Three years ago, Chuck Pagano was beloved as “Chuck Strong” the coach who inspired the Indianapolis Colts to unexpected success as he battled, successfully, against leukemia. In his first year as head coach, he transformed a 2-win team into an 11-game winner. Last year was the third season in a row that the Colts won 11 games and the AFC South title.
But they were blown out twice last year by New England, 42-20 in the regular season and 45-7 in the American Conference Championship. Those above Pagano, owner Jim Irsay and general manager Ryan Grigson, wanted better.
With his contract expiring at the end of the 2015 season, Pagano was offered only a one-year extension, through 2016. He turned that down, preferring to be a free agent next February, hopefully after his team, led by football’s greatest young quarterback, Andrew Luck, would be increasingly successful.
Alas, Luck has not been good to him. Or at least not good enough, as the Colts are 3-3 and Pagano is reportedly doomed unless the team reaches the Super Bowl.
The criticism in Indianapolis became deafening in the wake of Sunday night’s 34-27 loss to New England that was blamed on a bizarre and catastrophic faked punt with a minute left in the third quarter. The Colts on 4th and 3 from their 37 shifted out of punt formation, leaving receiver Griff Whalen at center and safety Colt Anderson ready to take the snap behind him.
Or, as it turned out, NOT ready. The Patriots, however, were totally ready, as you would expect a Bill Belichick team to be.
The Patriots suspected Whalen was what he usually is, a pass receiver. So they had him surrounded. Anderson was surprised when Whalen hiked him the ball before the other linemen were in position. The safety/quarterback was quickly tackled for a 1-yard loss, as flags flew in response to the illegal formation – not enough players at the line of scrimmage.
Punter Pat McAfee said, “The look was not there that we normally have in practice when it’s a go. There must have been some miscommunication between the snapper and Colt. And it turned out to be one of the most failed fakes probably of all time.”
Indeed, many long-time NFL observers are calling it the worst special-teams play ever, the dumbest call in history.
Pagano, good fellow that he is, didn’t try to say – as most coaches would have – that it was a well conceived play that was poorly executed, that “I’d make that same call again.”
Instead, Pagano in his postgame address said: “The whole thing is on me. I did not coach them well enough.”
The self deprecation was honest. This was a complicated play that needed to be rehearsed dozens of times. By Pagano’s admission, it wasn’t. Whalen said he had not practiced snapping the ball.
But how costly was Pagano’s oversight? And his candor?
Coaches can be defined forever by a single blunderous play. Jerry Glanville could never live down “Stagger Lee” — a screen pass in the end zone that became the shortest pick-6 ever.
Jim Zorn was booted out of Washington two weeks after his “Swinging Gate” – the forerunner of Pagano’s shifty formation – failed as grievously as the later edition.
On Pagano’s radio show, one fan asked: “What did you call that play, ‘bag of hanmmers’?”
So Pagano is on the hottest of seats, even though he has done, overall, a good job with what he has. Keep in mind the Colts were a 10-point ’dog Sunday night. Do Irsay and Grigson think they would have beaten the Super Bowl champs if that punt had not been so horribly botched?
The real problem here is the usual one for the Colts. In his first 3 1/3 seasons in the NFL, Luck has been the most pressured of its quarterbacks. So instead of drafting a protector for the most valuable young player in the league, Grigson last spring used his first-round draft pick on Phillip Dorsett, who is currently the No. 5 receiver on the team.
So far this year, Grigson’s big move in the offensive line has been to install at right guard Todd Herremans, who was 32 and clearly fading when he was discarded by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Indy’s flimsy offensive line had Luck under siege from the beginning. The Colts stumbled out of the gate with losses to the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets.
In Game 3, Luck managed to pull out a win in Tennessee. But while under constant assault he sprained his throwing shoulder and missed the following two games, which the Colts won with 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck subbing for Luck.
The quarterback should be close to full strength for Sunday’s home game against New Orleans. The Colts are 5-point favorites. They’re 3-3 and lead their feeble division.
Their O-line, forever being retooled by Pagano, blocked well for the run and pass against New England’s talented and deep front seven. Indy has three quality young linemen in Anthony Castonzo, Jack Mewhort and center Khaled Homes. They may be just one draft away from becoming Irsay’s second Super Bowl champion.
Pagano is well liked by his players, who have worked hard and, for the most part, executed well. One failed fake punt does not mean the coach is a failure. Nor should it be a firing offense to be 0-5 against Belichick’s Patriots. Irsay could do a lot worse than Pagano. If he fires him, chances are he will do a lot worse.