It sure sounds like it’ll be the status quo for the Indianapolis Colts in 2017.
Though there’s no official word from Jim Irsay yet, multiple reports this morning said that head coach Chuck Pagano will be back. Sporting News’ Alex Marvez, ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport have all reported that Pagano will return, while Rapoport also reports that general manager Ryan Grigson will return as well. Those guys are all usually right, which means that Jim Irsay has apparantly decided to bring back Grigson and Pagano for the 2017 season.
What that means is the owner who expressed disappointment in the Peyton Manning era Colts for winning just one Super Bowl and who has publicly said he wants “at least” two Super Bowls with Andrew Luck is settling for mediocre. He’s settling for the familiar, hoping that continuity will magically bring a championship to Indianapolis. But the funny thing about continuity is that it only matters if you have the right guys. Otherwise, it’s just stupid.
Here’s the bottom line: what about these guys suggests that Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano are the right guys to lead the Colts, particularly with Andrew Luck entering his prime? The franchise quarterback was as good as ever in 2016 and the Colts went 8-8.
The Colts are just 16-17 over their last 33 games, including getting blown out by the Patriots in the 2014 AFC Championship game and missing the playoffs in the next two seasons. Since the high point of the regime (the 2014 divisional round win in Denver), this team has been bad. No longer can Irsay just rest on Pagano and Grigson’s track record, because recently it hasn’t been good. The arguments for Pagano fail to hold up anymore.
“But he wins!”
Previously, Pagano’s record was propped up by winning games against the AFC South. As I wrote earlier this season, Pagano built his reputation on winning division games. The Colts compiled an NFL-record 16-game win streak against their division from 2012-2015, and in Pagano’s first four seasons he went 20-4 against the AFC South (16-2 in his first three seasons). That accounted for nearly half of his wins (20 of 41), meaning that if you were to simply average out his AFC South success to 12-12, he would have had four non-winning seasons entering the 2016 season. That’s not to suggest that he shouldn’t get credit for those AFC South wins (because division games are always tough no matter what), but it means that this year, when the Colts went 3-3 against the division, his resume looks worse because it’s not propped up by wins against the league’s worst division anymore. In fact, since that 16-game win streak against the AFC South, the Colts are just 4-5 against the division.
“But he motivates his guys!”
In that span, the Colts have also dropped several HUGE games, which severely hurts the notion that Pagano is a master motivator who always gets his teams to play hard. Because when the stakes have been highest in the past two years, the Colts have fallen flat. In 2015, it was a home game against the Texans in December the Colts dropped 16-10 that essentially ended their hopes of winning the division. In 2016, it was a home game against the Texans in December the Colts dropped 22-17 that essentially ended their hopes of winning the division. Those have been the two biggest games for the Colts over the past two seasons, and in both of them the Colts played ugly football in losses to teams led by Brandon Weeden and Brock Osweiler at quarterback, respectively.
“But he’s a defensive coach!”
So if Pagano’s resume can’t stand on his record anymore and if it can’t stand on his motivating abilities, then what? His skills as a defensive coach? Consider this: in the last two years, the Colts have had the two worst defenses in the 33 years of the Indianapolis era, at least in terms of yards per game. In fact, the three worst defenses in terms of yards per game in the Indianapolis era have all come under Pagano. And lest you think it’s just because of an offensive emphasis in today’s NFL, Pagano’s defenses in Indy have only once in five years ranked higher than 19th in points per game and only once in five years ranked higher than 20th in yards per game. The defense being bad in 2012 was understandable; it was a rebuild, and the Colts were devoid of talent. But having the same thing be true of them after 2016? And having the defense actually get worse in 2015 and 2016? That shouldn’t be acceptable.
“But he doesn’t have the talent to work with!”
This is true, and this is where Ryan Grigson comes in. Pagano’s done a bad job of coaching, but Grigson has also done a bad job of building this team. From his first three drafts, the Colts have six players left with the team (out of 22 selections) - and not one of them is a defensive player. Some moves, like the selection of Bjoern Werner in the first round or the trade of a first round pick for Trent Richardson, have worked out horribly, and he hasn’t had a great record in free agency either. Just take a look at this defense - the one that, as already mentioned, is among the worst in Colts history - and look at who the playmakers are. Clayton Geathers had a good season. Vontae Davis is a good corner. Kendall Langford and Henry Anderson have potential. But otherwise? There are some nice role players and contributors, but this defense is utterly devoid of game-changers, playmakers, and good starters. At this point, the conversation of “who’s most to blame” misses the point: both Pagano and Grigson play a huge role in the Colts’ failures.
With better coaching, this team probably would have made the postseason. There were at least a couple of games this year in which better coaching easily could have made the difference. But while the talent-level of this team was probably enough to win the AFC South as long as Andrew Luck played well (and he did), this is far from a team that can contend from a Super Bowl. They would have made the playoffs, maybe won a game against the Connor Cook-led Raiders... and then traveled to Foxborough to likely be blown out by the Patriots (or perhaps to Kansas City to likely be blown out by the Chiefs).
So here we are. Entering year six of the Andrew Luck era, and while the quarterback is as good as ever, this team is as far away from the Super Bowl as ever. In the last 33 games, the Colts are 16-17, the first Colts team to miss the playoffs in back-to-back years since 1997-98 (with Pagano the first coach to do so with the team in over 20 years), and have had the two worst defenses in the Indianapolis era in terms of yards per game. And yet, to Jim Irsay, apparantly that’s ok.
Here’s the crazy thing: Irsay has previously set an incredibly high standard for his franchise. When some like to call Colts fans spoiled, the ultimate reality is that it’s what Jim Irsay wants. He wants his fans to be spoiled. He wants them to expect success every year. He wants them to get pissed off when the team is underachieving. Right or wrong, that’s the culture that Irsay has created in Indianapolis, and for the most part Irsay has presided over teams that have been overwhelmingly successful. And when there’s been an aberration from that - like a 6-10 record in 2001 or a 2-14 record in 2011 - he’s been quick to make a change. In fact, before Pagano and Grigson arrived, the Colts had missed the playoffs just four times since 1995 and after three of them Irsay made a change at head coach. He presided over teams that set records, won a ton of games, appeared in multiple Super Bowls, and won a world championship. He saw a Hall of Fame general manager, head coach, and quarterback, plus a Hall of Fame wideout and a handful of other players who will have a case for Canton. Irsay knows what success is, and he’s been familiar with it. His franchise has set a standard, and Irsay has presided by it: losing is unacceptable, and the expectation each year is the playoffs. That’s what makes the last two years so surprising: the owner who has established an expectation of success and who has seen it up close has settled for mediocrity.
Yet apparantly, he’d do so thinking that these guys will magically stop being mediocre in year six. 1070 the Fan’s Conrad Brunner said it best today:
Looks like there’s a new word for doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for different results:
Maybe Irsay hasn’t yet made a decision. Maybe these reports - albeit from three respected members of the media - ultimately prove to be false. Maybe Irsay’s still contemplating a change, and maybe that’s why he’s still staying silent (and I’ll still have a certain level of skepticism until Irsay actually speaks). But if he’s really made the decision to keep both Grigson and Pagano, he’s settled for mediocrity. Which means no one should be surprised if (when) the Colts are average once again next year.