Earlier this afternoon, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport mentioned that the Indianapolis Colts are not expected to extend head coach Chuck Pagano's contract entering the 2015 season, the final year of his four-year deal that he signed with the Colts in 2012.
As we already noted, this isn't necessarily a statement of unhappiness by the Colts or anything of the sort, but it does show that there are still some lingering questions the team has before committing to a longer-term extension with Pagano.
In his first three years with the Colts, Pagano has led the team to a 33-15 regular season record, two AFC South titles, three playoff appearances, and a 3-3 playoff record - making the AFC Championship game last season. That's a pretty impressive resume for a guy who inherited a 2-14 team with major issues as a first-time head coach. At the same time, however, there are concerns with Pagano as a coach - most notably with in-game decisions and questions that many fans have. Also, the Colts have had way too many games in which they were just dominated, particularly defensively: against the Jets (2012), Patriots (2012), Rams (2013), Cardinals (2013), Bengals (2013), Patriots (2013), Steelers (2014), Patriots (2014), Cowboys (2014), and Patriots (2014). Obviously, some of those games are bigger concerns than others, and two of them weren't even under Pagano (rather under Bruce Arians), but regardless, the point remains the same: there are too many games in which the Colts get beat badly, especially on the defensive side of the football. Considering how much fans are frustrated with those losses, it figures that the organization is frustrated at least to some extent as well.
We know that the Colts are very aggressively pursuing a Super Bowl in 2015. Their free agent signings showed that, as does their decision not to extend Chuck Pagano yet. Understand that this is a team with very high goals for the upcoming season - they want to make and win the Super Bowl.
With that said, however, I don't think 2015 is necessarily a "Super Bowl or bust" season for Chuck Pagano. I don't think it's a situation in which he absolutely must reach the Super Bowl or else he'll lose his job. So what will it take for Pagano to earn a contract extension from the Colts? Let's consider that question.
Firstly, the Colts have to make the playoffs (likely winning their division). The AFC South, while improved, still won't be that good. The Colts are still the best team in the division and it's not even that close, and so by winning the AFC South for the third straight season it would go a long way towards earning an extension for the head coach, as that would mean the third division title in four years and the fourth playoff appearance over that span as well. Failing to make the playoffs would take a disaster of a season for the Colts, and if that happened it'd likely be a pretty simple answer to the question.
Secondly, I think the Colts have to be competitive in the playoffs and make some noise in order for Pagano to be completely safe. I actually can easily see a scenario in which the Colts go one-and-done but Pagano keeps his job, so this isn't a requirement for Pagano that he must fulfill in order to receive an extension. But I also don't think it's fair to say that his job is safe as long as he makes the playoffs, because there would be questions there. Instead, the questions would be about how close to the Super Bowl the Colts seem. Would the management still see Pagano as the guy who can get them to a Super Bowl? By making some noise in the playoffs, these questions would be quieted, much like they were in 2014. The Colts had back-to-back wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos in the playoffs to make the AFC Championship game, and while they got blown out in the title game, those wins gave plenty of reason for confidence that the team was moving in the right direction.
And I think that's really the biggest thing that we'll need to see in 2015: improvement. And that's why it's sometimes hard to judge by how far a team gets in the playoffs. Take, for example, the 2005 Colts, who lost in the divisional round - were they a better team than the 2014 Colts, who made the AFC Championship game? Absolutely, and without any question. There's a lot that goes into it - particularly how the rest of the playoff field is. For the Colts, I think they need to continue to show improvement. Logically, the next step would be the Super Bowl (in 2012 they made the playoffs, in 2013 they made the divisional round, and in 2014 they made the AFC Championship game). But even by eliminating the really bad losses and showings that have plagued them in recent years (like those against the Patriots) would help, as would improvement defensively with Pagano's unit, such as with stopping the run.
As you can tell, there's not a clear-cut formula as to what Chuck Pagano needs to do in 2015 to earn an extension. It's not like the Colts are unhappy with him, and even saying that he's on the hot seat is a stretch at this point. But the Colts aren't giving him an extension yet, and so this question logically follows of what he'd need to do to earn that. Fans will have all sorts of various opinions on this topic, but really the only one that matters is the opinion of Jim Irsay (and Ryan Grigson). But I think it's fair to say that this franchise, which is so aggressively pursuing a Super Bowl title, expects to be a contender. Considering the talent that this team has, it's a very fair expectation. The term "contender" is a pretty subjective one, but I think that will really be a baseline for Pagano this year. Are the Colts Super Bowl contenders under him, regardless of if they actually get there? If so, I think he's got an extension heading his way. If not, that might not be the case.