Colts’ Caldwell perfect fit as Dungy’s replacement

Jim Caldwell makes this coaching stuff look easy.

Three months into his first season with the Colts, Caldwell still has not lost a game. He’s already set an NFL record for rookie head coaches with 11 straight wins, is one win short of tying the NFL’s longest winning streak (21), and the comparisons between himself and former coach Tony Dungy are fading with each new achievement.

It’s a script Hollywood wouldn’t believe.

“I don’t think anyone can realistically tell you they knew it would turn out this way, as difficult as this league is,” Caldwell said Monday. “I didn’t dream of it.”

Certainly not under these circumstances.

Though it might not seem like it to outsiders, Caldwell inherited one of the toughest gigs in the NFL.

He replaced the revered Dungy, the franchise’s career victories leader who led Indy to five division crowns, two AFC Championship games, a Super Bowl title and six straight 12-win seasons. Caldwell still had his star pupil, too, Peyton Manning, meaning expectations would be higher than other organizations.

Some fans suggested the Colts could only remain successful if they brought in a big-name, Super Bowl-winning coach rather than the soft-spoken, under-the-radar Caldwell.

Nobody is doubting the team’s choice now.

Caldwell has presided over the biggest overhaul in Indy since Dungy arrived in 2002 – the rookie coach demonstrating a golden touch.

He changed the defensive coordinator and special teams coach, areas that have shown significant improvement this season. After the release of Marvin Harrison and a season-long knee injury to Anthony Gonzalez, the Colts‘ young receivers have become major contributors.

Last spring’s on-again, off-again retirement saga with longtime assistants Tom Moore and Howard Mudd ended with both returning, and, of course, Caldwell has met Indy’s lofty standards by clinching the AFC South.

It’s a road most coaches never get the opportunity to thoroughly navigate because of the countless potholes that derail careers and franchises.

Just ask Miami or San Francisco, which have gone through five different coaches since their signature faces – Don Shula and the late Bill Walsh – left the sidelines. Or Green Bay, which got rid of Ray Rhodes after one season as Mike Holmgren’s replacement because 8-8 didn’t cut it. On the college level, conventional wisdom is that coaches don’t want to replace Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden or Woody Hayes or Paul “Bear” Bryant; they want to replace the replacement.

But Caldwell, once on Paterno’s staff at Penn State, learned long ago never to cower from a challenge.

“I’m not certain that you ever replace – No. 1, he (Dungy) is a Hall of Famer, he’s a guy that is loved and respected a tremendous amount,” Caldwell said. “The thing that I think you get into a problem with, is if someone comes in and tries to be someone other than themselves. I can only be me.”

Being Jim Caldwell has been good enough over the last three months.

While the Wisconsin native and Iowa graduate often cites scripture passages when discussing his coaching philosophies, Caldwell has brought a toughness players respect.

Twice since training camp he has changed starters on the offensive line because he said the replacements were performing better – criticisms Dungy rarely uttered publicly. Defenders like the fact that Caldwell asks how they’re feeling and adjusts practices accordingly if they’re weary.

“I think everybody’s kind of learning something a little bit new each week or every three or four games,” Manning said last week. “Players are playing very hard for him, which I think is a great quality as a head coach, and the players respect him.”

But unlike others who have followed familiar names, Caldwell didn’t walk into this job cold.

When Dungy pondered retirement after the 2007 season, team owner Jim Irsay promoted Caldwell to head coach-in-waiting rather than risk losing him to another team.

Irsay’s decision gave Caldwell a full season to learn the nuances of being a head coach, to ask Dungy questions, to get involved in personnel meetings and devise a strategy that fit his personality.

Caldwell already had a pretty good idea of what he wanted.

“I had to prepare six different times for head coaching interviews, and one of the exercises you go through is you have to put together your staff,” Caldwell said. “You have to describe to them (owners and GMs) what you are looking for from a defensive standpoint. Larry (Coyer) was always a guy I had listed as my defensive coordinator. It all depended upon whether or not he was going to be available.”

Within a month, Caldwell had Coyer on his staff, and the results have been impressive.

Indy’s run defense, which ranked in the bottom third of the league last season, is now at No. 15, and the Colts have allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL.

Does it get better than this?

Maybe not, even if Caldwell declines to take the credit.

“Thank goodness they (the Colts) understand what winning’s all about and they’ve developed a great winning culture here,” he said. “All I have to do is try to build upon what Tony had established.”