Even with the Colts losing to Buffalo on Sunday, the overarching story for the Colts on Sunday revolves around Chuck Pagano, Ryan Grigson, and Jim Irsay.
On the CBS pre-game show, Jason La Canfora reported that those close to Pagano believe that he will not be the Colts coach after this season. Fox's Jay Glazer reported the same thing, adding in that players are confused at how Pagano is coaching for his job.
Indeed, it is puzzling. Including Sunday's loss, Pagano's record in the regular season is 33-16, while his playoff record is 3-3. That's a 67% winning percentage, ranking Pagano third all time in team history, behind only Tony Dungy and Don Shula. Yes, nine of Pagano's wins, and three of his losses, were when Bruce Arians was manning the sidelines. However, I believe Pagano, while maybe not greatly involved, was more involved with that 2012 team than a lot of us realize. I have no basis for that, just an opinion.
Pagano's 3-3 playoff record is, admittedly, not great but it also ranks him third in Colts history in playoff wins, and fourth in winning percentage.
What some fans will point to (and rightly so) is the Colts ability to not show up for games under Pagano. I'll look at the two seasons when Pagano was on the sideline the whole season (2013 and 2014). In 2013, the Colts lost four of their five games (regular season) by double digits, including blowout losses to the Rams, Cardinals, and Bengals. Of course, in the playoffs the Patriots game happened.
While these were all ugly, ugly losses, I feel compelled to defend Pagano even here. In 2012, with Arians on the sideline, the Colts were smashed by the Jets, Bears, Patriots and were handled by the Texans. Yes, I know I mentioned I feel that Pagano was more involved than we all thought in 2012, but he was only on the sideline for one of those losses.
If you want to blame Pagano for the Colts coming out flat (you certainly can) in losses, and some wins, that's fine. However, go back and look at the 2012 season. Those Colts, primarily led by Bruce Arians, came out flat quite a bit as well.
The biggest alleged reason Pagano is on the hot seat, though, is that, according to Peter King, Irsay believes Pagano cannot get the Colts over the hump to the Super Bowl.
While it becomes clear that Pagano might be coaching for this job, I'm in his corner when it comes down to if he should be the coach next year. Firing, or not bringing back, a winning coach is not a good idea, and has never been a good idea.
Pagano isn't the first head coach to be let go because of his inability to get to, or win, the Super Bowl. However, history says it isn't a good idea to fire those coaches. Let's look at other teams, in recent history, that fired successful coaches who couldn't win them the big game, and how they fared afterwards.
The first is one that is most notable for Colts fans. For years, Tampa Bay had been one of, if not the, worst franchise in the NFL on a consistent basis. Dungy arrived, and led Tampa Bay to four playoff appearances in six years, including a division title and a trip to the NFC Title Game. Dungy built one of the best defenses in the NFL, but the offense never followed suit.
After being knocked out by the Eagles two years in a row, Dungy was fired.
A year later, Jon Gruden led the Bucs to a Super Bowl title. However, in the 13 years since Dungy was fired, Tampa Bay has finished last in the NFC South seven times, has gone through four head coaches, has only reached the playoffs three times, and have compiled a 90-124 record. Sixty of those wins came from Gruden.
Talking about the Bucs is a good segue into our next coach: Lovie Smith. After three NFC Central Championships, three playoff berths, a trip to the Super Bowl (with Rex Grossman at quarterback), five winning seasons, and an 81-63 regular season record (3-3 playoffs) Smith was fired by the Bears.
Since? While it's a small sample size, the Bears are on their second head coach in three years, and are 13-20 in that time. This year, many analysts, myself included, believe the Bears could be one of the worst teams in the NFC and NFL.
While I'm still attached to the Buccaneers, Gruden is another example. In the early 2000s, the Raiders were one of the top teams in the AFC, and a team that would have reached the Super Bowl (and probably won) had they not run into the 2000 Ravens and the 2001 Patriots.
In four years in Oakland, Gruden never had a losing record finishing 8-8 his first two years, before winning the AFC West in 2000 and 2001 before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions. Despite a 38-26 regular season record in four years, Al Davis traded Gruden to Tampa Bay.
Much like the Bucs, the Raiders reached the Super Bowl in 2002 with their new coach. Since the Raiders got rid of Gruden, though, it hasn't gone well.
Since trading Gruden, the Raiders reached the playoffs once (in 2002), are on their ninth head coach, and have compiled a 67-141 record, and none of their coaches have had a winning record (Hue Jackson did finish .500).
The biggest fault of all happened to Marty Schottenheimer...twice.
In 1988 the Cleveland Browns fired Schottenheimer after five seasons in which the Browns never had a losing record, won three straight AFC North titles, and reached two straight AFC Championship Games in which they were victim to both The Drive and The Fumble. Schottenheimer's regular season record in Cleveland was 44-27.
Since 1989 (Cleveland's first year with Schottenheimer) the Browns are 132-236, have reached the playoffs three times, and have gone through 11 head coaches.
In 2002, Schottenheimer was hired as the coach of the Chargers with the job of rebuilding a team that had just ended the brief Ryan Leaf era.
