient is a healthy Andrew Luck? Can his offensive line protect him long enough to allow him to be effective? Can Matthew Stafford lead an offense without a go-to guy? Will Stafford take advantage of a paper-thin Colts secondary? I guess we will find out.
Prediction: Lions 21, Colts 20
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.