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Lions fire coach Jim Caldwell after missing playoffs

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ALLEN PARK, Mich. (AP) Jim Caldwell may have been the Detroit Lions’ most successful coach in the Super Bowl era.

That was not enough to save his job.

The Lions fired Caldwell on Monday after a season in which the team raised hopes before fading and missing the playoffs for the second time in three years.

Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford called Caldwell “one of the finest leaders we’ve ever had as our head coach.”

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

“Not only did he guide us on the field to three winning seasons, but he also set a standard of excellence off the field that had a tremendous impact on everyone in our organization and our entire community,” she said in a statement.

“As many of our players have already said, his influence on them transcended the game of football and will positively serve them throughout their lives. Our organization is better because of Jim, and we are forever grateful.”

Caldwell received a multiyear contract extension before the season, but the team didn’t announce the move for months.

The Lions beat Green Bay 35-11 Sunday to finish 9-7, their third winning record in Caldwell’s four years. Detroit met relatively modest expectations this season after a promising start that left the team at 3-1 and 6-4. But the Lions then dropped out of postseason contention by losing three of their next five.

Caldwell was 36-28 with Detroit and 0-2 in the postseason. Including three years with the Indianapolis Colts, he is 62-50 and 2-4 in the playoffs.

When Caldwell was hired almost four years ago, he was working for a franchise with only one winning season in a 13-season stretch.

“We’re going to be smart,” Caldwell said when he was hired Jan. 14, 2014. “We’re going to be a football team that takes the field that’s not going to shoot itself in the foot.”

Detroit’s defense, though, was short-handed in consecutive games late in the season.

The Lions were down a player for a snap when Minnesota scored a touchdown in a win at Detroit on Thanksgiving and were missing two players when Baltimore converted a third down to help it take a two-TD lead in a victory. After bouncing back with two straight wins, the Lions lost what shot they had to rally for a spot in the playoffs by losing to Cincinnati in Week 16.

Even as it became clear Caldwell’s job may be in jeopardy, he took it in stride.

“That’s part of our business,” he insisted going into his last game as Detroit’s coach. “That’s kind of the way it goes. That’s every year, right? I told you guys a story a long time ago about Marty Schottenheimer. He got fired at 14-2. So anything less than a Super Bowl, obviously it could happen.”

The Lions have never played in a Super Bowl. And since winning the 1957 NFL title, they have won only one playoff game and that lone victory was in 1992.

Caldwell, who led the Colts to the Super Bowl nearly seven years ago in his first season as an NFL head coach, got off to a solid start in Detroit with 11 wins in 2014 that was the franchise’s best regular season since 1991.

His second season got off to a slow start with a 1-7 record. But the team rallied for a 7-9 finish, and general manager Bob Quinn stayed with him. When the Lions hired Quinn shortly after the 2015 season, he kept Caldwell around for a third season. The Lions were 9-7 in 2016, putting Caldwell in company with Bobby Ross and Buddy Parker as Detroit coaches to earn playoff bids in two of their first three seasons.

He became Detroit’s first coach to have at least three winning seasons in his first four years since the early 1950s.

Caldwell didn’t scream at his players and showed an interest in their lives off the field.

“I love Caldwell,” receiver Marvin Jones said. “I’ve been here for two years and he’s the best coach I’ve ever had. Everybody is quiet two minutes before his meetings because he demands respect without yelling. He doesn’t yell at all. You never want to disappoint him. We just had to make more plays for him.”

He went 16-8 against NFC North teams, but wasn’t able to help the franchise win its first division title since 1993.

In each of Caldwell’s four years of leading the Lions, they ranked among the NFL’s worst in yards rushing. That glaring weakness put a lot of pressure on quarterback Matthew Stafford and a shaky line, leading to an offense that struggled to move the ball and score consistently.

“He does a great job in our locker room help getting us ready to go play football,” Stafford said days before the season finale. “And the rest is up to the players to go out there and make plays and win games.”

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Dalton, Bengals have ‘good outing’ in loss at Jags (VIDEO)

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) The Cincinnati Bengals were so sharp against Jacksonville that Andy Dalton and several teammates were done long before halftime.

Dalton led the Bengals to two touchdowns in three possessions, earning him a little extra rest in a 26-21 loss to the Jaguars in the preseason Sunday night.

