There was an assumption during Jim Caldwell's eight years as quarterbacks coach of the Indianapolis Colts that he didn't have much to do. By the time Caldwell arrived for the 2002 season, Peyton Manning was four years into what is now sure to be a Hall of Fame career and his numbers were already impressive for a young NFL quarterback.
But longtime Colts coach Tony Dungy, who had brought Caldwell with him to Indianapolis after one season in Tampa Bay, said Caldwell deserves a great deal of credit for Manning becoming one of the elite quarterbacks in NFL history. So does Manning, who thinks the role of quarterbacks coach is often overlooked, whether the quarterback is a rookie or an established star.
“It's easy for a quarterback to get into bad habits if someone is not there watching you,” Manning told The Baltimore Sun. “A lot of drills that we did … I still do today. You might even call them simple quarterback drills, but they're all about the mechanics and fundamentals of playing the position. In the heat of battle on a critical third-and-6, I think it's important that your mechanics and discipline and fundamentals kind of show up. That's why you practice them all the time so that you can execute your job.”
Caldwell, who succeeded Dungy as head coach and helped lead the Colts to the Super Bowl during his first season in 2009, is now being asked to do for Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco what he did for Manning. Caldwell, 57, was hired by the Ravens in January, three days after being fired following his team's Manning-less 2-14 season in 2011.
The task of working with the 27-year-old Flacco, who is going into his fifth NFL season, excites Caldwell.
“Obviously, he's a talented guy. Very talented,” Caldwell said during minicamp in June. “If you've seen him practice out there of late, he's done a tremendous job. But even before that, even looking at him from the other side of the field when we were preparing for them, he was a guy with talent, with ability, great desire, and he's a fine leader as well.”
The perception is that Caldwell will have a lot more work in Baltimore than he ever did in Indianapolis.
Dungy, now an analyst for NBC, disagrees.
“I think Joe is ahead of Peyton in his first four years because he has a better team around him,” Dungy said. “I think what everybody is waiting for is just the championship. …You might see a better player and a more mature player and it might not translate into more wins and a championship, but I'd be shocked if you don't see Joe Flacco play at a higher level under Jim Caldwell.”
Flacco, who shares a birthday (Jan. 16) with his new position coach, has not talked with Manning about Caldwell, but is aware that the perennial All-Pro quarterback speaks highly of him. As the Ravens open training camp Thursday in Owings Mills, the relationship between Flacco and Caldwell is still in its early stages.
“I think it's always an adjustment when you work with someone new and someone who is trying to fit in and be a part of what we've done here the past couple of years,” Flacco said. “However, I don't think it's a tough adjustment, and I don't think it's an unwanted adjustment. It's something that you need to embrace. The fact that Jim is a really good guy and has that attention to detail and really loves the game of football makes everything very easy, and you don't really think about it as an adjustment. You just take it for what it is and continue to do what you've been doing.”
Former NFL quarterback and current CBS analyst Boomer Esiason said Caldwell's low-key personality could be a good fit for Flacco. That opinion is based on what Esiason heard from his former college roommate at Maryland, Frank Reich, who followed Caldwell as quarterbacks coach with the Colts.
“This is not General Patton coaching you. This is not a guy who is going to act like he created the position of quarterback,” Esiason said. “He has a very soothing way about him. Not all quarterbacks coaches have the patience and the diligence and the history that Jim has with the position to sit there confidently and patiently and get the message across.”
Caldwell's personality is more similar to that of Jim Zorn, who coached Flacco in 2010, than to that of Hue Jackson, Flacco's position coach his rookie year. Flacco set several career highs under Zorn's tutelage: for yardage (3,622), pass efficiency rating (93.6) and touchdowns (25) while throwing for a career-low 10 interceptions. He also completed 62.6 percent of his passes, a shade below his career best. His numbers dropped in nearly every category last season, when he also fumbled a career-high nine times.
“Obviously, I got along with Coach Zorn,” Flacco said. “I think the statistics just worked out that way that year. But I think it is very important to have a relationship with your position coach, because they are the guys you spend every day with for long periods of time, and your success, I feel, has a lot to do with that relationship on the field and in the classroom, which is where you're going to get a lot of work done. So I think having a good, healthy relationship with your position coach can definitely translate to your mental well-being, which allows you to play at your best. You don't have anything holding you back.”
Esiason thinks Flacco's performance in last season's AFC championship game loss at New England is an indication that he has started to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the league. Dungy believes he might be there.
“It's just one or two plays a game that determine if you're an elite quarterback or not,” said Dungy, who played quarterback in college. “He's playing at a high level, they've got talented receivers, they've played good on offense. It's that signature play in a game. Signature plays come from consistency, and that's what Jim will preach. You don't know when those plays are coming; you've got to be at peak efficiency every snap. It will be very minute, but it will probably show up in one or two plays.”
Those who wonder about the relationship Flacco has with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron believe that Caldwell can be “a buffer,” as Esiason put it, when any difficulties arise.
“There are coaches out there who are [tough], that don't have the flexibility or the patience. That's not who Jim Caldwell is,” Esiason said. “He's someone who has great understanding of the position, he coached it at the highest of high levels when he coached Peyton Manning. He's arguing on your behalf and can do that with another set of eyes and maybe he can loosen some of that tension that could have been there with Cam.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh said during minicamp that Cameron “obviously, does a great job working on coaching the quarterbacks and [last year] we tied the offense a little more directly to Joe. This year Jim became available and it's been a perfect fit. The timing was really good, and the guy was right. Jim has done a great job, and those guys are really hitting it off.”
Manning gave Caldwell a strong recommendation when Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and Harbaugh called the former Colts quarterback when Caldwell became available. Caldwell also talked with the Pittsburgh Steelers about their offensive coordinator's job.
While Caldwell and Manning eventually became close off the field because of their strong faith, the basis of their relationship was in taking the same approach to the game.
“He was extremely detailed,” Manning said. “I've always considered myself a good note-taker; Jim Caldwell might be the all-time note-taker. He always referred to those notes. I've always been a routine kind of guy and Jim Caldwell was very much the same kind of way. Prepractice drills, warm-ups, going over mechanics.”
In the short time he has worked with Caldwell, Flacco can see what Manning is talking about.
“Definitely, you can see that attention to detail right away,” Flacco said. “As an offensive guy, offense is generally detail-orientated, and you can see that Jim follows the general rules. You can see it in the meeting rooms especially — just the way we go about things in how detailed he is and going through everything to make sure he sees things the same way I do and I see things the same way he does. We always talk and have that open communication to ensure we have similar thoughts about something. He definitely wants everyone to be on the same page and everyone to be detail-orientated, and I've been able to pick that up in the couple weeks I've been with him.”
Dungy said that Caldwell's strength as a quarterbacks coach — the only position he has ever held in the NFL aside from being the head coach of the Colts — is that “I think he tailors the guy's mental approach to the game really well, he breaks it down and makes it really easy to understand what you have to do to be a great quarterback mentally.”
Said Manning, whose career will resume with the Denver Broncos after he missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury: “I'll always be very indebted to him for what he did for me. I felt like I definitely improved during our time together. I certainly had some of my best years as a quarterback under his tutelage.”