The Chuck Pagano you can’t help but like showed up Monday to chat with reporters.
It wasn't the fourth-year Indianapolis Colts head coach reportedly under fire from this season’s outset. It wasn’t even the coach who defiantly asserted he wasn’t embarrassed by a 51-16 loss Sunday at Jacksonville.
This was the Pagano who galvanized an Indianapolis community in 2012, the inspiration behind the “ChuckStrong” cancer battle.
This wasn’t the coach who can be defensive about why his defense can’t get stops or how every mistake his team has ever made is his fault. That’s a players’ coach taking hits for his players, trying to keep their spirits up because everything counts on their performance and he’s doing whatever he can to keep their minds right.
I have no problem making the argument that pampered, well-paid NFL players need tougher love, and if Pagano isn’t back next year, that will be the reason, in my opinion. He’s won enough games to get another contract, but he’s also lost too many by wide margins to instill confidence he can get this team to the Super Bowl, too.
A day after adding the dubious distinction of losing two consecutive games by 35 points for the first time in franchise history, the 55-year-old coach didn’t show any stress from the situation. If anything, he sounded relaxed. Yeah, somehow, inexplicably, he seemed at ease with whatever happens.
Some would suggest Pagano is resigned to his fate, that even he knows his contract won’t be renewed. Perhaps that’s true, but this sure seemed like more than that.
He reminded me that while we all can criticize a coach for making decisions that are questionable, he’s more than just wins and losses on a football field. I know some hate it when the cancer card gets played, but having lost several important people to the disease including one recently, that struggle can’t be overlooked or understated in providing perspective.
“You know, when I spent 26 days in the hospital in 2012, that was tough. That was tough,” Pagano said. “This is nothing. I’m holding up great. My weight is a little bit up because you don’t get as much time to work out a little bit, so I got a few extra pounds on me. I know it doesn’t show, but that’s what big clothes do for you. My wife is taking great care of me. I’m doing great. We have a great opportunity.”
His eyes still on the prize, Pagano can point to a Sunday showdown with the Houston Texans at Lucas Oil Stadium as the next game being the most important game, not just because it’s the next game but because the winner likely claims the AFC South Division and the loser in this clash of 6-7 teams is likely done.
“I mean, there’s stress,” he said. “I go home and if things aren’t right, I’ve got stress at home. My wife has enough stuff. My daughters, I worry about them. That brings stress. Yeah, that’s what comes with this job, but we all know what we signed up for. What are you going to do? So what, now what?
“They can’t eat you. Remember I told you that. They can’t eat you. They can fire you, but they can’t eat you. So if the worst thing is a year from now, let’s say I’m in Boise (Idaho) next year playing with my granddaughters, I’m going to be fine. That isn’t going to happen, but I’m going to be fine if I have to go down that road.”
Pagano was asked if he would have handled this season as well before dealing with cancer.
“That brought great perspective obviously on a lot of things,” he said. “Because what happens is when things are going good, the car is running, it turns over every morning, you’re not sick, you have your health, you take things for granted. You’re winning a bunch of games, yeah you may take things for granted.
“I’ve never really taken anything for granted, even before the cancer, so I’m grateful for every single day that I get. Again, if I get tomorrow, we’re going to attack it with everything we have and be grateful for that. All I’m worried about is today. I’m doing the very best job that I can today and then when tomorrow comes, we’ll deal with tomorrow.”
Seriously, folks, at his core, Pagano is a nice guy. We all know the old adage about where nice guys finish, but the reality is, he’s never been last with the Colts. He’s won two division crowns and has a 42-25 record counting three consecutive playoff trips.
I’m on record as saying the blame for this season is on general manager Ryan Grigson first, then Pagano.
If Pagano is indeed playing with granddaughters in Boise next year, and the indictment of his Colts tenure is he couldn’t get this team to the Super Bowl, well, he can join a club membership of thousands. It won’t be the end of the world for him. And I’m kind of glad he took the time to remind everyone of that reality.
It doesn’t change the facts or the opinion that Colts owner Jim Irsay will need to shake things up next month.
But it would be easy for Pagano to be bitter, even angry about not getting more credit for a team that won fast after rebuilding from 2-14 and continued to win more than it lost. There are enough Pagano supporters out there who continue to make their feelings known on this.
The referendum on Pagano the coach will continue for a few weeks.
Whatever happens, this much shouldn't be in question. Pagano the person is a good guy.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.