For Chuck Pagano, it’s enjoy the win and celebration party, then wait
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Jan. 3, 2016) – That sound you heard coming out of Lucas Oil Stadium late Sunday afternoon was the Indianapolis Colts whistling past the graveyard.
You never would have known their regular-season windup – a 30-24 win over the Tennessee Titans – undoubtedly was the final game for coach Chuck Pagano and so many others.
Next up: an offseason of change.
The pertinent question: how massive will that change be?
The first domino likely falls Monday morning when Pagano meets with owner Jim Irsay. Despite his denial on Friday, it’s been widely reported Irsay already has decided he won’t offer an extension to Pagano, whose contract expires in early March.
The Colts missed the playoffs for just the third time in 17 seasons and the two previous occasions resulted in Irsay firing his coach: Jim Mora after a 6-10 finish in 2001 and Jim Caldwell after the 2-14 windup in 2011. The most recent overhaul also swept out Bill and Chris Polian, and it’s uncertain whether general manager Ryan Grigson will be spared this time.
Irsay met with the players and coaches in an emotional locker room after the game, but avoided the media.
“Mr. Irsay and I will get together (Monday) at some point and have a discussion and go from there,’’ Pagano said. “That’s what I know right now.’’
Until he’s told his services are no longer needed despite a solid bottom-line resume – three trips to the playoffs, a 44-26 overall record, the fourth-most wins in franchise history – Pagano and his players planned on savoring the moment.
First, veteran linebacker Robert Mathis left teammates with damp eyes as he presented Pagano with a game ball in the locker room.
“We were getting ready to kneel down and pray, and Robert stopped us and said ‘As a man, as a father figure, as a friend, we’re gonna give you this ball,’’’ placekicker Adam Vinatieri shared. “That was pretty cool.’’
Next, Pagano promised the players a post-victory party in the team parking lot at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“You guys aren’t invited,’’ Pagano joked at the media. “We’ll all get together in the parking lot, wives and kids and families. Like I told you, this thing’s about relationships and these relationships are for life.
“We’re going to celebrate each other and the journey. Journeys are hard and they’re all different and they’re all very, very special. Again, we didn’t reach our ultimate goal, but I’ve never been more proud of players and coaches in 31 years of coaching than this group.’’
As Pagano spent about 10 minutes in his post-game discussion with the media, he frequently sounded like a man lobbying to return for a fifth season.
“I love this job,’’ he said. “I love Indianapolis. 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, then when tomorrow comes we’ll deal with tomorrow.’’
Pagano rehashed a season that stood at 3-5 at the midpoint and included the dismissal of offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. He touched on Andrew Luck missing nine games, including the final seven, with shoulder, rib and kidney injuries.
“At that point,’’ Pagano said, “I’ve seen a lot of teams unravel.’’
He mentioned the yeoman’s work done by 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck to post a 5-3 record in Luck’s absence while suffering shoulder, neck, back, rib and jaw injuries.
And he mentioned the Colts closing a downer of a season on a high note by following the combined quarterbacking of two players who had been in town for less than a week to the win over Tennessee. Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley combined to complete 21 of 38 passes for 207 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
In what might have been Pagano’s strongest pitch to retain his job, he brought everyone’s attention to the 27-24 win over the undefeated Denver Broncos on Nov. 8. That was Luck’s final appearance.
“I think everybody saw a glimpse of what could be, the vision we all had, where this team could go,’’ Pagano said.
As the final seconds of Sunday’s game wound down, players approached Pagano.
Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson tapped his coach on the butt. When Pagano turned around, the two hugged.
Luck then approached and embraced his coach.
Mathis made it a point to do likewise as he and Pagano walked off the field, likely for the last time as colleagues.
“Lot of hard work. Lot of time spent, lot of time put into it,’’ he said. “Just showing appreciation for one another.
“We’re going to enjoy the win and we deal with whatever there is to deal with later.’’
“It appears (the media) already knows what’s going to happen,’’ he said. “And maybe Chuck does, too.
“I don’t know what happens coaching-wise, but I like the man. I really appreciate Chuck as a man. When he says he loves you and cares about you, it’s not lip service. He means it. That is a refreshing thing in this day and age of professional football where it’s cut-throat and winning and all that.’’
Pagano made it clear he’s appreciative of the opportunity Irsay provided when he named him head coach in 2012 and the support the Irsay family and central Indiana community provided during his bout with leukemia. He also is proud of the work done over the past four years.
Last week, Pagano vowed “to fight his a** off’’ to keep his job.
Does he still feel that way?
“We’re fighters, right?’’ he said. “That’s all I know to do is fight.
“I have zero regrets (on 2015). I take no days for granted. I never have. Now (after leukemia) I never do. I’m grateful for today.’’
Again, tomorrow will take care of itself.