“It was a good outing for us,” said Dalton, who completed 6 of 10 passes for 77 yards and a TD. “Two touchdowns in the first half of a preseason game is pretty good, and we got them both ways. … It’s a good feeling to do it both ways.”

The Bengals (1-2) felt good on both sides of the ball, too. Dalton found Giovani Bernard for a 19-yard score on a third-down play, and then Jeremy Hill capped a 9-minute drive with a 1-yard scramble to the pylon. Defensively, the Bengals held Jacksonville to just 90 yards in the first half. Jacksonville’s first three drives: turnover, three-and-out and three-and-out.

Cincy’s only concern in the regular-season dress rehearsal was the health of three Pro Bowlers.

Receiver A.J. Green left in the first quarter with a bruised right knee, but said he’s fine. Cornerback Adam Jones strained his right calf in preseason warmups and did not play. And special teams ace Cedric Peerman broke his left forearm and could be out for the season.

“It’s unfortunate guys have injuries, but you can’t worry about that,” Dalton said. “You’ve got to worry just about the stuff you can control.”

Safety Tashaun Gipson (bruised knee) was Jacksonville’s only injured starter.

The Jaguars (1-2) had bigger problems – the offense and defense both failed to show – that raised questions about what’s supposed to the franchise’s most talented team in nearly a decade.

T.J. Yeldon fumbled on the opening possession. Center Brandon Linder and quarterback Blake Bortles each were flagged for false starts to open drives. And the left side of Jacksonville’s revamped offensive line was mostly manhandled.

“We kind of killed ourselves. We did some stupid things, really, at every position,” Bortles said. “They didn’t do necessarily anything to stop up, which is a good sign because it’s a good defense. … We were comfortable and confident in what we were doing. We just didn’t execute it and get things done.”

DEBUTS

Bengals: WR Brandon LaFell caught one pass in his Bengals debut. Signed in free agency to help replace Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, LaFell also drew a pass-interference penalty that set up a score.

Jaguars: Playing his first game since tearing a knee ligament last October, LT Kelvin Beachum looked rusty. And Luke Joeckel, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, looked lost at times at LG.

ROOKIE WATCH

Bengals: WR Alex Erickson scored for the third straight game, stating his case to make the team. Erickson caught a 21-yard TD pass from AJ McCarron early in the third quarter. It was his second TD catch of the preseason. He also returned a punt for a touchdown.

Jaguars: DE Yannick Ngakoue got the start ahead of Dante Fowler Jr., but only because the Jaguars wanted to see Ngakoue get some snaps with the first-team defense. Ngakoue finished with two tackles.

POSITION BATTLES

Bengals: Second-round pick WR Tyler Boyd, vying to start opposite Green, had a 9-yard reception.

Jaguars: Fourth-year RB Joe Banyard ran 11 times for 54 yards, including a 7-yard TD run in the third quarter, and had his most extensive work of the preseason. Banyard and Corey Grant are competing to be the fourth-string back.

INJURY UPDATE

Bengals: LB Vontaze Burfict and TE Tyler Eifert were among a dozen players ruled out before the game.

Jaguars: Eight players were ruled out beforehand, including DT Roy Miller, rookie DT Sheldon Day and FS Peyton Thompson.

QUOTABLE

Bengals: “I do feel faster this year because I feel healthier.” – Hill.

Jaguars: “We played bad at every position and usually that is what happens when you play bad: you do not score a lot of points.” – Bortles.

AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Andy Dalton and the Problems of Familiarity

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Through the first nine weeks of the season, Andy Dalton was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. His unexpected improvement was one of the keys to the Cincinnati Bengals’ perfect start. His struggles Monday night — just 203 yards on 44 dropbacks, plus an interception — were a big reason why Cincinnati surprisingly fell from the ranks of the unbeatens against Houston.

In fact, Dalton’s struggles against the Texans should not have been a surprise, for reasons that suggest the fifth-year quarterback could well bounce back against the Arizona Cardinals this week but will likely struggle once again in the postseason.

Familiarity Creates Problems

The problem for Dalton is he performs significantly better against opponents who have not played the Bengals recently. This phenomenon was discovered by Bengals analyst Joe Goodberry. Against what he terms “uncommon” opponents, those who did not play the Bengals earlier that season or the previous season, Dalton is an excellent quarterback who has a great deal of success. Against “common” opponents, those who have faced the Bengals previously, Dalton finds the going much more difficult. Table 1 has the basic details.

