Years from now, we will still be trying to figure out what exactly happened in Indianapolis during the 2015 season. It began with Chuck Pagano turning down a one-year contract extension, saw the Colts struggle to 8-8 and miss the playoffs, and ended with Pagano receiving a stunning four-year extension. Now that the dust has settled a bit, let's step back and look at this crazy saga that had an even crazier ending.
Let's start with last year's playoffs. The Colts entered the postseason with an 11-5 record and as AFC South champions once again, and they won their first two games against the Bengals and the Broncos before getting blown out in the AFC Championship game by the Patriots. According to FOX Sports' Jay Glazer, the Colts would have considered firing Pagano had the team lost in the divisional round, but instead they beat Denver. Coming off of an AFC title game berth in the third year of the era, having improved in each year, though, seemed to be a positive and it seemed that things were moving in the right direction.
In the offseason, however, owner Jim Irsay offered Chuck Pagano a one-year contract extension at roughly the same price. We don't know just how much the offer was, but it wouldn't have been much of an increase. According to Glazer, it would have made him "the lowest paid coach in the NFL." Irsay's offer of a one-year extension seemed like it was solely in an effort to prevent his head coach from entering a contract year, as the offer showed very clearly that the owner wasn't sold on Pagano as his coach.
So Chuck Pagano turned it down. He decided to bet on himself, figuring that with a team that just made the AFC Championship game and was a hot Super Bowl pick, he could wind up with a longer-term contract worth more money. It was the right move on Pagano's part, too: if Irsay wasn't sold on Pagano as the coach, he still could have fired him despite one year left on the deal. But with Pagano's deal up at the end of the year, the coach would hold all of the leverage - if Irsay wanted him back, he would have to give him a larger deal in order to do so. There was really no reason whatsoever for Pagano to accept the offer, and so he didn't.
That, of course, led to a year-long discussion about Pagano's job status. He was entering the final year of his deal, making him a lame duck coach and prompting a ton of questions about his future with the franchise. From that point through Monday, January 4, the reports were overwhelming and all saying the same thing: it was very unlikely that Chuck Pagano would be back as the head coach of the Colts in 2016.
And let me just add this - there has been a petty little argument between some in the Indianapolis media (started by a radio host who's the biggest Ryan Grigson supporter in town) about how so many reports were wrong. Sure, they ended up not being accurate about Pagano being gone, but let's look at this rationally: anyone who has been in this business for any length of time has been fed wrong information. It happens. And in this case, it's not even certain it was wrong information but rather a stunning outcome that no one expected. The only report that was truly wrong was the one that said Pagano was going to be fired for sure (from ESPN), but understand that no one thought that Chuck Pagano was coming back. No one. Not the players, not the coaches, not Chuck Pagano, not team employees, not people around the NFL. The fact that Pagano is back took everyone by surprise.
The play on the field all but solidified it: Pagano was on his way out. The Colts started 0-2, won three in a row, then dropped three in a row. Then they beat the then-undefeated Broncos with their top ranked defense and went on a three game win streak, before then once again going on a three game losing streak - which included blowout losses to the Steelers and Jaguars. The Colts then ended the season on a two game winning streak. All in all, the team finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs, and even though Andrew Luck missed nine games, it seemed like Pagano's fate was all but decided.
Everyone thought so. After the team's 30-24 win on Sunday, Chuck Pagano was hugging players and coaches and even the team's mascot Blue on his way off the field before hitting his chest and pointing to the crowd. He was emotional in the locker room as Robert Mathis presented him with a game ball. He sounded like a guy who knew what was coming in his post-game press conference. The entire scene was incredibly clear: Pagano, his players, and everyone else had a sense of what was about to happen.
On Monday, everyone was simply waiting for the official announcement to come on Black Monday announcing the Colts moving on from Pagano - the only question was whether they would move on from Grigson too. Speaking of Grigson, the reports were also very clear all season long that the general manager didn't get along with the head coach and that the two had plenty of disagreements. The reports painted a clear picture of a GM who meddled in coaching decisions and had a hand in a lot of things that, honestly, should be left to the coaches. The dysfunctional dynamic made it even more evident that changes needed to be made.
Yet on Monday, Pagano met with his players at noon like normal and then dismissed them to media availability and cleaning out their lockers. There was no word yet on Irsay's decision, though everyone knew what it was going to be. That afternoon, around 3 p.m., Chuck Pagano met with owner Jim Irsay, and we waited for the official announcement. And we waited. And then we waited some more. Late in the afternoon, the Colts announced that no announcement would be coming on Monday as Pagano and Irsay were still meeting. Was it possible that Pagano could possibly be on his way back? After all, he had said that he would fight his ass off to remain the coach in Indianapolis - was he doing just that?
Then at 9:40 p.m., the Colts made the stunning announcement: they had agreed to a four-year contract extension with Chuck Pagano. They called an impromptu press conference for 10:30 p.m. and Jim Irsay, Ryan Grigson, and Chuck Pagano were all in attendance, with Irsay and Pagano all smiles. Chuck Pagano was the team's head coach, and Ryan Grigson was the team's general manager. Irsay had committed to them and extended both of them.
It was a completely stunning turn of events from something that had been becoming more and more clear for months. What actually happened on Monday, January 4, in Indianapolis? We may never know for sure, but continuity won out. "Waking up this morning, I'm always hopeful for continuity," Irsay said on Monday night.
What is clear is that a day that began with everyone simply waiting for the inevitable firing of Chuck Pagano to be officially announced ended with Pagano being signed to a four-year contract extension. This all came after Pagano was offered - and declined - a one-year extension last offseason and an 8-8 season this year. It has been a very strange saga all along, but the ending was the most stunning result of all.