I've learned a lot this season covering the Colts. Perhaps the biggest thing I've learned is that the saying that the season is a marathon and not a sprint definitely applies to the way I analyze things. I got too caught up in the failures of Chuck Pagano without seeing the big picture. I don't take back anything I said, but perhaps some of the things I've written about Pagano throughout the year I shouldn't have written and should have waited until I saw the big picture more completely.
I look at it this way: you wouldn't judge a two hour movie based solely on the first half hour of it. You wait until it's over so that you can best analyze it. The constant and immediate analysis of football and sports makes that impossible, and that's not really a bad thing, but it needs to be prefaced by something very, very important: just because I point out the failures of Chuck Pagano or any coach does NOT mean I think he should be fired, nor do I want him to be. Instead, my desire is to highlight his mistakes and errors in a fair manner to best evaluate what type of head coach the Colts have and to offer ways that Pagano needs to improve.
Because now I've seen the ending to this movie we called "the 2013 Indianapolis Colts season" (creative, right?), and it leaves more to be desired. It was a good season, but it leaves you wanting more. One of the biggest ways it does that is it makes you want better coaching, especially after watching the divisional round loss to the New England Patriots.
Let me be clear on this point: Chuck Pagano and his coaching staff really hurt the Colts on Saturday night. There is a big difference between criticizing Pagano for mistakes and calling for him to be fired. I'm not afraid to criticize him, but I have not once said he should be fired and you will not find me say that anytime soon. But last night? It was bad.
Let's just look at a few of the areas where the coaching staff failed in the 43-22 loss to the Patriots on Saturday night:
Zone Defense. The Colts opened up the game running a zone defense, which isn't exactly the smart thing to do against Tom Brady - especially for a team that is best at running man coverage and for a team that can't rush the passer very well. The Patriots just seemed to be one step ahead of the Colts most of the night, and one of the most confusing aspects was the zone coverage for the Colts - that doesn't work against tom Brady usually and it didn't Saturday night, either, as he exploited it with crossing routes.
I'll never understand running a zone defense vs. Tom Brady, especially if you can't get home with the pass rush.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 12, 2014
- Settling for Field Goals. In the second quarter, the Colts had a 4th down and 6 from the New England 18 yard line down 21-7. They kicked the 36-yard field goal to make it 21-10. Down 21-12 in the third quarter and facing a 4th and goal from the New England 3 yard line, the Colts kicked the 21 yard field goal. I'm not too upset about the decisions to go for it because I realize that most coaches in the NFL would kick it (although in the second situation I'm sure there are those that would have gone for it, it still wouldn't be the common option). But I totally agree that field goals were never going to win the game and they just further show the Colts decision to keep extending the game instead of actually trying to win it - something that doesn't win you many football games in the NFL. Like I said, it's hard to get too upset about something most coaches would have done and I actually think kicking the field goal in the second quarter was absolutely the right option, but I would have gone for it on 4th and goal from the 3 down 9 in the third quarter. On the road against the number two seed in the playoffs, you have to take some risks. There were none from Chuck Pagano on Saturday night.
- Goal Line Play Calling. Of course, Pagano never would have had to make the decision to kick the field goal on that 4th and goal from the 3 in the third quarter if Pep Hamilton had called better plays in the goal line sequence. The Colts had driven right down the field after a 40-yard completion to T.Y. Hilton and a 16-yard completion to Coby Fleener on back-to-back plays gave the Colts a first and goal from the 4 yard line. The Colts trailed the Patriots 21-12 at this point. A touchdown would be a huge, huge point in the game, still early in the third quarter. The first play call was a handoff to Donald Brown that gained one yard. That play call was ok and an understandable call in that situation. On second down, the Colts handed it off to Trent Richardson, who gained zero yards. And then on third down, they threw a fade right to tight end Coby Fleener, and of course, it was incomplete. I hated the play call at the time and I hate it now. It's no secret that I really hate the fade route, and I especially hate the play call in that situation to call such a low-percentage play in such an important situation. A very promising drive resulted in a field goal because of very questionable play calling at the goal line.