Table 1. Dalton vs. Common and Uncommon Opponents

Comp. Pct. Yards/Att TD% INT%
Common Foes 59.0% 6.5 3.4% 3.5%
Uncommon Foes 67.1% 8.0 6.7% 2.5%

Dalton completes a higher percentage of his passes, for more yards per completion, throws many more touchdowns, and throws fewer interceptions against teams that have not played the Bengals lately. Table 2 has the numbers for just 2015, adding Football Outsiders’ per-play DVOA metric and another factor, Dalton’s sack rate.

Table 2. Dalton v. Common and Uncommon Opponents, 2015 Detail

Comp Pct. Yards/Att TD% INT% DVOA Sack%
Common Foes 63.7% 7.7 5.2% 3.0% 3.2% 6.9%
Uncommon Foes 68.3% 8.6 6.8% 0.6% 47.8% 2.4%

More Than Just Opponent Adjustments

The simple explanation is that Dalton is faring worse because he is facing better defenses. Many of the Bengals’ common opponents are AFC North foes and other teams who have ranked highly in their division. Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics, however, suggest this is not the case. Opponent adjustments say Dalton’s 2015 performance against uncommon opponents has been even better than the raw statistics suggest, while his performance against common opponents has been worse than it looks.

Opponent adjustments were a part of the 2014 story, but only a very small part. Dalton had a non-adjusted VOA of 15.7 percent against uncommon opponents against an adjusted DVOA of 14.4 percent and a VOA of -20.9 percent and DVOA of -19.8 percent. Adding in opponent adjustments explains a very small part of the difference last year, and none of it this year or in 2013. There really does seem to be something else going on.

Sacks Are Part of the Story

The last column in Table 2, on sack rate, is especially informative. This is one area Dalton has improved from his younger days. He took an NFL-leading 17 coverage sacks in 2012 according to Football Outsiders’ charting data. Dalton has done a much better job of avoiding sacks and especially coverage sacks the past three seasons, but he still gets sacked at a much higher rate by common opponents.

Table 2’s cumulative numbers conceal one very interesting detail. Dalton’s 2.4 percent sack rate in his five games to date against uncommon opponents breaks down as four sacks by the Seattle Seahawks and no sacks by any of the other foes. Meanwhile, Dalton has been sacked at least twice in every game against a common opponent.

This season’s sack data continues a trend from 2014. That season, Dalton had a personal adjusted sack rate of 6.1 percent against common opponents compared to just 2.4 percent against uncommon foes, who often did not even sack him at all. Whatever Dalton does so well against uncommon opponents is reflected here as well.

Deep Balls Are Part of the Story

One thing that stood out Monday night was how much Dalton struggled throwing the ball down the field. He completed just two of his nine attempts thrown more than 15 yards downfield. This is another theme that runs through the common vs. uncommon opponents distinction.

Dalton has been a better deep ball thrower this year against common opponents, with great success against the Baltimore Ravens most notably, but the splits still stand out. His worst deep games were against Houston and the Pittsburgh Steelers, while he has posted an above-average DVOA in deep passes against all uncommon foes.

Last season’s numbers are cloudy because of an injury-plagued season from wide receiver A.J. Green and the absences of tight end Tyler Eifert and wide receiver Marvin Jones, but 2013 shows just how much difference common and uncommon games can mean to Dalton’s deep ball performance. In uncommon games, Dalton had a DVOA of 156.9 percent and a success rate of 56 percent on deep passes, versus a DVOA of -20.1 percent and a success rate of just 28 percent against common opponents. To put that in context, Dalton against uncommon foes was the best deep passer in the league by a significant margin and the second-worst deep passer in the league against teams more familiar with the Bengals.

What It Means Going Forward

Andy Dalton is a much better player against teams the Bengals have not faced recently. In particular, he is sacked much less frequently and is a much more effective downfield passer. This is one reason the Bengals have fared so well in interconference play and why he could do well against the Cardinals on Sunday night and the St. Louis Rams the next week. The bad news is, the Bengals still have four common foes left to play in the regular season, and most of the likely AFC playoff teams — New England, Denver, Pittsburgh, and even Indianapolis — are common foes. After an inspiring start, Cincinnati could be looking once again at a disappointing result and another fast playoff exit.