Colts headed back to Chicago, where so much started for Chuck Pagano

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Chuck Pagano (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – It was the dawn of a new era.

It was Indianapolis Colts strolling into Soldier Field for their 2012 season opener against the Chicago Bears.

Chuck Pagano was wearing the head coach’s headset for the first time. Andrew Luck was making his NFL debut.

 “All I remember is we got smacked around pretty good,’’ Pagano said Thursday on a Zoom conference call.

Yes, they did. The Bears spoiled the debuts of the first-time head coach and newest franchise quarterback. It was 41-21.

Before it reached beat-down territory, Pagano reached to his back pocket to make certain he had his red challenge flag. The urge hit him after Bears coach Lovie Smith tossed his red flag onto the field in the first quarter.

“I didn’t feel anything,’’ Pagano said, laughing lightly. “Like, ‘Holy (expletive), I don’t have my red flag.’’’

He motioned for one of the team’s equipment guys to hustle to the locker room to retrieve the red flag.

“He starts haulin’ ass to the locker room and I said, ‘Be very discreet when you come back and hand that to me,’’’ Pagano said. “I was just praying to God that nothing would happen, (that) I’d have to challenge.

“It was a tough day.’’

Similar memories might bubble to the surface Sunday when the Colts return to Soldier Field for the first time since ’12.

Clearly, so much has changed.

Pagano was fired following the 2017 season and is in his second year as the Bears’ defensive coordinator. Luck retired Aug. 24, 2019. The word trickled out in the third quarter of the third preseason game at Lucas Oil Stadium, with Pagano and the Bears in the building.

Fifteen players remain from Pagano’s last Colts’ bunch, but only two still are around from that ’12 opener: left tackle Anthony Castonzo and wideout T.Y. Hilton.

“He’s a great leader,’’ said Hilton, who was part of that impactful, Luck-led draft class of 2012. “I know he’s going to get those guys ready, get ‘em up. I know they’re going to bring it, going to want to win for him.

“We’ve got match their energy.’’

Hilton will make it a point to catch up with Pagano prior to the game, but isn’t certain if he’ll do much chirpin’ at him during the game.

“It depends on how the game’s going,’’ he said.

Pagano’s ties to Indy remain strong.

He has retained his local residence here, which his youngest daughter makes use of, with frequent visits from her mom, Tina. Also, Pagano, a leukemia survivor, holds his ChuckStrong Gala each summer at the Colts’ Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center which benefits the IU Health Simon Cancer Center.

Hilton always participates in the event, which wasn’t held this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pagano’s stint with the Colts ended after the team’s 4-12 finish in ’17. The season almost was doomed from the start when it was learned Luck’s surgically-repaired right shoulder wouldn’t be ready for the opener. In fact, he would miss the entire season.

In six seasons, Pagano’s teams were 53-43, reached the playoffs three times and advanced to the AFC Championship game once. The latter was in 2014, and ended with a thud – a 45-7 loss at New England.

One contrast to the Pagano/GM Ryan Grigson era and the current Colts is stability on the offensive line.

From 2012-18 – that’s a stretch of 112 regular-season games – the Colts used 54 different starting o-line combinations. Luck played behind 42 different combinations in his 86-game regular-season career, which contributed to him being sacked 174 times.

The starting group in Luck’s pro debut: Castonzo, left guard Seth Olsen, center Samson Satele, right guard Mike McGlynn and right tackle Winston Justice.

The current combination makes its 22nd consecutive start Sunday against the Bears, the NFL’s longest active streak. They were the only combo in the league to start all 16 games last season.

The familiar five: Castonzo, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski and right tackle Braden Smith.

 “They do a great job,’’ Pagano said. “It’s one of the best if not the best unit in the National Football League. They play so well together. I don’t know if we had, through the course of six years . . . they’ve got (21) straight whatever it is of playing together.

“The continuity there, that’s what you’re looking for. It’s gonna be a heckuva challenge for us to try to get to the quarterback, create some pressure.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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