The new Detroit Lions head coach is supposed to be far different from the old Lions head coach.
Time to see if that happens.
Jim Caldwell, on the first day he met with his players, found one superstar absent: Ndamukong Suh.
The defensive tackle's decision not to show up for this week's voluntary workouts isn't a red flag on its own. Voluntary workouts are just that, and it's not like Suh is ever out of shape. Suh is working on a new contract and he's not the first standout to sit out while business is done.
"From what I know it's a contract thing so that's the business side of stuff and we all go through it so everybody understands," running back Reggie Bush told reporters on Thursday. "Nobody's looking down on him. I'm sure as soon as he can be here he'll be here."
That defense, though commendable, is weakened by the fact that Suh usually doesn't show up to voluntary workouts – contract limbo or no contract limbo. And that leads to a bigger issue.
The Lions' nagging reputation of having players who don't listen to anyone but themselves was supposed to change under Caldwell. Even if Suh showed up just to show up, visit with Caldwell and then leave, it would give a lift to a team that is trying to rebuild confidence and chemistry after a 6-3 start in 2013 turned into a 7-9 debacle. Instead, Suh is absent and Caldwell is tested early.
Does he just shrug it off? And if so, what won't he shrug off?
"It certainly didn't blindside me," Caldwell told reporters. "We certainly knew. He and I have probably had more discussions than any player that we've had on the team. He's been in and out. I think he was here on a couple days when I came on a visit, so we kind of knew exactly what was going on. But from a coach's standpoint, it's just like anything else. My business is to get in the position to win and win consistently. So we want every single minute of every single hour with every single player. That's the way we want it."
Former Lions coach Jim Schwartz came in as a new wave football brain with an economics degree from Georgetown. He ended up looking like a weak bystander while Lions seasons devolved in a torrent of personal foul penalties, blown assignments and boneheaded errors. His final scene came last December when he botched the last minute in regulation of an overtime loss to the New York Giants, and then yelled at home fans. It was the signature moment of a coach who never exerted control and ended up as petulant as his players. Suh was the coach on the field in the best and worst ways: unafraid but also out of control.
Enter Caldwell, who is as calm as Schwartz is edgy, yet Suh's reputation as being aloof threatens to make Caldwell appear as much of a weak bystander as Schwartz was. What can he do besides give Suh a huge payday and hope for the best?
Caldwell looked like a deer in the headlights at times during his head coaching tenure in Indianapolis, and many fans figured the stars were in charge there too. Except the star of that franchise was Peyton Manning, who gets teammates to fall in line just by showing up. Suh, clearly, does not have that effect. Not yet, anyway.
Suh's absence during voluntary workouts isn't going to derail the 2014 season, but it adds a layer of pressure to the new coach. How is he going to make this team as good as the sum of its parts? If the Lions were even a little bit better in penalties and turnovers last season, they would likely have won a division title. Now, with three mediocre defenses in the NFC North in Chicago, Green Bay and Minnesota, the Lions can win with the kind of togetherness that's eluded them for years under Schwartz. The question is clear and stark: Who leads?
Is it Matthew Stafford, who is forceful on the field but not aggressive with teammates? Is it Calvin Johnson, the best in the NFL at his position but also the quietest? Is it Bush, who called for a players-only meeting last season only to have Stafford insist it wasn't needed? Or is it Suh, who fashioned himself as a head-of-household last season, only to be helpless and toothless as the Lions self-destructed after Thanksgiving?
Suh has played with more maturity as he's gained experience, and he certainly makes others around him better, but the Lions still don't resemble a team that belongs in the same conversation as the Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers. Something is missing – something beyond gaping holes in the secondary and a lack of depth at receiver.
The Lions under Schwartz couldn't take a punch. When they weren't eliminated early in seasons, they let tremors turn into earthquakes. After a blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in a blizzard, linebacker DeAndre Levy called his team "soft." The rest of the season proved Levy right. It's up to Caldwell to not only appear as something other than soft, but also to foist that resilience onto the team as a whole. Suh would be the perfect lieutenant, as he's one of the most feared players in football, but he would have to first buy in to what Caldwell wants to sell.
For that to happen, the two of them need to be under the same roof.