Chuck Pagano was a wonderful story in 2012, when he beat cancer. By all accounts, he’s respected by his players and many others in the game. He started his Indianapolis Colts career with a 33-15 record.
But the Colts decided they had gone as far as they could with Pagano, and fired him Sunday after six seasons.
Pagano’s seat was hot after posting 8-8 records in 2015 and 2016, and the bottom fell out in 2017. Any chance Pagano had at a winning season to save his job evaporated when quarterback Andrew Luck never recovered from offseason shoulder surgery and missed the entire season.
The Colts finished the season 4-12, including Sunday’s victory against the Houston Texans. Before he was officially let go, Pagano told reporters in a somber postgame news conference, “I don’t know what tomorrow brings but I know I’m grateful for every one of [his players]. And [I] challenged them to finish, and what they went out and did today to finish this game, to win this football game, I’m forever grateful to every man and all the players I’ve had the opportunity to coach, past and present.”
The Colts struggled in every facet without Luck. Their offense was poor and the defense couldn’t stop anyone. The lowest moment for the defense might have come on a Thursday night game in Week 15 in which Denver Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler came in off the bench and torched the defense for a 147.7 passer rating. Pagano was already in an odd situation when he was retained but general manager Ryan Grigson was fired after the 2016 season. That meant new GM Chris Ballard inherited Pagano, and usually GMs want their own coach. It seemed like a matter of time before Pagano was gone, and a losing season clinched that.
Candidates will presumably have plenty of questions during their interviews for the Colts, and they’ll center on Luck. If Luck comes back strong in 2018, that’s a big selling point. Even though a lot of work needs to be done on the roster to get the Colts back to the playoffs, having a quarterback like Luck is a great foundation. The problem is, after Luck missed all of the 2017 season, it’s a big risk. A coach could take the job thinking he’ll be coaching Luck, and get Jacoby Brissett instead.
Pagano had a good start to his career with Luck at quarterback. The Colts posted 11-win seasons in each of his first three years, and in Pagano’s third season the Colts advanced to the AFC championship game. They were a franchise on the rise. Then it stalled. Even in a weak division, the Colts couldn’t make it to the playoffs in 2015 or 2016. Pagano’s job security was a question after that 2015 season, but team owner Jim Irsay surprised everyone by giving Grigson and Pagano extensions. But after that, Pagano’s job never felt safe.
Mistakes didn’t help him. He will be remembered forever as the coach who ran a weird fake punt against the New England Patriots in 2015, a play that will be remembered forever as one of the worst in NFL history. Then this season Pagano cost his team a potential win with another coaching error. In a blizzard at Buffalo, Pagano had a chance to get kicker Adam Vinatieri closer for a game-winning field goal at the end of the fourth quarter, but decided to play it conservative and didn’t even think to have the offense move the ball to the hashmark Vinatieri preferred in terrible conditions. Vinatieri missed, Indianapolis lost in overtime and Pagano took the blame. That exemplified some of the questionable decisions that doomed Pagano.
Pagano’s first three seasons were very good, and then it went south. It wouldn’t have been crazy to keep Pagano, who didn’t have a losing season until his sixth season on the job. But the Colts seemed to be backsliding, and Pagano paid the price.
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