Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano speaks after the announcement of his contract extension during a press conference at the NFL team's practice facility in Indianapolis, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Michael Conroy
January 05, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Now the Indianapolis Colts have something to prove.

After starting the season with Super Bowl aspirations and falling short of the playoffs, after losing their starting quarterback for nine games and watching the backups win six, after lobbying team owner Jim Irsay to keep coach Chuck Pagano, Indy's players got their wish.

They'll start 2016 with a healthy Andrew Luck, their coach still on the sideline and an unexpected second chance to prove they can win a championship with Pagano.

''I love Chuck Pagano,'' punter Pat McAfee posted on Twitter shortly after Irsay made the unexpected move by giving his 55-year-old coach a four-year extension instead of showing him the door. ''I think I speak for America when I say I'm extremely happy for him.''

Pagano had unanimous support in the locker room and a lot of support from a fan base that embraced him and his family when he battled leukemia in 2012.

But to achieve the goal Irsay set years ago, multiple Super Bowl titles with Luck at the helm, the hard part is just beginning.

Clearly, changes are coming to a team that had one of the league's oldest rosters in 2015.

General manager Ryan Grigson went all in this past season by bringing in four high-priced free agents in their 30s. The gamble went bust, prompting Irsay to acknowledge his team needs to get younger and better in 2016.

Those who work closest with Pagano have no doubt he'll do his part to fix the problems after a disappointing 8-8 season left them out of the playoffs for the first time in four years.

''In Chuck we trust,'' linebacker D'Qwell Jackson wrote in all capital letters on Twitter.

The lingering question is how the Indianapolis brain trust will work behind the scenes.

A rumored rift between Grigson and Pagano was reportedly so strained they barely spoke to one another.

It's not unusual for coaches and general managers to have vastly different opinions about players or philosophies as Irsay, a former GM, knows. It's not even the first time that's happened in Indy.

Still, Irsay believes so strongly that they can co-exist because of a common goal - winning a Super Bowl - that he gave Grigson a three-year contract extension. That means Grigson and Pagano will be paired together through the 2019 season.

Time will tell whether they truly have patched things up after hashing things out in meetings much of Monday.

Afterward, Grigson called Pagano a good man while Pagano, Irsay said, requested the extension for Grigson, unsolicited. Then Irsay, unsolicited, took on the suggestion that the ''fractured'' relationship was a result of Grigson meddling in some of Pagano's decisions.

''If you think I'm going to let someone bully my head coach you're wrong. You don't know me,'' Irsay said. ''Ryan is not that type of guy. But if you think I'm going to have that in my organization, you're wrong, you don't know me.''

Whatever the relationship truly is, the reality is Pagano and Grigson don't need to be best friends.

They just have to work together.

''We agree to disagree, but at the end of the day, you leave every meeting with a handshake and a hug and you say, `OK, look, it's about one thing and one thing only,''' Pagano said. ''It's about the team and it's about making decisions that are best for the horseshoe. It's not about me. It's not about Ryan. It's not about any one person.''

Even if Pagano was the one person everyone in the locker room wanted back.

Here are some other things to watch during the offseason:

LUCK'S HEALTH: Though Indy's playoff hopes tumbled with Luck missing the final seven games (lacerated kidney, partially torn abdominal muscle), Irsay thought Luck could have returned for the postseason - had the Colts qualified. He said Monday night that Luck might have returned this weekend and almost certainly would have been back for the divisional round. That's the most promising news about Luck's health since he got hurt Nov. 8.

NEW LINE: Expect big changes on an offensive line that didn't protect the quarterback or open running lanes. How bad was it? Indy needed five different quarterbacks, three different starters and five wins from 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck just to avoid a losing season. Need more evidence? Running back Frank Gore called it ''one of the toughest seasons'' he's ever had.

OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY: Pagano didn't wait till the end of the season to change offensive coordinators, firing Pep Hamilton in early November. Now that Pagano is back, he must decide whether to keep Hamilton's replace, longtime friend Rod Chudzinski, in that position. It would be the ideal move since Luck has already played for three coordinators in four seasons.

FIXING THE D: One thing that became abundantly clear in 2015 is that the Colts need more defensive playmakers While longtime pass rusher Robert Mathis played better as the season went on, safety Mike Adams continues to be a turnover machine and Vontae Davis is still an elite cover cornerback, the Colts need to find more game-changers before September.



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