- End of the First Half. The Colts took a timeout after they stopped the Patriots on second down and on third down Tom Brady had an incomplete pass. The Colts got the ball back with 37 seconds left in the half at their own 16 yard line and with 2 timeouts left, down 21-12. They just handed the ball off to Donald Brown, who gained 2 yards, and then let the clock run off. I really am not that upset about this one, as it's unlikely the Colts would have scored. But remember what I said earlier about playing aggressive? Yeah, this was just another example of Chuck Pagano playing it safe and being content instead of going for more. It's a minor thing that probably had little impact, but the lack of aggressiveness adds up and wears off on people.
- Punting on 4th and 1 down 21 in the fourth quarter. This one is easily the worst decision Chuck Pagano made all night. Easily. I honestly don't know how you can possibly give this one a pass. The Colts faced a fourth down and 1 from their own 29 yard line with 10:34 left in the game and with the Colts down 43-22. Normally, you never go for it from your own 29 yard line. But down 21 with 10:34 left in a playoff game and with only one yard to go to get the first down? Pagano punted, and that was the moment I knew for sure the game was over: the head coach had quit. It was an inexcusable decision and Pagano deserves all the heat he will get for it. It was a statement to his team, to the Patriots, and to everyone watching the game that the Colts head coach himself considered the lead insurmountable, despite the fact that his quarterback had just led a 28-point comeback the week before and had led four double-digit comebacks this season. There is no excuse for that - there is no reason to be punting with only one yard left to get for a first down when you are down by 21 points on the road as the underdog with only 10:34 left in the game. There are no excuses for that, and in my opinion it was Pagano's biggest mistake of the entire season considering the circumstances. Would the Colts have come back? I don't know, and honestly probably not. But punting there was essentially throwing in the towel and waiving the white flag.
- Improve on the game plans. Too often this year the Colts looked unprepared for games, and that was a big reason for the first half failures and second half surges this season. Pagano needs to work on his game plans during the week.
- Improve on in-game coaching. The 4th and 1 punt was just one of several examples this season of Pagano failing to be aggressive when he needed to be, although I do think it was the worst of all of them. A serious idea - if Pagano needs to, why not put a guy in the booth who understands situational football like that to be a voice in Pagano's ear to help him with those situations? There is nothing wrong with recognizing your weaknesses as long as you work to compensate for it, and that could be a good way for Pagano to do that.
- Improve on his coaching strategy. Run the football. That was Pagano's mantra ever since he came to Indianapolis. Credit to Pep Hamilton and Chuck Pagano for going away from that emphasis a bit toward the end of the season and playing to their strengths, but their philosophy remains. Honestly, we saw Saturday night from the Patriots that a power run game and run emphasis can work in the NFL. But much more importantly, we saw a coaching staff coaching to their strengths. They have Tom Brady but they run the football because it works and because they are well suited to. The Colts aren't. I'm fine with Pagano being a run-first head coach, I really am. But what needs to take priority over that is playing to the offense's strengths, and the biggest strength by far is Andrew Luck. They'll continue to build in the offseason, but Pagano needs to adjust his strategy enough that he will run what is best for his team, not what he would ideally like to run.
- Improve the players. This seams over-simplified, and maybe so. But the fact of the matter is that the talent level on the Colts this year, especially on the defensive side of the ball, stunk. This lies more on the shoulders of Ryan Grigson, but Chuck Pagano will have a big say as well as to which players are brought in to play in his defense. The Colts need to upgrade at several positions defensively and need to continue to bring in players to play in Pagano's system. They're entering year 3 in Pagano's hybrid 3-4 scheme. They need to take significant steps forward next year defensively, but first they need to try and get the best players possible out there for Pagano to work with.
I haven't given up on Chuck Pagano by any means, and I think firing him would be about the worst thing possible that the Colts could do - and I guarantee you that they won't. But I'm also not going to sugar-coat the failures of the coaching staff, but rather point them out with hopes for improvement. I think Pagano has several good qualities. I think there are several areas he can improve. I'm not nearly as down on Pagano as others, but he needs to improve. Simple as that.
Oh, and also - Pep Hamilton will stick around, and that's the absolute right move that I completely agree with. Greg Manusky is a big question mark, and I'm not sure of his future. I don't think he has had a terrible year, but the failures on the defensive side of the ball are evident and he might be a fall guy. If he is fired (not a certainty by any means), I'd like the team to look at Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. First we have to see if they even make any moves.