Jim Caldwell fired: Why Colts owner Jim Irsay was right to move on


Jim Caldwell’s firing as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts tells us something about what makes good leadership. (Andy Lyons/GETTY IMAGES)

Plenty of Colts watchers might say that Caldwell should have gotten another shot. This is a man who won 14 straight games and made it to the Super Bowl in his first year as head coach. then took his team back to the playoffs the next year despite a rash of injuries. This season, the team’s last-in-its-conference standing was largely due to losing one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, Peyton Manning, to neck surgery. Before he became head coach, Caldwell served as the quarterbacks coach and as an assistant and associate head coach, part of the staff that helped guide Manning to four MVP awards and the Colts to seven division wins. As ESPN writer John Clayton put it, “One bad season caused Irsay to turn away from more than a dozen years of success.”

Caldwell was reported to be universally popular among his players. Colts defensive end Robert Mathis seemed frustrated by the move, writing on Twitter that "Irsay aint playing no games!" Center Jeff Saturday said earlier that “I think Coach Caldwell has done a very good job. He has gotten the most out of his players, and we play hard for him each and every week.”

At the same time, Manning wasn’t the only reason the Colts had such a losing record this year, even if it was the biggest one. The team’s defense performed poorly enough that the Colts’ defensive coordinator was let go in November, a move many fans believed should have happened earlier. Fans also criticized the slow move to switch quarterbacks following the team’s dreadful losing start.

Finally, a coach who can’t win without his star on the field reveals a lot about his leadership. If a coach—or any leader, for that matter—becomes too dependent on one star’s performance, it will eventually show. Good leaders are able to put together a team that wins, at least sometimes, even when their best performers can’t play. As some have noted, the New England Patriots, who have nearly just as good a quarterback in Tom Brady as the Colts do in Manning, managed to win 11 games without their star in 2008.

Perhaps another shot with a healthy star quarterback could have restored Caldwell’s reputation. But Irsay was probably right to move on. Leaders need to be able to perform in good and bad circumstances, and a clean slate may be just what the team needs following such a dismal season.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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