Let’s get this out of the way off the bat, do I think Chuck Pagano is a great head coach? No.
Ew. That string of words just felt dirty even typing them.
Do I think he’s a good head coach? Not really. Is he an average head coach? Yeah, probably.
As most of you know, I’m not a big “rah rah” guy when it comes to Colts head coach Chuck Pagano. Many of us, myself included, assumed when former GM Ryan Grigson was fired and his dark cloud lifted over West 56th Street that Pagano would be close behind. Almost all of us were surprised when Pagano emerged unscathed.
I’ve gone back and forth debating whether keeping Pagano was a wise decision. There are some glaring negatives. He’s beyond terrible as an in-game coach. His teams never seem to show up to start a game or are completely unprepared in seemingly obvious situations. He uses an excessive amount of nonsensical analogies.
However, there are some real positives that can’t be ignored either. First, the players absolutely love Pagano. In today’s NFL, that can’t be overstated. After two straight years of significant regression, the players still love Pagano. That’s almost unheard of today. Most locker rooms would turn on their head coach in an instant but the Colts haven’t.
Second, Pagano actually has a career winning record. That fact wasn’t lost on new GM Chris Ballard when he agreed to retain Pagano. Winning is difficult in the NFL no matter what team you coach. Everyone is a professional. It isn’t like the NCAA where you’ve got only a handful of tough games mixed with a bunch of cupcakes in any given season.
Yes, I know many of you will say, “well Stephen, the team wins in spite of Pagano, not because of him.” Eh, I’ll buy that to a point but that can’t be the only explanation especially given recent years. The fact Pagano went 8-8 the past two seasons with an injured Andrew Luck is still impressive. People seem to forget that in 2015 Andrew Luck missed nine games because of injuries. We know the roster wasn’t incredibly talented then so you have to give the coaching staff a little credit for keeping the Colts in the playoff hunt both years.
If you question the talent on the roster, you needn’t look far to see how truly weak it was. Ballard brought in so many defensive upgrades and allowed so many “starters” to simply walk without even giving them an offer. Grigson hamstrung Pagano by not adequately investing in building a defense the right way. Yes, Pagano is a defensive head coach but when the Colts projected starting lineup on defense this year includes at least eight and maybe nine new starters, that’s a problem even the best coaches would have a hard time overcoming.
Lastly, there isn’t an immediate or obvious replacement for Pagano and the timing to replace him just wasn’t right. I realize this isn’t the strongest argument as a reason to keep Pagano but it should be mentioned none the less. In the instant gratification society we live in today, everyone wants immediate results and immediate consequences. Yes, Pagano had two straight 8-8 seasons but let’s not bring out the torches and pitchforks just yet.
Everyone seems to think replacing Pagano would have been easy when Ballard was hired. That’s just not true. Most of the top coaching candidates were already gone and replacing a head coach in February is a bit more difficult. Additionally, if the new coach wanted to run a different system, then the draft preparation is significantly disrupted. At least in Kansas City Ballard helped mold a 3-4 defense so the defensive schemes were the same between the teams.
The name most often mentioned when Ballard was hired to replace Pagano was Kansas City Chiefs Special Teams Coordinator Dave Toub. To be honest, I was surprised this didn’t happen. Ballard and Toub have known each other for years. The player fits in terms of scouting were likely to be similar. However, it still just seemed too late in the off-season to hire a new head coach and potentially replace all of the existing staff. Too much chaos in too short a time.
I’ll mention this quickly because people like to bring up Jon Gruden as a potential head coach. They say the allure of having Andrew Luck as his quarterback will be enough to coax Gruden back into the league. I’m not convinced hiring Gruden would be the right choice regardless of the situation. Gruden was an NFL head coach for 11 years with an overall record just over .500. Only four of those years did he have seasons with double digit wins and five of those seasons he had a record of .500 or worse. Plus Gruden’s teams were far more talented on paper than Pagano’s have ever been. Would Gruden be a better option than Pagano? Maybe, but it’s not as clear cut as people seem to think.
Yes, Pagano needs to improve his in-game coaching and pregame preparation dramatically this season. Nobody refutes this. To be frank, I don’t think another 8-8 year keeps Pagano safe like it always did for Jeff Fisher. If the Colts don’t start off the season at least 3-3, I could envision Ballard and Irsay making an immediate coaching change rather than risk Pagano squeaking out another 8-8 year.
The talent on the current Colts roster from top to bottom and especially on defense is undoubtedly greater than Pagano has had in any prior season. If he can’t go over .500 with this roster and with, on paper, an easy schedule, then it is time to move on. However, at least for the start of the season, we should all give Pagano a chance to see what he can do with legitimate defensive talent. I mean hey, you never know, Pagano might just pull a wood chopping rabbit out of his hat and surprise us.