Caldwell optimistic about Lions’ production after mandatory mini-camp

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Jim Caldwell finished up his first mandatory mini-camp as the Detroit Lions’ coach Thursday afternoon just in time.

He’s headed off to North Carolina this weekend to walk his youngest child and only daughter, Natalie, down the aisle. She gets married on Sunday.

For a father, just like an NFL coach, the concerns seem never-ending.

"I’ve got some things to deal with," Caldwell said. "I gave them an unlimited budget and they went over that."

Asked if he thinks he’ll cry when he sees his little girl in her wedding gown, Caldwell answered, "I doubt it, but you never know when that time comes.  One thing, I won’t be ashamed of it if I did."

What we’ve seen out here in practice only confirms there’s a very, very strong nucleus of guys that can play the game.

Jim Caldwell

Before leaving town, Caldwell put his team through the last of three practices this week, part of it through a heavy downpour of rain on their outdoor practice facility.

This was also their last practice until the regular training camp opens in late July. NFL rules stipulate that teams shut down for the next six weeks, which meant most players were headed quickly to the airport soon after Thursday’s session ended.

The Lions have been working on and off for the last couple months, installing the new systems under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

Caldwell said he’s optimistic about how far they’ve gotten going into the summer break.

"We think we had a real productive couple months with these guys," Caldwell said. "I thought they prepared well, they worked hard. They certainly didn’t flinch.

"We had fewer and fewer mistakes as our practices went on, which is the way it’s supposed to be. We like where we are."

During his introductory news conference back in January, Caldwell proclaimed: "The time is now."

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In the NFL, every coach enters somewhat of a win-now-or-get-fired-soon environment, but Caldwell left the impression that he clearly believes the Lions are in position to contend immediately despite an 11-21 record in coach Jim Schwartz’s final two years.

"Nothing’s changed my mind in terms of what I believe about the talent level," Caldwell said. "What we’ve seen out here in practice only confirms there’s a very, very strong nucleus of guys that can play the game."

Not only do the Lions have returning stars like Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, Reggie Bush and Matthew Stafford, but they’ve also added some players who have played on Super Bowl teams such as receiver Golden Tate and safety James Ihedigbo.

"I’ve got a veteran group here," Caldwell said. "I’ve got a group that has great leaders."

He also, however, inherits a team that has had a knack for making big mistakes at the worst times. The Lions became known for their lack of discipline under Schwartz.

Too many players got in trouble with the law during the offseason a couple years ago. There were costly personal fouls at key points in games.

And the offense coughed the ball up way too much while the defense failed to force enough turnovers.

Caldwell’s message to fix the problem: "Play smart, not scared."

"You’ve got to be aggressive," he said. "This is an aggressive game, but you also have to take calculated risks. We don’t want to be overly aggressive where it creates problems. We want to play smart.

"We certainly don’t want to play scared. We’re going to make some aggressive mistakes along the way."

For the next six weeks, no news will be good news for the Lions, unless it’s that Suh has signed a much-anticipated contract extension.

Caldwell spent the last couple months laying the foundation for his "core values" and what he expects of his players, both on and off the field.

A quiet summer without any off-the-field distractions would be ideal for the new coach, whose team is due to report back for camp around July 25, with the regular-season opener set for Sept. 8, a Monday night, against the New York Giants.