Caldwell's Dungy-Like Demeanor Is a Hit
"Jim's his own man," Irsay told me in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium after Caldwell led the Colts to a 30-17 win over the Jets in the AFC championship game.
But it was as hard to see a difference in the two Sunday as it was all this season while Caldwell led Dungy's old team to a 14-2 record.
And that, if you are a fan of the Colts, or particularly of men who play and coach games with an utmost respect for others, is a good thing.
For when it was finally all over Sunday, when Caldwell's Colts had cooled the Jets and quieted its loquacious rookie coach Rex Ryan, Caldwell refused to toot his own horn. Instead, he simply praised his vanquished opponent. He championed his assistants. He congratulated his charges.
Peyton Manning told the Colts' fans over the loudspeaker: "We were very humble this week. I thought we just kept our mouth shut and went to work this week and came out and won this game."
Their coach didn't guffaw. He didn't predict what his team was about to do. He didn't fire back at the Jets' Ryan who entertained the media last week and before with bold statements, though good natured in the end. Caldwell was as anonymous the past week as Ryan was boisterous.
It was as if one was looking at Caldwell's mentor, Dungy, all over again. Caldwell was remarkably, and refreshingly, unassuming, except for the result on the scoreboard and in the record book.
"I've never been one to look for any special attention; I've never needed anybody to tell me I've done a good job," Caldwell said standing at a podium in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium allowing only a new black ballcap announcing his AFC championship to toot his accomplishment.
"The great thing about this league, we've got a great barometer that tells you what kind of job that you've done, and that's that won-lost record."
Caldwell moved to 16-2 as a head NFL coach and 2-0 in the playoffs. He has become everything Dungy said he would be. He has become everything Irsay was so convinced he would be that Irsay upped his salary in recent years to keep him in Indianapolis as other franchises inquired about his availability.
"He was the best man," Irsay said of finding a successor to Dungy.
And Irsay was a brilliant owner to believe in him.
After all, in a lot of ways Caldwell doesn't deserve to do what he's about to do, be the head coach of a team in the Super Bowl. That isn't true just because this is his virgin season as an NFL headman and so few rookie coaches have taken their teams so far. It is also true because there is nothing in Caldwell's previous experience to foretell his success this season. When he was a college head coach for eight years at Wake Forest, he led his charges to one winning season, and a bowl berth, in 1999.
But Irsay didn't get caught up in evaluating Caldwell based on his lack of head coaching success. He took into account that what Caldwell did at brainy Wake Forest was as remarkable as what Caldwell experienced as an assistant on Dennis Green's staff at Northwestern in 1981, some success where there had been none.
Irsay listened to what Dungy told him about Caldwell's readiness. He took note of what he witnessed of Caldwell all those years under the Colts' roof as a Dungy assistant. He didn't shy from turning over his perennial Super Bowl contender to someone who hadn't done it on his own before. He didn't do what the Bills did just recently and look away from an outstanding assistant in Leslie Frazier and turn their club over to a journeyman in Chan Gailey who has been remarkable only in his unremarkable success as an NFL and college head coach.
When Dungy retired, none other than his New England nemesis Bill Belichick commented that Dungy's Colts were a reminder of how much teams often reflect the personality of their coach. Caldwell as a part of those teams reflects Dungy as well.
"He text me a message," Caldwell said when asked about hearing from Dungy before what was Caldwell's biggest game, "that said 'chance favors a prepared mind.' ''
Caldwell said Dungy told him the phrase was a favorite of Dungy's mother.
Caldwell clearly had his team prepared for this postseason. He knew what he was doing. There was a lot of chirping from beyond about Caldwell throttling down his team in the final weeks of the regular season to preserve them for the playoffs rather than have them try for an undefeated season.
"I spend very little time thinking about those kinds of things," he said. "I really try not to focus on anything of that nature. We weren't out to prove anything; there's no sense of vindication or retribution. All we were concerned about is trying to do the best job we can for our team, plain and simple. Not everybody's going to agree with you all the time."
But there is no argument now. Even history is on the Colts' side. Don McCafferty replaced Don Shula and took the Colts to Super Bowl victory as rookie coach a couple of generations ago.
Caldwell had the Colts prepared for everything the Jets' No. 1 defense and ball-controlling running game threw at his Colts. They ran when the Jets decided to thwart Manning's passing attack with seven defensive backs on the field. They strung out the Jets' running backs until help arrived. They gave up two big plays to the Jets, one by a beaten cornerback in rookie Jacob Lacey and the other a wildcat throw by quarterback-turned-running back Brad Smith.
"He did a great job preparing us," Colts' linebacker Gary Brackett said of his new coach.
Caldwell hasn't allowed the Colts to miss a beat.