Chuck Pagano knows this is it.
He didn't say the words, but he knows.
All that remains is a sit-down meeting with Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay on Monday. That’s when the speculated status of a head coach at the end of his contract will be cleared up. Then players, reporters and fans will await the news to be made public.
Too many indicators were obvious on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, after the Colts defeated the Tennessee Titans 30-24 but missed the playoffs.
Pagano embraced outside linebacker Robert Mathis on the field. The 55-year-old coach then jogged toward the exit. He pounded a fist into his chest while looking up into the stands. He gave a big hug to the Colts mascot, Blue. He pointed to the stands.
Then Pagano waved one final time.
He took his time meeting with reporters. So many minutes passed. The delay was obviously purposeful. It enabled most of his players to make quick exits and not face the inevitable questions about their coach’s expected departure after four seasons and how the Colts came up short in missing the playoffs for the first time since 2011. The locker room was almost empty by the time Pagano had concluded his 10-minute chat.
When the coach arrived, he said he had promised his players a tailgate party in the parking lot. We presumed he was joking. He evoked laughter when saying reporters weren’t invited.
Pagano didn’t hesitate when asked if he knew his situation.
“No,” he said.
But he has to have a pretty good idea. Nobody in the NFL survives with blinders. The outside noise is heard, and reports the past three days have been widespread about how the Colts won’t renew his contract.
“Mr. Irsay and I will get together tomorrow and have a discussion and go from there,” Pagano said. “That’s what I know right now.”
Pagano has a 44-26 record counting the playoffs in four seasons. The Colts reached the AFC Championship Game last January, although it was an embarrassing 45-7 loss at New England.
Pagano’s record is cited by supporters for why he should stay. But he went “all in” on this season after declining an offseason contract extension. Irsay said in preseason he had “high” expectations for this year. And if Irsay intended to bring his coach back, he wouldn't have made Pagano endure all of this speculation. The owner could have ended it by giving his coach a new contract.
But that was never going to happen, not without the Colts reaching the Super Bowl. Fair or not, that was the goal, the proverbial bottom line for Mr. Irsay.
The season began with reports of a rift between Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, who tried unsuccessfully to dispel the rumors by meeting with reporters together on a Monday of week 1. If anything, their body language and answers at the time fueled more speculation. Those stories continued throughout the year. Grigson is the subject of debate about if he’ll keep his job, too. He shouldn't, and Irsay knows this.
Pagano spoke with pride about how his team rebounded from a 3-5 record to get to 8-8 despite not having quarterback Andrew Luck for nine games this season. He won with Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley at quarterback on Sunday, just days after both were signed off the street to take their first snaps of the season.
Pagano reiterated how he would like to stay, but his tone suggested the realization that it’s not going to happen.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I love this job,” he said. “I love Indianapolis. I love this community. I love the fans. I think back to 2012, they didn’t even know me and the way they embraced me and my family (during his cancer battle) and helped me through that journey, that’s Hoosier hospitality at its finest.
“This is a great place. Me and my wife are very grateful. We’ve had a great four years here. We’re going to have a great time this afternoon and tonight, and when tomorrow comes, we’re going to deal with tomorrow.”
He acknowledged the obvious, that the Colts didn’t reach the ultimate goal. This team was supposed to be able to get to the Super Bowl, yet didn’t even make the playoffs.
Injuries aside, Grigson didn’t bolster the offensive line enough, a glaring weakness which had a domino effect on so many other things. Quarterbacks got hurt, Frank Gore didn’t have enough running lanes and the team committed 30 turnovers. A defense that ranked near the bottom in the most important categories couldn’t get key stops too many times.
This day, the Colts prevailed over a Titans team that fell to 3-13 and clinched the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft. But it was a struggle, much like this season. The Colts trailed early, like they have in all but three games this season. They lost four games by double digits including back-to-back eyesores by 35 points in early December.
Pagano insisted the Colts didn’t unravel despite losing Luck after the best win of the season over previously unbeaten Denver at home on Nov. 8. That was the high point of the year. It was never the same after that.
“You don’t reach your ultimate goal,” he said, “but you find a way to pick yourself up time and time again off the carpet and keep fighting and keep plugging away and finding ways to win football games and find a way to finish on a great note, the season on a winning note.”
Pagano credited Irsay for standing by him during the 2012 cancer battle, a time when he didn’t know if he would ever coach again. He described himself and his players as fighters.
“I have no regrets,” he said.
Just like the day he was introduced in Indianapolis as Colts head coach on Jan. 25, 2012, Pagano said the job is all about building relationships. He reiterated he’s built lasting ones.
He didn’t say farewell. No need. His exit from the field said it all.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.