By: Will Burchfield
Two clear opportunities arose this week for the leaders of the Lions’ coaching staff to defend one of their own.
They failed to seize either.
On Thursday, Akeem Spence shared the news that his peaceful protest during the national anthem on Sunday cost his father a job. Spence was one of eight Lions to take a knee.
Caldwell, who participated in the demonstration himself, was asked on Friday how he deals with such a situation given its personal impact on Spence.
“I don’t. I’m not going to talk about it anymore. I mentioned it earlier,” Caldwell said. “This is unprecedented, obviously, hadn’t happened before. I mean, there’s not a whole lot you can say about it. Like I said, I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time talking about that issue.”
Caldwell has made that clear from the start, and he was passionate in his defense of his players — and those across the NFL — in the wake of Sunday’s protest. But given the forum to stand up for Spence, Caldwell played it safe.
“It’s not like it’s not been an issue for the last couple weeks or so, so guys tend to be able to deal with a lot of difficult circumstances,” Caldwell said.
Look, the NFL is embroiled in a divisive political issue, and Caldwell finds himself in the thick of it. His reticence can be understood.
But there was nothing political about Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen calling Lions left tackle Greg Robinson “lazy” on Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s clash. For Caldwell, there was zero risk in refuting Griffen’s comments.
Still, he — and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter — chose not to.
“Unless we see or hear something, we don’t make any comments in relationship to what we heard about somebody saying this or that. And even if we did, we usually don’t respond to it,” Caldwell said.
Asked specifically if Robinson is a “lazy” player — a freebie for the coach — Caldwell said, “All we know is what we’ve responded just like I told you just a minute ago. You asked me about him. I’m not responding to anything anybody else said about him.”
Cooter echoed Caldwell.
“Interesting to see,” Cooter said of Griffen’s comments. “I’ll leave that to other people.”
Asked the same follow-up — if he views Robinson as a “lazy” player — Cooter said, “I’m not going down the hype path. So, you guys can write whatever you want.”
Caldwell is cautious with the media, and his assistant coaches follow his lead. Tactfulness is called for in an industry prone to sensationalism. But there is a way to defend a player without engaging in a war of words.
The most Caldwell vouched for Robinson was to say, “He’s gotten better every week, a little bit better. He’s improving, working at it.”
The furthest Cooter went was, “Greg’s done a lot of nice things. Greg has not been perfect. He’s getting better and better.”
Coaches are typically quick to stick out their necks on behalf of their players, especially when a player has been criticized by an opponent. That Caldwell and Cooter more or less turtled in regard to Robinson is strange — and perhaps telling of Robinson.
“Here’s what I believe,” said Caldwell. “I believe that good players don’t need external motivation to do their job.”