The referendum on Chuck Pagano as Indianapolis Colts head coach became too complicated for many to understand.
In the interest of simplifying the situation and hopefully enlightening a few folks who don’t get it, I’ve waited to explain my reasoning on why Pagano must go until Monday, when we expect to learn he will not be retained as head coach.
Before getting the guts of it, understand this: this has been my opinion for a while now and talking to players has helped me understand the team dynamic, which is important. Those pushing #chuckstay on social media won’t buy what I’m saying, but so be it. They’re not in the locker room and haven’t covered the Colts for 18 years, either.
I’ve written and said that Pagano is a good guy. This isn’t an indictment of whether he’s likable or inspired many as a cancer survivor. But being likable doesn’t mean Pagano is a good NFL head coach. Make that distinction. It’s one of the toughest jobs in the sports world. Few prove themselves worthy. It took four seasons to be convinced Pagano is not.
I’m not going to mention much of the ongoing conversation about his rift and ongoing issues with general manager Ryan Grigson because Grigson is a separate issue and thoughts on his job will be shared in a companion story. Again, let's keep this as simple as possible. I’m not offering this to get into social-media debates about Grigson versus Pagano, either. This is about Chuck. It’s my opinion, based on my experience and player chats and knowing enough about how NFL teams are supposed to be, and what this team most clearly wasn’t.
The Colts don’t need a head coach they love. NFL athletes don’t even need a coach they like. Bottom line, they need one that they respect and fear.
I’ve mentioned New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick before because he’s the benchmark for NFL coaches today. The man isn’t about touchy, feely emotions, right? You screw up, and you’re not one of his elite players, it lands you on the bench or the street. Think running back Jonas Gray, who ran over the Colts last season but was late for a meeting the next week and never really got his job back.
Belichick understands the importance of finding true character guys, even accepting less talent, because character endures and raises your team’s level of performance. When times are their toughest, that’s when character guys respond. Belichick always has plenty of these guys on his roster.
The Colts didn’t have enough of them this season. Pagano always gushed like his locker room had character. I respectfully disagree. A few character guys, yes, but not enough. Not enough to make the playoffs and certainly not enough to contend with the likes of Belichick.
When I hear stories about how some players handled 35-point defeats, how that page was turned too quickly on embarrassment, then history repeated itself again in December, well, that calls character into question. Character guys don’t let you get embarrassed like that in back-to-back weeks when the season is on the line. It just can’t happen.
Character guys are ticked off and motivated to make a difference in everything they do, then they go do it. If you get paid millions more than others, more is expected. And you must be accountable, most especially when times are tough.
If your leaders are guys who let their play speak for them, some players aren’t going to get the message. The Colts had too many of those guys who will never be able to identify with an understated leader like outside linebacker Robert Mathis. It’s imperative, again, to have players on the roster that teammates respect and, once again with feeling, they fear. They don’t ever want to let the leaders down. They shudder at the thought of failing the team.
These players make a ton of money, so there’s no need for coddling. It amazes me that it still happens, this constant positive spin of trying to cover up or mask obvious mistakes. This isn’t college or high school. It’s one of the things I appreciate about the NFL. You screw up and you must be accountable. You must stand and face the tough questions about what went wrong. And just saying you’ve got to look at the film to understand what happened is a cop out. It’s unacceptable for Pagano, who has tried to spin shortcomings too often, and that lack of acknowledgment passes onto the players.
Hey, we’re still OK. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing. Everything we want is still in front of us. Let’s always put a positive spin on this.
Pamper the guys enough, especially guys lacking in character and you’ll get what you got this season.
To that end, I’ll mention Grigson in one context. If the reports are accurate about how he continually meddled in personnel decisions — and I know it’s true in regards to center A.Q. Shipley being benched last year — it’s important to make another distinction. Pagano, who again described himself as a “fighter” after Sunday’s win over Tennessee, should have fought to get his way and somehow won more of those battles. In the beginning in 2012, he’s a team player and trying to do what Grigson wants so they stay on the same page. He, like Grigson, is grateful to have his job.
At some point, when you’re winning 11 games in three consecutive seasons, what you think has to be respected and agreed with by those above you. Grigson meddled because owner Jim Irsay allowed it. What does that say about their opinion of Pagano? They disrespected him and the players were well aware of that. They made this situation even worse and complicated it because Pagano’s mistakes were more easily ignored or overlooked by the masses.
But Pagano made his share of them. Don’t ignore the facts. Pagano’s teams have lost nine games by at least 17 points since 2013, and by an average of 29.1 points in those games. That’s too many ugly losses. That’s too many absolute failures. There’s no way to sugar coat that.
It’s a major red flag that there are issues. Irsay knows this. He wants to win Super Bowls, but this team isn’t close, as Irsay had inexplicably suggested last January outside the locker room at Foxborough, Mass., after that Patriots disaster in the AFC title game.
I would be remiss to not mention in-game decisions and the lack of making enough timely adjustments. The botched trick play against the Patriots this season sure stands out. Pagano could have avoided that by just calling a timeout instead of letting the ridiculous situation play out in a game not yet decided, the Colts trailing by six points in the third quarter. Do you really think you can beat Belichick with tricks? Seriously?
The Colts seemingly played catch-up every week and lost some bad games to bad teams. How could this team fall behind 20-0 by halftime to the New Orleans Saints at home? Seriously.
While injuries aren’t an excuse, we heard too often about how the team was dealing with them, so they were used as an excuse. Every team has injuries. The Houston Texans won the AFC South Division because they beat the Colts with quarterback Brandon Weeden. Does that not register with people? They were down to their fourth quarterback, a guy who got cut in Dallas because he couldn’t win a game, yet he got the job done against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Colts lost that all-important game because the Texans had a stronger defense. Which brings us to the final condemnation of the Pagano era. He said on day one he wanted to build a team that runs the ball and stops the run. Neither transpired. The Colts haven’t had a 100-yard rusher in 56 games counting the playoffs. That stat speaks for itself. The defense regressed this season, in part because an offense hampered by shaky O-line play committed 30 turnovers, but even then, the most important stops weren’t made.
The Colts had a touchdown lead at halftime against the Texans. They couldn’t hold it. The defense ranked near the bottom in most major categories. Pagano was asked before the season to be more hands-on with the defense. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t make it work.
At some point, the answers from a good guy come off as delusional or, to be kind, wishful thinking. I can’t in good conscience give credit to the Colts for “gritty” wins over teams like the Titans on Sunday, the same Titans who finished 3-13 and secured the No. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL Draft.
Enough of the positive spins and assurances that everyone is all-in and it will eventually turn around. It didn’t. And Pagano is as much a part of that as Grigson.
Pagano won more than he lost in four seasons at 44-26, but if I’m Irsay, I see a team that reached its peak with the man. The nice guy could only take the Colts so far. And he can’t take them to the Super Bowl.
Irsay’s expectations not being met mean a change is needed. First with Pagano, then eventually with Grigson and others.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.