But by broaching the subject during Thursday night’s preseason finale, did Irsay instead lend credence to these reports that a problem could exist?
Irsay had evidently read local and national stories that have suggested Pagano, entering the final year of his contract, is coaching for his job this season.
“I really feel good about the energy that Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano have together,” Irsay said on the Fox-59 TV broadcast.
“It’s false for anyone to say that there’s friction there. There isn’t friction there, honestly. They work really well together.”
Irsay added that the two “have great debates” but “always come out respecting each other and trying to help each other.”
So why the headlines?
The fact that Pagano declined a contract extension in the offseason raised eyebrows, especially since the Colts are 33-15 in the regular season and 3-3 in three playoff trips since he was hired.
When Irsay visited training camp in August, he brought up how he’s spoken to Pagano about having a more hands-on approach with the defense. Pagano’s previous job was as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, but the Colts have struggled on that side of the ball in playoff losses to the New England Patriots in back-to-back Januarys.
“We’ve had some games where we’ve played really well, (but) there’s been some inconsistencies,” Irsay said. “I really think Chuck is spending more time on defense this year. We’ve talked about it. And Tony Dungy used to do that, where he would come in and spend a little bit more time on the defensive side of the ball since that was his expertise.”
The owner isn’t shy about reminding everyone about the Super Bowl goal. He’s previously expressed regret that the Colts hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy only once during the Peyton Manning, and said in May he expects his team to win at least two Super Bowls during the Andrew Luck era.
Maybe there’s something to some of the other stories, and then again perhaps not. But they’re coming from several different platforms.
CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora wrote on Aug. 20, “Pagano's future is obviously quite nebulous at this time. The Colts have dangled only a modest one-year deal before him, and it remains to be seen how impactful the team's new additions will be after some less-than-fruitful acquisitions the past two years following a blockbuster 2012 offseason.
“There is consistent chatter around the league about tension between Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, and Irsay's ungraceful handling of the coach's contract situation might mean he'll have to pick only one man to remain should this season result in anything less than a Super Bowl appearance. Grigson has a very strong relationship with the Irsay family and is signed through 2016, which could be a strong indication of how Irsay is leaning.”
La Canfora also quoted sources who said Pagano wanted Rob Chudzinski to be offensive coordinator but Grigson preferred the man who was hired, Pep Hamilton. Chudzinski was hired in 2014 as a special assistant to the head coach and then promoted this past offseason to associate head coach.
In March, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported multiple league sources had advised the Grigson-Pagano relationship “may have been strained” by DeflateGate allegations against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. One source told Florio that DeflateGate created a distraction for the team at halftime, when the Colts trailed 17-7.
Just last week, NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport told NFL Total Access' Scott Hanson on Wednesday that Pagano is in a "make-or-break" year after rejecting "a couple of one-year extensions" from the Colts.
The same NFL.com story cited a report from Mike Garafolo of FOX Sports that Grigson wanted rookie Donte Moncrief to see more playing time in the playoffs last January instead of an injured Reggie Wayne, who caught only one pass in three starts.
Inevitably, the topic was finally broached on the home front in Indianapolis.
Last week, WTHR-13 TV columnist Bob Kravitz wrote about a “growing disconnect” between Grigson and Pagano: “After poking around the last few weeks and talking to people who understand the dynamics of the situation, here’s my read on things: As is so often the case in professional football, the head coach wants more say in personnel decisions. As Bill Parcells used to say, if he’s going to cook the meal, he wants to pick out the groceries. I cannot list with any certainty specific examples where Grigson and Pagano have butted heads in personnel, but I can say they haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.”
Kravitz also wrote, “From my conversations with people who know what’s going on, Irsay and Grigson have questions as to whether Pagano, a players’ coach, has the ability or the inclination to put a boot up somebody’s backside. Even at this level, fear is still a healthy motivator. They also look at his record outside of the abysmal AFC South and the fact the Colts have gotten trounced in several games against elite opponents.”
The Colts are 16-2 in division games and 17-13 against everyone else in the regular season. Last season’s 11-5 record included lopsided losses to New England (42-20 at home), Pittsburgh (51-34 on road), Dallas (42-7 on road) and again to the Patriots (45-7 on road in January’s AFC Championship Game).
Many might dismiss all of this as media speculation. But Irsay said something else Thursday night that could prove to be more prophetic than anything else, considering the Super Bowl expectations for his team.
“We’re at an important point right now in the franchise obviously,” Irsay said.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.