The Colts brain trust was at odds last year, but they’ve mended fences—so they say—and are working together to take Andrew Luck and Co. back to the postseason
ANDERSON, Ind.—The cement walls of the dorm rooms at this 100-year-old university are bare as ever, save for a fresh slathering of white paint. The golf carts, having escorting players from mess halls to the practice field, are lined against the port-a-pottys and the crooked fence.
Andrew Luck addressed the media already, saying “gosh” no less than twice. Adam Vinatieri, the Benjamin Button of NFL kickers, stretches to the side. Robert Mathis, 35, springs through a drill with rookie enthusiasm, and Joe Philbin, in new blue shorts, barks at offensive linemen.
And there are the general manager and the head coach, the same men who have been here since 2012. It’s hard to tell, perched from the grass hill, but just after 3 p.m. they walked past each other and it appeared they shared a smile.
This is the stock opening to a movie you’ve seen before. But this year, it’s bizarre to watch because of its familiarity.
Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano are willing to talk about 2015, about Luck’s lacerated kidney and the agony of mediocrity. They’ll talk about that last win—featuring characters enough, like a quarterback pulled form the Brooklyn Bolts and another from driving Uber, to qualify for a Disney script—that pulled the Colts to 8-8. They’ll admit they still don’t know if, by that point, owner Jim Irsay had determined their fate.
“The owner could have just woken up and said, ‘You know what, I’m blowing this thing up,’ ” Grigson says.
“I don’t know when [Irsay] decided,” Pagano says, “But if I flipped roles for a minute, and stood in his shoes, I’d look at that win and say, ‘This team doesn’t quit’ and there’s something worth keeping around.’ ”
Reluctantly, in separate interviews, each confessed to the surreality of returning to work in 2016 after surviving a season of media-leaked cat-fighting and floundering.
“Man, I have a whole new perspective,” Grigson says. “And I’m just really glad to be here. With Chuck.”
It feels more than ever, NFL owners have trended towards a swipe-right mentality, ditching relationships at the first sign of turmoil. Consider the Buccaneers dumping Lovie Smith after two years, and only one season of work with No. 1 draft pick Jameis Winston. The owners coveted an unknown, but exciting, new connection with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. The Eagles snagged the hottest candidate in 2013 in Chip Kelly, then ditched him after three years when disagreements brewed. Mike Pettine only got two years in Cleveland, Jim Tomsula one in San Francisco. Tomsula was only hired because 49ers brass couldn’t figure out a way to mend their relationship with Jim Harbaugh.
What the Colts did in 2016 is diametrically different. They committed to stability, becoming the model for relationship therapy. “I give the credit to Mr. Irsay because he understands, like most people in football understand, that continuity matters,” Pagano says. “He knows that you can’t just flip the script every two years, play musical chairs and expect a different result. I think there’s been a consistency of winning in Indianapolis because of that.”
“Look, it’s the nature of our business,” Grigson says. “You have GMs in this league who are in the Hall of Fame who were let go numerous times. It’s not a sign of competence or ability, it’s just the way it goes. But we’ve had a lot of success here. Chuck and I came into this thing as rookies, and I mean, there’s going to be a learning curve. We won 44 games as newbies. We can make it work.”
Grigson and Pagano have always argued. It’s the foundation of their relationship. Grigson ascended through scouting, staying at $70-a-night motels and evaluating film since he was 26. Pagano, the son of a coach and brother of a coach, began coaching months after earning his college degree. Both Grigson and Pagano took office in Indianapolis in 2012—Grigson a first-time GM, Pagano a rookie head-coach—and kept to their convictions. Even as Pagano was in the hospital, undergoing leukemia treatment in the fall of 2012, Grigson remembers sitting bedside with him, watching an SEC game and arguing over a prospect.
“As an owner, why would you want a coach and a GM to agree on every single thing?” Grigson asks. “To me, the best decisions are made sometimes when you have some deep thoughts and you have some debate. It’s a healthy argument—you do it in a respectful way with the right delivery and some tact.”
Says Pagano, eerily on message with his general manager in that he almost completes his sentence: “And after those debates, when you make a decision you to respect it.”
It appeared those debates became testy in 2015, and according to various reports Grigson and Pagano disagreed over factors extending right down to control of the roster. Both men now downplay the tension.
“You can’t always believe what you read, and a lot of that was blown out of proportion,” Pagano says.
“I never really talked the entire year last year, but there were misconceptions out there,” Grigson says. “If a place is really as bad as everyone thinks, you don’t win in those types of circumstances, and we came within one game of going to the playoffs.”
After the season, they met with Irsay in what has been described as a seven-hour airing of grievances. “That was a long, long day,” Pagano says. “And there was some great dialogue. We sat together on the table and set the record straight.”
Both men now preach commitment to communication. An example: the hiring of new coaches. Although Grigson and Pagano both received extensions, there was massive turnover under them. The Colts have 11 new assistants. “The coaching search, we drew that process out for weeks,” Grigson says. “A lot of times we had candidates who were viable guys based off résumés, but we didn’t want any recycled mediocrity. We wanted to find guys that fit what Chuck was trying to do, to fit the big picture.”
Typically, Grigson doesn’t like to get involved in the hiring of coaches. “I’m a scout at heart, I know that part,” Grigson says. “With coaches, I tell Chuck, ‘You’re the one who has to work with them every day.’ But he wanted me involved in the process.” And so though it took longer than expected, they agreed on each of the hires. Together.
Five Things I Thought About the ColtsLet’s just say I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the O-line,” Grigson says.
2. Listening to the crowd gush as second-year wide receiver Phillip Dorsett bolted down the sideline after a 10-yard catch-and-run, I am reminded of why the Colts felt comfortable letting Andre Johnson walk in free agency. Dorsett, widely regarded as a reach in the first round in 2015, could be a legitimate star. He missed most of last season with injury. Donte Moncreif proved a more capable (and cheaper) target than Johnson, who was relegated to a total non-factor in 2015. And let’s not forget that this is also a team with T.Y. Hilton. There might not be a more promising receiver trio in the NFL right now. They all just need to stay healthy.
3. Dwayne Allen slunk into into irrelevancy last season. The tight end was targeted only 29 times in 13 games last season, finishing with 16 receptions, only four for a first down. And yet the Colts rewarded the 26-year-old with a four-year contract worth nearly $30 million. It came at the expense of fellow tight end and Luck’s Stanford buddy Coby Fleener, who became a Saint in free agency. Why would the Colts pay big time for someone with such limited production? (Fleener, who is 27, had 54 catches in 2015.) Grigson believed 2015 was a fluke for Allen, and if given a more defined role in the offense, he will thrive.
4. I’ve heard Frank Gore’s name mentioned several times this offseason—by former teammates, by current teammates, by fans of the 33-year-old running back. The common theme: That guy still has gas in the tank. Still, even with his 260 carries last year and a reinforced offensive line, it’s impossible to imagine Gore as an every-down back. I just wonder who will complement the load. The Colts don’t have a clear plan at backup, though it appears to be Robert Turbin, who is on his fourth team in two years.
5. I love fat-guy touchdowns, but not as much as I love fat-guy touchdown dances. The fans at Anderson University loved it when defensive tackle T.Y. McGill—all 6-foot, 310 pounds of him—jumped on a Luck screen pass and sauntered into the end zone, shimmying his body for somewhere between 45 seconds and not enough time at all.
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