The Steele Drum

November 17, 2009 8:43 AM

Coach of 9-0 Colts: The Invisible Man

The Indianapolis Colts are off to yet another red-hot start, now 9-0 after Sunday's stunner over New England. The most amazing aspect of this feat: they're doing it without a coach!


jim-caldwell.jpgAs far as anyone can tell, at least. Jim Caldwell is doing the impossible. Not being undefeated in November - the Colts have started at least 7-0 in four of the last five seasons - but in doing it while being a first-time NFL head coach, and having the best start of any rookie head coach in league history ... while absolutely nobody surrounding the nation's most popular sports league making anything close to a big deal about him.

Google "Jim Caldwell Colts Unbeaten'' and try to find how many stories have been written specifically about him. You see plenty about how the Colts have done it, plenty about what Peyton Manning has done, plenty about how the team has kept winning with the major changes on the sidelines and on the roster, and plenty about how they've managed to win under all sorts of circumstances and overcome all kinds of obstacles. Even a few stories about how they've stayed the course after Tony Dungy, their Super Bowl-winning coach who set the standard the team is now trying to maintain, retired after last season.


About Caldwell? An eerie, enraging silence. And you'll get the same if you dig through the archives of the major networks looking for a feature about this precedent-setting coach.


Now Google "Josh McDaniels Broncos Unbeaten.''


First of all, you come across tons of stories about how this rookie coach is not unbeaten anymore. But you do see references to Bill Belichick's protégé, the next branch off his coaching tree, "Baby Belichick'' - in general, the runaway success story of the early part of the NFL season and the early favorite for Coach of the Year. Even though Caldwell started his career and his season the exact same way.


The national commentators loved McDaniels. His story, to them, was unquestionably compelling. He was in the news even before his moves, actions, wins and losses (feuding with and then trading Jay Cutler, suspending Brandon Marshall) made news of their own. Once the Broncos jumped out so well, the cameras couldn't tear themselves away from him.


There were plenty to turn toward him, since none were trained on the drama-free, placid, expression-less, apparently non-telegenic and backstory-absent Caldwell. (By the way, for even more laughs, look up Caldwell's Wikipedia page and then McDaniels'.)


Is there anything about him at all that would keep a nation of crazed NFL fans riveted? You know, besides his team being one of the last two to lose a game and approaching Thanksgiving still perfect?


Well, there is the fact that he is the man to whom one of the most respected figures in recent league history handed the reins. The man Dungy confided in, groomed for the job, ushered into the pro game (while Dungy was at Tampa Bay) and in return absorbed his knowledge of the game and the profession. The man on whom Dungy and the Colts organization leaned as interim head coach while Dungy grieved for his teenage son after his suicide in 2005.


There are his 15 years as a college assistant coach - capped by a run at Penn State, where he was on staff for the 1986 team that won the epic Fiesta Bowl over Miami for the national championship. There also are his eight years as Wake Forest's head coach, the first (and still only) black football coach in ACC history (and there has only been one since, Randy Shannon at Miami). He did win a bowl game, a remarkable feat at that program, but had just that one winning season and went 26-63 at a school that long had been a bottom-feeder and has only become respectable recently under Jim Grobe, his replacement.


Caldwell, at 54, got a second head-coaching chance - not just one level higher, but several considering where Wake truly was in the hierarchy - nine years after his first. He inherited a team that was expected to be a contender, as usual, because Peyton Manning would not be coming off surgery as he had in 2008. But Marvin Harrison was released, then Anthony Gonzalez was injured early in the season, then Bob Sanders played only two games between two separate surgeries, then two other defensive backs got hurt, then the running game went to hell inexplicably, then Adam Vinatieri went down. And, of course, he had to somehow smooth the transition from the coach who had made it look so easy for so long.


A lot for a rookie coach, even a seasoned one, to shake off, going into his first season and as it evolved.


They haven't lost yet.


But to hear most of football-loving America tell it, the Colts are doing this on auto-pilot, or maybe with Manning operating as player-coach. You were never in doubt about who got credit for the 6-0 start by the Broncos. You heard more than your share about the man behind the Saints' 9-0 start as well, Sean Payton. Even with Brett Favre eclipsing everything else in Minnesota, Brad Childress was never out of the spotlight as a key to the Vikings' future. Realistically, it's the nature of the game and how the world relates to it - the success or failure of a team can't possibly be discussed without the coach being mentioned, regularly, rightly or wrongly.


Except in the case of the Indianapolis Colts and the rookie coach with the most wins to start his career ever.


And, for that matter, in the case of the Cincinnati Bengals, laughing stocks for various reasons for most of the last two decades and certainly the last two dreadful seasons - but now among the greatest success stories of the year. Who are, like the Colts, doing it without a head coach. No one appears to believe Marvin Lewis has anything to do with the 7-2, first-place mark and the season sweeps of Baltimore and Pittsburgh, not the way it was believed he had everything to do with the skid of the last two years as key players were injured or in someone's legal doghouse.


You'd think there weren't possibly two better coaching stories in the NFL today, two men who had to wait forever to get their chances, who fell a long way when they got them and pulled themselves back up and are enjoying the fruits of their labors.


You would think that about Jim Caldwell, and also about Marvin Lewis, certainly more than you would about a lot of the other coaches in the league right now.


But you'd be mighty lonely.

(Photo: Sports Illustrated)


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