Throughout his tenure as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts we have heard Chuck Pagano speak about "circumstances." The first time I recall hearing him use that phrase was November 4, 2012 when a visibly weak Pagano spoke to the Colts in the locker room after a 23-20 win over the Miami Dolphins. Pagano spoke about how we all have "circumstances" to deal with pointing out that his ongoing battle with leukemia was, in his mind, merely "circumstances." He declared that this team would overcome circumstances and together would hoist "multiple" Lombardi Trophies in the coming years.
That speech was seen far and wide on nearly every media outlet across the country and the term "circumstances" took on a new meaning for many people. For the Colts it became a rallying cry. A central point of grounding that since that day more than a year ago has shaped the way this team approaches the work of football.
The result? This team never gets too high and never gets too low. Neither huge wins this season against the best teams in the NFL – SF, SEA and DEN – nor inexplicable losses to also-rans like MIA and STL could knock the Colts from the path to their goal of fulfilling Pagano’s prediction of hoisting a Lombardi Trophy. Big wins and tough losses are merely "circumstances" to this team.
But even many Colts fans would be surprised at the difficult "circumstances" this team and this coach have overcome on the way to a Division Championship 11-5 regular season record and a playoff win.
Through the serendipity of NFL scheduling the Colts were pitted against the two best divisions in football this year: The NFC West and AFC West which sent 5 of their 8 teams to the playoffs including BOTH #1 seeds. The AFC West boasted as many playoff teams (3) as the rest of the AFC combined. Nevertheless, the Colts logged an impressive 4-1 record against those 5 playoff teams with the lone loss coming against the Chargers in a 19-9 game in week 6. Drawing the AFC’s and NFC’s best divisions in the same year? Circumstances.
Injuries are a part of pro football, but injuries were a HUGE part of Colts football this season. Indianapolis placed a league high 17 players on the injured reserve list. And the hits came early and often starting in Week 1 when the team lost talented second year tight end Dwayne Allen for the year to a hip injury. Circumstances.
The very next week in practice the team lost its starting running back Vick Ballard to a non-contact ACL injury. At the time, Pagano said "We’ll deal with it. No one quite handles adversity like this team." Circumstances.
The loss of the team’s top power back prompted the Colts front office to go shopping. That shopping trip ended in one of the most talked about and unexpected transactions in recent NFL history when the Colts traded their 2014 first round pick to the Cleveland Browns for second year running back Trent Richardson in a move that was equally praised and condemned by media and fans alike. Richardson ,who posted an unimpressive rookie season with the Browns, was slow to integrate into the complicated Colts offense. Despite the hope and the hype Richardson would have precious little impact on the Colts offensive fortunes for the rest of the year. However the trade did seem to light a fire under the always underachieving Donald Brown who stepped up and started to make an impact in an otherwise unimpressive Colts running game. Circumstances.
In that week’s game the team’s starting left guard, veteran Donald Thomas, suffered a season ending tear to his right quadriceps. That’s three offensive starters gone for the year in the first two weeks of the season for those counting at home. Circumstances.
Week three: Things have to turn around at some point, right? Not yet. After a bruising 95 yard performance against a physical 49ers team in week three the Colts lost 7 year vet Ahmad Bradshaw, to a neck injury. Bradshaw, a free agent signed in the off season was, along with Ballard, anticipated to form the core of the power running game envisioned by Pagano and first year OC Pep Hamilton and which had just bested an excellent 49ers defense. Four offensive starters. Three weeks. Circumstances.
Incredibly, the Colts were able to hold on to win 2 of their next 3 games, including a Week 5 barn burner against the Seahawks, and head into the most anticipated game of the season with a respectable 4-2 record. Week 7 brought Colts legend Peyton Manning back to Indy leading the undefeated Denver Broncos in one of the most hyped matchups of the season. This game provided perhaps both the high point and low point of the regular season: A stunning win over what to that time had been the dominant team in the NFL and an equally stunning season ending injury to future hall of fame wide receiver Reggie Wayne who tore two ligaments in his knee trying to come back for a short-armed Andrew Luck pass late in the game. Circums……oh screw that. This is a NIGHTMARE!
The ensuing bye week did little to stem the flow of bad ju-ju that had engulfed the Colts. While the toughest part of the schedule was clearly behind them, the team still had five division games to navigate over the last half of the season, all while trying to establish a new offensive identity in the wake of losing its two best runners, #1 tight end and best receiver. The next six weeks saw the team squeaking by HOU and TEN (twice) while being dominated by STL and ARI and less soundly beaten by CIN (with a little help from Jeff Triplette.) By this time the AFC South, with the exception of the Colts, had been exposed as putrid and that weakness allowed the Colts to clinch a division title early. With the Playoffs a lock the team had the luxury of focusing on the development of an infantile receiving corps as well as getting a banged up defensive secondary healthy. During this time the team seemingly re-found its mojo and finished up the season with three straight double digit wins, including against an 11-3 KC Chiefs team. While fans and media were alternately praising and vilifying the team through this period, the team itself just soldiered on. Nothing but "circumstances" to a team that had accepted the challenges and rewards of an up and down season with equal aplomb.
The wild card round brought a hellish first half of football, fueled by uncharacteristic mistakes and leaving a (seemingly) insurmountable 28 point deficit and a 0.9% chance of victory in its wake. Less than a penny on the dollar? Nothing but "circumstances." And circumstances are not to be feared by this team, they are just something to be overcome.
Now the Colts head to a divisional round playoff game against perhaps the most prolific QB/HC combination in the history of the NFL. A team which was called a dynasty not very long ago led by a sure fire first ballot hall of famer. Many in the media have already anointed the Patriots and the Broncos and are salivating at the prospect of another Brady-Manning AFCCG.
Some even suggest that Pagano, Luck and the Colts will be overcome by the brilliance of the Hoodie and the awesomeness that simply is Tom Brady. But the Colts don’t see things in terms of brilliance and awesomeness. They just see "circumstances."