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What’s next for Jim Irsay and the Colts?

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NFL: Peyton Manning-Press Conference Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Since the end of the regular season, there has been a ton of speculation and rumors in Indianapolis about what Colts owner Jim Irsay is up to. Recently, those rumors suggested that Irsay was going after Jon Gruden as his next head coach, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter confirmed that this morning - but added that Gruden turned it down and that he’s staying at ESPN.

This is not a surprising ‘conclusion’ (if we can call it that...) at all, considering a number of other teams have tried and failed to lure Gruden out of retirement as well. The Colts’ job was thought to be the one that might be able to succeed in doing so, considering Gruden’s affinity for Andrew Luck, but it sounds like Gruden is comfortable staying at ESPN. And it’s hard to blame him, considering he apparantly gets $6.5 million from ESPN (making him the highest-paid employee with the network) to do a job that actually gives him security, unlike an NFL head coaching job. To bring him out of that job was going to take a ton and an irresistible offer, and if the Colts didn’t have that, it’s possible Gruden won’t ever be returning to coaching - especially considering what Schefter said in that part of reason Gruden is staying at ESPN is because of the CBA restrictions in the NFL.

So no, this doesn’t mean that people don’t want to coach the Colts. It doesn’t mean that Jim Irsay has ruined the franchise to the point where nobody wants to coach Andrew Luck. That’s silly talk. What it means is that a guy who has been retired for eight years and has turned down multiple offers over that span didn’t accept an offer from a team that doesn’t even have a head coach opening yet. If this coaching job opened up, there would be a long line of people wanting the chance to coach Luck.

But that’s not the way Jim Irsay has operated recently. Instead, he’s been doing a targeted search, narrowing in on who he truly wants. He wants to ensure that he gets an upgrade over Chuck Pagano if he were to make a change, in other words. While myself and others would argue that there’s a long list of candidates who would be an upgrade, Irsay seemingly doesn’t want to take a chance.

In doing this more targeted search, however, Irsay has once again made clear that he’s not sold on Chuck Pagano as his head coach. But that’s something that’s been going on for years, so it’s not surprising. Flash back to the spring of 2015, when the Colts were coming off of an AFC Championship game appearance. Sure, they got blown out, but they had been to the playoffs in all three of Pagano’s seasons and had just reached the doorstep to the Super Bowl, which included a road win against Peyton Manning’s Broncos in the divisional round. Pagano was entering the final season of his contract, so he surely thought that he’d be getting a long-term extension. That would have made sense, but instead Irsay offered him just a one-year extension that wasn’t much of a pay increase. Pagano turned down the offer, and as the Indianapolis Star’s Stephen Holder said this morning on 1070 the Fan, “I don’t think we’ve ever accurately depicted how pissed off he was…. He was deeply offended.” From Pagano’s perspective, he deserved a true extension, but Irsay wasn’t willing to give it to him.

Then came the 2015 season, which was full of speculation. By the end of the season, pretty much everyone agreed: Pagano would be fired. The Colts missed the playoffs and went 8-8, and Pagano himself even thought he was going to be fired following the conclusion of the regular season. He said he was going to “fight my ass off” to remain the Colts coach, and apparently he did so. Jim Irsay has since admitted that he didn’t know how things were going to turn out when he went into the meetings on that Monday, but there have been reports and rumors that he at least explored his options before making the stunning decision to keep Pagano.

It seemed like a huge vote of confidence in Pagano when Irsay gave him a four-year extension, but the length of that deal could easily be explained by the fact that, since Pagano was set to become a free agent, a one or two year deal wasn’t going to cut it. Whatever ‘confidence’ Irsay had in Pagano at that point, however, quickly disappeared. On 1070 the Fan this morning, ESPN’s Mike Wells suggested that Irsay began considering a chance after the Colts’ week four loss to the Jaguars in London. “[Irsay] was irate,” Wells said. As the season went on, Pagano’s job status was once again in doubt - especially as it became clear that the Colts would miss the playoffs for the second straight year. Only this year, there was no resolution the day after the season. Jim Irsay remained silent, and in the meantime he went on a search. He reportedly had talks with Peyton Manning about an executive role, and he reportedly had talks with Jon Gruden about the coaching position.

But what if that was his plan, and plan B was keeping things the same - because I sure haven’t heard of a potential plan B that regards another search or another potential candidate. What if things are going to stay the same? Well, it means that Chuck Pagano will be coaching this team while knowing that Jim Irsay doesn’t have full confidence in him, but that’s been the case for the past couple of years as well. This time, though, the optics just look worse.

I don’t think Chuck Pagano should resign, as some have suggested. He can do whatever he wants, but there are only 32 of these jobs. And while it does suck for Pagano to be in a situation where he knows his boss doesn’t really have confidence in him, the only way he’s going to be able to persuade Irsay is by results on the field. And consider: if the Colts hadn’t blown one of those games against the Texans this year, they’d have won the division, gotten a very winnable wild card game against the Raiders, and might still be playing this weekend (though likely just to get blown out by the Patriots). My point in saying that is to suggest that from Pagano’s point of view, he probably thinks that with Andrew Luck at quarterback this team can get to the playoffs, and in the playoffs anything can happen. So there’s really no logical reason for Pagano to resign from this job, unless the dysfunction inside the building is far worse than we know.

But from Irsay’s perspective, why allow this to continue? He went for the home run in Jon Gruden and struck out - ok. That’s no big deal, and I don’t think missing out on Gruden is a tragedy. Honestly, I haven’t seen fans ridiculing Irsay for trying to make a move like this - but the reason it’s being characterized as a mess is because it now looks like Irsay might be bringing the same guys back. He went after an upgrade and didn’t get it, so now he’s going to try to pretend like it never happened and keep everything the same? At some point, he’s going to have to make a decision, and if he doesn’t think Chuck Pagano is getting it done, then he needs to just make a move. I don’t fault Irsay for trying to upgrade, but he shouldn’t just go back to business as usual if it doesn’t work out. There are other options - like Kyle Shanahan - who would be good fits for the Colts, but Irsay doesn’t seem inclined to go that route. Colts fans can be encouraged by the fact that Irsay seems to know that Pagano isn’t the best option for this franchise, and it seems the owner shares some of the same concerns that fans do. But it appears Irsay is more hesitant to move on from Pagano without a known replacement than fans are.

So what next? Well, probably a lot of awkwardness, and probably business as usual unless something changes regarding the guys Irsay has been pursuing. I think the die has been cast and that it’s time to move on, especially now that this report has come to light, and it wouldn’t be that disastrous of a move to come this late since guys like Kyle Shanahan and others are still available. But I doubt that’s the way Irsay is going to operate. All along, I’ve gotten the impression that he wants to know the replacement before making a move, and it sounds like his replacement plan for head coach has fallen through. That means that Irsay might try to pretend like none of this happened and move on with business as usual, regardless of whether that’s the right move to make or not (and it’s not).

The bottom line? Colts fans should prepare for another year of Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano leading the franchise.