Indy players pack up, still uncertain about Pagano's status
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Chuck Pagano won over the Colts' locker room with a personal touch. He won over the fans by fiercely battling leukemia in the public eye.
He used that same fighting spirit Monday night to convince owner Jim Irsay he deserved a new contract.
Irsay did better than that.
Just one day after it appeared Pagano had coached his final game in Indianapolis, the 55-year-old coach agreed to a new four-year deal and general manager Ryan Grigson accepted a three-year extension that will be added to the one year left on his original contract. That means the pair will be working together through the 2019 season.
Financial terms on either deal were not immediately available.
Now it's up to Grigson and Pagano to lead Irsay's team back to the Super Bowl.
''These are our guys. These guys are ready. Like I said, there's been a lot reported, a lot written,'' Irsay said. ''Like I said, I know what the reality is and this is what's best for the Indianapolis Colts going forward. I'm sure of that.''
The stunning announcement turned conventional wisdom upside down.
Over the past few weeks, it looked and sounded as if Pagano's four-year tenure in Indianapolis would end.
Following Sunday's victory, longtime pass rusher Robert Mathis walked over to Pagano, handed him a game ball and gave him a hug in a mostly somber-looking room that included Irsay and one of his daughters.
Pagano was emotional, too.
And with speculation still swirling about the coach's future Monday afternoon, the players continued lobbying in support of Pagano.
Some fans joined the chorus, too, by using the phrase (hash)Chuckstay on Twitter - a spinoff from the (hash)Chuckstrong phrase that became so popular as Pagano missed 12 games while undergoing chemotherapy treatments during the 2012 season.
Many figured the 55-year-old Colorado native, who had taken Indy one step deeper into the playoffs in each of his first three years, might have been doomed after he turned down a one-year offer last offseason only to preside over a season that didn't come close to meeting the preseason Super Bowl expectations.
Somehow, Pagano's gamble paid big dividends.
''I've had a lot of great days in my life but none better than today,'' he said. ''This is absolutely the best day of my life and I'm grateful and I'm thankful to Mr. Irsay and his family for the opportunity that he's given me.''
Irsay noted that the first-time head coach and first-time general manager had accomplished even more during their first four seasons than his franchise did with Hall of Fame executive Bill Poliak and career passing leader Peyton Manning leading the way.
There certainly has been plenty to celebrate.
Grigson and Pagano inherited a 2-14 team that was later gutted by a salary-cap purge.
The Colts responded by winning 11 games in each of the next three seasons, reached the playoffs all three times, won three playoff games, captured division titles in 2013 and 2014 and reached last season's AFC championship game. Pagano has compiled a 41-23 record with the Colts.
Indy also dominated the AFC South, going 20-4 and setting an NFL record by winning 16 consecutive division games.
The rest of the league, however, exposed Indy's glaring flaws. Indy was 21-19 outside the division and lost 12 of those games by two or more touchdowns, four to the rival Patriots.
But this season was the toughest season yet.
Franchise quarterback Andrew Luck missed nine games with injuries, and after losing 40-year-old backup Matt Hasselbeck and third-stringer Charlie Whitehurst for the season finale, Pagano still found a way to win the season finale with two quarterbacks who were making their season debuts.
The 30-24 win over Tennessee allowed the Colts to finish 8-8 - but outside of the playoffs. Had they reached the postseason, Irsay said, Luck might have returned from a kidney injury for a wild-card round game and certainly for a divisional-round game.
Things didn't always go smoothly inside the building, either.
There were early season rumors of a rift between Grigson and Pagano and the speculation became so intense, it appeared as if the two men could no longer co-exist. Both sidestepped that issue during the season and again Monday night.
Irsay responded by saying he would never allow a head coach to be bullied.
Yet Irsay said he met with both men individually and together in discussions that lasted most of the afternoon and deep into the night.
Eventually Irsay came to the conclusion he didn't need a shakeup or a big-name hire.
He just needed the two fighters he hired four years ago to make it work, together.
''What we went through this year and that adversity, I believe from Andrew Luck to myself to coach Pagano, that adversity is what's going to springboard us to greatness because that's life. That's life,'' Grigson said. ''He's a fighter, I'm a fighter, Jim is a fighter and all three of us are going to fight together until we get the crown.''
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