In five seasons in San Diego, Schottenheimer only had one losing season, won two AFC West titles, and finished with a 47-33 regular season record. Schottenheimer was fired after a 14-2 season in which the team went one and done in the playoffs.
Since 2007, San Diego's first season after Schottenheimer, the Chargers haven't fared too poorly. However, much like the other examples in this article, their best season was the year after the coach was fired. While the Chargers have still been relevant and successful, the team is no closer to the Super Bowl than they were with Schottenheimer.
John Fox will serve as another two-time example. In Carolina, Fox's overall record was a mere 73-71, but he boasted a 5-3 playoff record, reached Carolina's only Super Bowl, and his other playoff losses were both against the eventual NFC Champion.
Since firing Fox, the Panthers have done alright, reaching the playoffs twice, and winning one playoff game. It might still be too early to see how Carolina does in the post-Fox era.
Just last off-season the Broncos also showed Fox the door. In four years in Denver, the Fox never had a losing record, led the Broncos to a division title every season, had another trip to the Super Bowl, and never finished worse than the Divisional Playoffs.
Yes, having Peyton Manning helps, but let's remember that Fox was able to coach a Broncos team quarterbacked by Tim Tebow to not only a division title, but a playoff win as well.
It remains to be seen how Denver will fair without Fox as the coach. I'm guessing as long as Manning remains in town they'll be fine, but after that? Who knows.
I won't go into too much detail, but I think you could make the argument that Jeff Fisher falls into this group as well. In Houston/Tennessee Fisher only had six losing seasons in 16 years and led the team to their only Super Bowl appearance to date. He was fired only two years removed from winning the AFC South with a team quarterbacked by an aging Kerry Collins. The Titans have been, in a word, abysmal since then.
La Canfora brought up in his report that the potential Pagano-Colts divorce is similar to that of the 49ers letting Jim Harbaugh go. I still can't fathom that. For a decade the 49ers were abysmal, and when Harbaugh arrives, the team not only becomes a winner, but becomes a contender. Three straight NFC Championship appearances and the first Super Bowl appearance since 1994, and you get rid of the coach because of friction? Come on.
While we have yet to see what happens with the 49ers, I'd be willing to bet they won't be reaching three straight Championship games any time soon.
There is something to note about this cluster of coaches, though. Yes, in almost every case, the teams declined after firing a good coach who couldn't reach or win the Super Bowl. In fact, Tampa Bay and Oakland are the only two of these examples to even reach a Super Bowl after firing a winning and successful coach. Both did it the year immediately after, and declined steeply thereafter.
What do the teams who had moderate success (Chargers, Panthers, and maybe the Broncos) have in common? An elite quarterbacks. The Chargers have Philip Rivers, the Panthers have Cam Newton, and the Broncos have Manning.
This is why Irsay and Grigson may be inclined to move on from Pagano. They may believe that since they have Andrew Luck, the team would be alright if they make a coaching change.
I would argue, though, that Luck would face (he kind of does already) a similar situation to Newton. Great quarterback with a team that would be lucky to reach .500 without their QB carrying the load.
However, I'd like to circle over to something all of these coaches (other than Fox in Carolina) also had in common. Most had a .500 playoff record, and some had a losing playoff record. At 3-3 in the playoffs, Pagano fits right in there.
I don't know how much you can look at playoff record, though. Unless you reach the Championship Game or Super Bowl consistently, it's very, very difficult to have a winning playoff record. Reaching the playoffs is hard, winning in the playoffs is harder.
Obviously, we don't know how this season will play out. But right now, it is difficult to justify not bringing back a coach who led you to the playoffs every year, and a round further each season. In fact, in the two seasons Pagano has been on the sidelines for every game, the Colts have won the division both times, and hold a 3-2 playoff record.
Yes, he can be frustrating with some in-game coaching decisions. Yes, the team sometimes seems unprepared. However, these issues existed with this team when Arians was on the sideline. Heck, the team would come out flat quite a bit in the Manning era as well; they just didn't get blown out the way these Colts do.
You could argue that without Luck, this Colts team would be lucky to win five games, and I think you might be right. Keep in mind, though, Luck is one player. Yes, he has a huge impact on the team, but it takes some talent to coach a team with this many holes as well. Why do you think most of the examples I listed saw teams decline rapidly after firing their coach?
Good to great coaches were coaching mediocre teams to above-average to good seasons, but never had the overall talent of a New England or a Seattle to make it over the hump.
Would I consider Pagano a great coach? Probably not. I would definitely consider him a good coach, though.
Furthermore, I think it's foolish to let him walk regardless of how this season goes. First of all, who would be both available and could do a better job than Pagano? I mean, there really isn't a tangible upgrade waiting in the wings (Pep Hamilton is not an upgrade in my opinion). Additionally, we know Pagano is immensely popular in the locker room, especially according to Glazer's report. Would Irsay and Grigson risk disrupting the locker room, especially if the Colts reach the playoffs again this year?
Recent history shows that firing a coach who has had consistent success with a team doesn't really work out. Sure it did in Tampa's case for one year, but that's all. I think Pagano is a good coach, who hasn't been helped much (especially on the defensive end) by those who make personnel decisions. Does he have his flaws? Certainly. Should the Colts bring him back after this season? Absolutely.