ORLANDO—Jim Caldwell and Mike Zimmer are the new guys in the NFC North, and they provide the suspense in the Packers’ quest to win a fourth consecutive division title.
“I haven’t met the team yet,” Caldwell said at Wednesday’s breakfast with the NFC coaches.
Caldwell is the new coach of the Detroit Lions, a team steeped in talent, but seemingly about to undergo a serious makeover.
Jim Schwartz is gone, chased out of town by a late-season collapse. Gone, too, is the Lions’ swaggering ways. Caldwell won’t allow it.
“Everything has got to be fought for every single day. You have to be able to set standards. They have to be set and they have to be fought for,” Caldwell said over a plate of fruit.
Caldwell is the anti-Schwartz. Caldwell is offense; Schwartz is defense. Caldwell is discipline and refinement. Too often under Schwartz, the Lions were about aggressiveness gone wild.
“Leadership is the most important thing. If you can get your message across, you’ll be fine. In this business, you better be yourself,” Caldwell said.
Can he get his message across to Ndamukong Suh? If he can, Caldwell should be fine.
The degree to which Caldwell can tame the Lions, and that includes quarterback Matt Stafford’s penchant for making unforced errors, will determine whether or not the Lions can challenge the Packers’ hold on the division. Make no mistake about it, the Lions have the talent to do it. The rest is about discipline and execution, and Caldwell has a reputation for attention to detail.
“You never want to beat yourself,” he said. “You’re going to make some mistakes. We talk about those instances.”
If he shows tapes of last year’s games to his team, Caldwell and his players will have plenty of instances to discuss. If only the Lions can eliminate, or at the least reduce their tendency to make mistakes, they could be a very dangerous team in 2014.
“I hope there are a few surprises. It’s going to be a bit different now. You’re not going to say this is the Colts offense. This is going to be the Lions offense and there’s going to be a little different flavor to it,” the former Colts head coach said.
“The challenge is to win consistently. You have to be a very good team to get it done.”
Zimmer’s Vikings are not ready to go. They’ve got talent, but additional pieces are needed. Zimmer said the Vikings will work out 4-5 quarterback prospects, beginning with Blake Bortles. If he’s gone when the Vikings pick, don’t rule out Johnny Manziel.
“You’re going against the grain a little bit with a player like that,” Zimmer said of Manziel, “but the game has changed so much.” Zimmer then compared Manziel to Fran Tarkenton. Hmmm.
“We still have a lot of holes to fill. We have to continue to search for players. Every place we can find, we need to look for football players. Obviously, improving the quarterback position; obviously, improving the 31st-ranked defense,” he said when asked to name his biggest challenges. “We need to field a better football team. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Caldwell’s challenge is to change the Lions’ culture. Zimmer has holes to fill. Their pursuit of each will determine to what degree the Packers and Bears need to worry.
“I love to sit in the meeting room and talk to players and get them on the field and teach them the game. I’m going to start having fun when I get on the field and find out what kind of heart they have,” Zimmer added.
That’s when the fun will begin for everyone.More from the Annual Meeting