Analysis: Colts Did What With Coach Chuck Pagano, GM Ryan Grigson?

Monday's stunning announcement of head coach Chuck Pagano's four-year extension prompts more questions than answers.

When at a loss for words to put into perspective the most unexpected development witnessed in 18 years of covering the Indianapolis Colts, the initial hope when driving out of the team complex at 2 a.m. Tuesday morning was for a music lyric to resonate.

But nothing on the radio fits. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” isn’t playing. Nor is “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You.”

So a conflicted mind races on the 25-minute journey home. You replay the incredibly unforeseen facts in your head. 

Head coach Chuck Pagano, reportedly on his way out, instead receives a four-year contract extension. 

Owner Jim Irsay assures, after hours of meetings with Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, that he has the “right stuff” to ensure a bright Colts future.

The supposedly embattled Grigson, in his first public comments to reporters since Monday of week one, praises Pagano and assures all three men are “fighters” who will persevere from adversity and climb the proverbial mountain to one day hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Then Irsay takes a shot at those who were told Grigson bullied Pagano during these four years, an obvious response to numerous reports about how the general manager forced Pagano to play certain players against the coach’s will. Irsay insisted he would never allow that to happen, although players have told me it did.

“If you think I’m going to let someone bully my head coach, you’re wrong. You don’t know me,” Irsay said, the tone of his voice as serious as at any point in the 26-minute press conference. “Ryan’s not that type of guy. If you think I’m going to have that in my organization, you’re wrong. You don’t know me. That’s not going to happen. We’re going to stay and be together.”

OK, then explain why center A.Q. Shipley was benched last season? And why did running back Trent Richardson stay in the lineup when everyone saw the obvious, that trading a first-round pick for the 2012 No. 3 overall pick was a colossal blunder? I've been told Pagano's "hands were tied" in both instances. The Colts finally cut their losses with T-Rich and he was out of the league in a matter of months.

As much as I’ve enjoyed a positive relationship with Mr. Irsay for a long time, he’s right. On this day, I didn’t know the man. Nor did I understand what was happening and why.

More than once, while monitoring my video camera, my eyes blinked in disbelief. What in the hell is happening here?

I wrote earlier Monday that it was time for the owner to make a change with Pagano and Grigson. There’s no back-tracking from such statements. Anyone who knows me realizes I try to be as honest with my opinions as I am objective about straight-forward reporting. A lot of thought, some insightful player interviews and years of observations from covering the NFL went into offering those opinions. 

All I can say now is if I’m proven wrong in the future, I’ll be the first to admit it. We’ll see how it all plays out down the road before reaching that conclusion.

Mr. Irsay obviously sees his team and his most important individuals by his side differently. Four more years? Grigson and Pagano now tied at the hip? Grigson basically gets a three-year extension added to his one remaining year? So they’re a package deal?

There’s no denying Pagano won enough games to stay. His 44-26 record, three playoff appearances, reaching the AFC Championship Game last year and two AFC South Division titles attest to his ability to win more than he loses. If arguing his case, the Colts finished 8-8 this season despite losing quarterback Andrew Luck for nine games, relying on backups for six wins and coming within a second-half collapse against Houston of winning the division again and making the playoffs.

But there are enough disconcerting facts, too. He’s lost five games to the New England Patriots by an average of 24.6 points. Since 2013, the Colts have lost nine games by at least 17 points, the average margin of defeat in those games, 29.1 points.

As we move on, it’s fair to say there are more questions than answers.

If this commitment to Pagano was truly what Irsay had hoped for all along, as he said, why make the coach twist in the wind these past few weeks? If he truly cared about him, wouldn’t this contract situation be resolved long before now?

What changed? Seriously, how is it Pagano sounded resigned to his fate for much of December, then emerges late Monday night with an ecstatic smile to say, “This is absolutely the best day of my life.”

It was one of many statements that raised eyebrows, especially considering Pagano’s much-publicized victory against cancer in 2012. You would think beating cancer becomes the best day by default forever. 

Mr. Irsay mentions how Grigson and Pagano have done better in their first four years than the previous regime, led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Peyton Manning and a recently inducted Hall of Fame executive in President Bill Polian.

OK, the numbers say that, but you also notice as Mr. Irsay is speaking that he’s wearing his one Super Bowl ring, the one Manning and Polian made possible. The comparison comes off as disrespectful, regardless of the intent to compliment. It sure sounds like we’re being sold something.

That’s why Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” was in my head as I finally departed the complex. My phone buzzed the entire night as Colts fans expressed their bewilderment at what transpired. Many have lost faith. Or they’re on the fence. And this latest development merely added to the growing doubt about the direction of this franchise.

Others are quick to blame the media for a perceived “witch hunt” regarding Pagano and Grigson. They think, somehow, guys who have been reporting for a long time just started making stuff up out of thin air? All of the reports that pointed to Irsay making changes were just wrong, huh? Everyone had it wrong?

I can’t believe that. 

I know ESPN’s Mike Wells, a former colleague at The Indianapolis Star, too well. He’s a solid reporter. Someone tipped him off that Pagano was not going to be retained. I don’t think he was misled. I’m convinced that something changed from Thursday’s initial report to Monday night.

Other reporters, locally and nationally, reported the same thing. These aren’t guys looking to make a name for themselves. They're established professionals. Mike Chappell, another former colleague, has covered the team more than anyone, since the Colts arrived on the Mayflower moving vans in 1984. I’ve also worked with Bob Kravitz and Conrad Brunner for a long time. They have more inside sources than anyone. Kravitz is undeniably as close to Irsay as any reporter. 

And regarding the national perspective, it’s not like NFL.com and NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport is misinformed often. He’s so connected, he’s rarely mistaken. When the news broke, he tweeted, “The #Colts reached a contract extension with head coach Chuck Pagano. wow.”

Wow, indeed.

Something changed, and we’ll probably never be told the rest of the story. So be it.

I hope for Irsay’s sake he is proven correct. Even more importantly, I hope for the sake of so many Colts fans that four more years won’t lead to more good but not enough great.

Irsay has reminded in the past that his mission is about establishing greatness. And accomplishing that incredibly challenging task requires multiple Super Bowls. His words.

As I drove up the home driveway, the radio finally delivered a timely tune. AC/DC reminded, “You’ve been Thunderstruck!”

Yeah, tell me about it.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.


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