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The Dilemma of a Midseason Coaching Change

The fans may want a coaching change, but will it benefit the team for the remainder of the 2016-17 season?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts suffered an ugly collapse at the hands of the Houston Texans on Sunday. The Colts had a 14 point lead with 3 minutes remaining in the game and were 99% favourites to win. The loss was one of the worst in the Pagano era and it meant that the climb towards the playoffs became a little longer.

A few weeks ago, the Colts suffered another ugly division game loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars started the season 0-3 and many rumours were swirling about the job security of their coach, Gus Bradley. However, in recent weeks, it’s been Pagano’s job security that’s been talked about.

Two ugly, close division losses always look bad on the head coach, but should those two losses be the reason for his firing? The Colts have played in six close, one-score games this season, and have only won two of them. Both those wins came against current two win teams. What’s fascinating is that the Colts were one drive away, (on offense or defense) in each of their losses, from being a 6-0 team. Despite the poor play on defense, the inconsistency on offense and the up and down play from Andrew Luck, the Colts were good enough to win in every game. The close losses reflect badly on Pagano and the coaching staff, but the fact that they were close in every game indicates that the Colts are not far off.

Despite the gut-wrenching loss, the Colts are still only 2 games back of the Texans in the division. The Texans will be without JJ Watt for the rest of the season and if last Sunday’s performance was any indication of their team’s current state, then it’s pretty obvious that the Colts are still in the thick of things and can still win the division. The Colts face the Titans next week in what is a crucial divisional game. If the Colts lose next week, not only will Pagano’s seat be excruciatingly hot (as if it isn’t right now), but the Colts will also take another major step backwards in their division and remain at the bottom of the worst division in football.

Pagano’s job is on the line right now; he’s going to be coaching for his life over the next few weeks. The bye week is in 3 weeks and a 1-2 record with a divisional game loss could send the coach packing.

Let’s say the Colts decide to fire Pagano, what would that mean for the team? For starters, 28 teams have made a midseason coaching change since the 2000 NFL season and none of the previous 28 made the playoffs. History tells us that firing a coach midseason is like waving a white flag. A few years ago when the Ravens fired their offensive coordinator Cam Cameron during the season, Joe Flacco described it as “a jolt to everyone on offense”. If the firing of an under-performing offensive coordinator brought a jolt, then firing a head coach in his 5th season with the team would send shockwaves throughout the locker room. Players react positively or negatively to that type of change. It’s up to Irsay and the executives to decide whether they believe a firing would generate a positive or negative reaction.

While the Colts may have a few head coaching candidates within the team, I feel that only Rob Chudzinski is the only candidate the Colts should truly consider. For example, you cannot replace a failing head coach with a coach who failed to record a winning season in 4 seasons in Miami.

You can also look at the other side of the coin. Many people, especially after the Texans game, may not believe that the Colts are a playoff team under Pagano. If the Colts believe that Joe Philbin or Rob Chudzinski can generate a spark that could put the Colts into the division lead, then firing Pagano may be the best thing to do. It’s also a question of the current team morale. If the players aren’t reacting and connecting with Pagano and many feel a change needs to be made, then that could be another reason to pull the trigger. This is known as a “coach losing the room”. This has been the main issue with many mid-season firings. This was the case with Marc Trestman in 2014, but he was fired after the season. This was actually the case with Joe Philbin in 2015, as there were many reports of him “losing the locker room”. I feel that Pagano has not necessarily “lost the players” because of his player’s coach mentality, but I’m purely speculating.

I personally believe it would not be the best thing for the Colts to fire Chuck Pagano at this moment. History works against the “firing during the season” theory and the Colts are still very much in the thick of things in their division. Leaving Pagano in his post and having the Colts continue to contend for a playoff spot would be the smartest thing for the team in the next few weeks. There is no need to undergo any radical changes right now. However, if the Colts were to drop further behind in the division and fall out of playoff contention, then a coaching change would be required. If Pagano and the Colts miss the playoffs, then the head coach needs to be fired. If the Colts are eliminated from playoff contention during the season, then Pagano needs to be fired. If the Colts make it to the 1st round of the playoffs and lose, then Pagano needs to be fired. The only way Pagano can save his job at this point is if he reaches the playoffs and goes on a run. I just don’t see any way that he keeps his job. With that being said, the Colts should not fire him right now. Team morale and team chemistry cannot be disrupted at this crucial time in the season. If Jim Irsay still believes that this team can make the playoffs, then he needs to keep Pagano in place.

It is a massive decision that a struggling team coming off a rough season has to consider. Firing a head coach sends a message to the players and the players could positively or negatively react to the change. A positive reaction could be hugely beneficial to the team. A negative reaction could send the team backwards and it could hurt the team for years.

The dilemma in all of this is that you could fire the head coach thinking it will motivate the team and positively affect their performance, but in reality, it could kill morale and kill any motivation they have of winning games. There’s also the possibility that if you decide to keep the coach and give him your vote of confidence, which is what Irsay (kind of) did on Tuesday, we could see the team further fall down the rabbit hole. It’s not a decision a team likes to make.

Who knows, if the Colts continue to lose close games, maybe Pagano and Grigson will receive contract extensions!