By the time week five came around last season, the Indianapolis Colts were going nowhere fast and looked like they were on their way to another dismal year.
In week five, they faced one of the NFL's best in the Green Bay Packers. After a slow start, the Colts mounted a massive comeback and won the game on a last-minute touchdown pass from Andrew Luck to Reggie Wayne. Looking back, it was the game that turned the season around. Entering the game at 1-2, the Colts then rattled off a 9-4 record in the weeks after the win over the Packers and they made the playoffs as a wild card.
But that win wasn't on Chuck Pagano. No, in fact that game was the first one the Colts played without their coach, who was hospitalized with leukemia. Pagano's impact was certainly felt in the "ChuckStrong Game," but it was Bruce Arians who was leading the team and it was the signature win of Arians' stint as the man leading the Colts. But Chuck Pagano - the real head coach of the Colts? He had yet to get a signiture win.
He got his on Sunday.
On the road against one of the NFL's best in the San Francisco 49ers, nobody gave the Colts a chance in this game either. They entered the game with a 1-1 record and with serious doubts abounding about whether the team was actually a playoff contender. To make things worse, because of the success of Arians with a less talented team a year ago, fans began openly wondering whether it was Pagano that was the problem with the Colts. After all, his teams have blown leads and fallen off late in games often in the games actually coached by Pagano. For whatever reason, fans were wondering whether he should be on the hot seat.
I think those questions were answered on Sunday, and in resounding fashion.
NBC's Alex Flanagan said on Football Night in America that Pagano told her that this is the type of win that 5 or 6 years from now he might look back on and say it was a statement win where his team finally began playing like he wanted them to. It certainly has that feel to it. This is the type of win that, like the Packers game last season, can turn around a season. Will it for the Colts? I don't know, but considering the circumstances, it's likely. And if not this year, this definitely was a statement game for Chuck Pagano and the Colts to their fans and the rest of the NFL: they're well on their way to becoming the monster that Pagano has talked so much about.
The Colts' run defense held the 49ers to 115 yards, but outside of one early, 91-yard touchdown drive, the Colts allowed just 37 yards on the ground and just 2.2 yards per carry. The Colts' pass defense allowed Colin Kaepernick to just a 48.1% completion percentage, 150 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. They sacked him three times, forced a fumble, and limited him to just 20 yards rushing on 7 carries.
The Colts' run offense ran all over the 49ers vaunted run defense and their tremendous front seven, rushing 39 times for 179 yards and 3 scores on the ground. That's power running. That's a run game emphasis. That's what Chuck Pagano wants his monster to look like. Andrew Luck wasn't at his best and yet still he completed 66.7% of his passes for 164 yards. He didn't turn the ball over and was only sacked once; and he ran 4 times for 24 yards and a score on a six yard bootleg.
Pagano has talked a lot about running the football and stopping the run. In particular, people have been placing the defense's inability to stop the run on Pagano, the unofficial leader of the defense (Greg Manusky is the defensive coordinator but it's really Pagano's defense). While not perfect, that run defense looked pretty dang good Sunday.
But honestly, all along I have expeceted to see noticable progress from the secondary before the run defense. Why? Because that's Pagano's expertise and that's what the Colts focused on a lot in free agency.
Pagano has coached for 30 years total, 28 before coming to Indianapolis as head coach on January 25, 2012. 21 of those 28 seasons were spent coaching secondary and defensive backs. In Baltimore, he served as the secondary coach for three years before being promoted to defensive coordinator in 2011. Pagano's expertise is in the secondary, and I expected that to come along quicker. Sunday, we really saw a dominant performance from the defensive backs.
Playing without free agent signing LaRon Landry and playing with an injured Antoine Bethea, the Colts secondary shut down the 49ers offense. They didn't let guys get open. They tackled well in the open field. And they stepped up in one of the biggest games of the year.
Delano Howell, an undrafted safety out of Stanford last year, played very sparingly in 2012 in time with both the Bills and the Colts. He was an afterthought coming into training camp. But after a very strong preseason, he earned a spot on the roster and on Sunday, when filling in for LaRon Landry, Howell made the most of his opportunity.
Tom Zbikowski, the former Colts safety who spent time with Pagano in Baltimore as well, described the team's motto of "building the monster" by saying that the team wanted to be able to "beat the crap out of people." We didn't see it much in year one. We didn't see it much in the first two weeks of year two. But in week three, we saw it in full.
We had seen glimpses before, but never sixty minutes. Pagano said in his introductory press conference with the Colts that:
"There's 65-66 plays you're just swinging back and forth. There's going to be 5-6 plays that make the difference. You can't pick and choose which ones to play. Fundamental football. Situational football. We'll be well versed and well drilled in all of these areas."
The Colts were just that on Sunday: a well-disciplined team that was tough and physical against one of the league's toughest and most physical teams. They did what was expected of them and really looked like a type of a "monster," to go along with Pagano's wording.
Also in his introductory press conference, Pagano set a clear goal for the team: the Super Bowl.
"I would say to the organization the great city of Indianapolis, the great fans... we're going to put a product out there that best represents them. And together we're going after that trophy. I don't know when, and I'm not talking about just one. I can't put a time table on it but that's our mission."
Is this going to spur the Colts on towards winning the Lombardi Trophy this year? Probably not. But like Pagano said, five or six years from now we may very well look back on this win as a huge turning point not only in the 2013 season but in the Chuck Pagano tenure in Indianapolis as well.
Coming into the game against the San Francisco 49ers, Chuck Pagano had yet to notch a signature win. He got it in a dominating performance by his team in a game that perfectly exemplified Pagano's M.O.: run the ball, stop the run, and play great defense. The Colts did all three and in doing so got a win that could lead them to bigger things this year.
Even if it doesn't, though, this still could be a signature win. And it should stop all talk about Pagano's job security because we finally saw the monster that he is building, and it was impressive. Very impressive. So credit Chuck Pagano for a great 27-7 win over the defending NFC Champion 49ers on Sunday.
The Colts win over the Packers in the "ChuckStrong Game" last year turned around their season. The win over the 49ers on Sunday has the same potential.
And this time, the signature win was led by Chuck Pagano himself.