Black Monday in the NFL was dominated by talk of Chuck Pagano and Jim Harbaugh, rather than coaches who were actually fired, as the Colts and 49ers move forward.
You have probably heard this story by now: On Monday, Jim Irsay met with coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson, whose relationship was “toxic” and “untenable.” Pagano was supposed to get fired; some people thought Grigson was in trouble, too.
By the end of the day, Pagano and Grigson had both agreed to contract extensions, and they joined Irsay for a press conference announcing they were all in this together.
That’s a lot to get done in one day, don’t you think?
Here is another theory: The situation wasn’t nearly as bad as some people thought it was. And that doesn’t mean their facts were all wrong; sometimes you can have the right facts and the wrong conclusion.
A relationship is only dysfunctional if the people involved think it is dysfunctional. Some people see a screaming match as the end of a relationship; others see it as the end of an argument. One man’s meddling is another’s “trying to win.” One person may see a situation as “toxic” or “untenable,” while another may see it as life in an intense business.
Think about marriages. I don’t mean professional marriages. Think about actual, till-death-do-us-part marriages. Sometimes, one spouse wants to file for divorce while the other thinks they can work things out, right? That happens all the time. So maybe you can understand why some people might observe the Pagano-Grigson relationship, from close or afar, and think it was doomed, when it really wasn’t. Maybe it is just a typical general manager-coach relationship, with tense moments, disagreements, and the occasional moment when one privately complains about the other.
Maybe it got worse this year, not because the coach and general manager were in a power struggle, but because their team entered the season with Super Bowl expectations and went 8-8. Losing (or in this case, a disappointing .500 record) creates a lot of tension in NFL offices. It’s uncomfortable for everybody. People worry about their jobs, not just the head coach or general manager, but assistant coaches and grunts. Their spouses worry. Their kids ask questions. Tempers get short. And somebody hearing a snippet of an argument or half of a story can leap a little too far to a negative conclusion.
And it’s kind of amazing, in this case, because everybody seems to ignore the biggest factor in the Colts’ disappointment.
Andrew Luck was bad, then hurt, then off the field completely.
That’s why the Colts went 8-8. It wasn’t because Pagano tried a foolish trick play against the Patriots. Coaches make mistakes all the time, though admittedly, that was an all-timer. And it wasn’t because Grigson whiffed on a few first-round draft picks. Every team misses on draft picks.
Luck played in five games. The Colts went 1-4 with him, including 1-2 when he was injured. He was 32nd in the league in passer rating. He was 25th in ESPN’s QBR. You can blame the Colts’ offensive line, but the team was 15th in the league in sacks allowed, and by any measure, 40-year-old Matt Hasselbeck played better than Luck behind that same line.
Irsay seems to realize this. And after spending his entire adult life in the NFL, he surely knows: Tension is only unbearable if you can’t bear it. These are working relationships. They aren’t supposed to be smooth all the time.
Most of us have been furious at a boss, or mad at an underling, or frustrated with a co-worker, or wanted to remove an editor’s limbs, one by one, and held the bloody, bony appendages in front of his eyes until his face turned white with death and ... sorry, that got away from me there.
The point is: Somebody witnessing our worst moments might not get a full picture.
Irsay seems to understand: Successful NFL people do not avoid disputes. They work through them.
The situation is, in many ways, the exact opposite of what we saw in San Francisco a year ago. Jim Harbaugh and Pagano are very different coaches. Players would run through a wall for Pagano because they love him. They would run through a wall for Harbaugh because Harbaugh would run through it first.
And yet, their career arcs are remarkably similar:
Pagano went 33-15 in his first three seasons in Indy, with three playoff appearances, before falling to 8-8 in his fourth year.
Harbaugh went 36-11-1 in his first four seasons in San Francisco, with three NFC Championship Game appearances, before falling to 8-8 in his fourth year.
After year four with Harbaugh, the 49ers decided to fire him. Officially, it wasn’t a firing—they parted ways. But it was fair to say that owner Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke were really, really eager to part with Harbaugh’s ways.
York thought management’s relationship with Harbaugh was untenable. But I don’t think Harbaugh ever saw it that way. That was the strange thing. I think Harbaugh was miffed, from the beginning, that York might want to make a change What was their relationship like? Who cared? The 49ers were one of the best teams in the league. That was their relationship. York never seemed to understand that.
Speaking broadly (and taking money out of the equation for the moment), there are basically three factors that determine coaching decisions:
1. What’s “right” or “fair.” In other words, did the coach “deserve” to lose his job?
2. Personal feelings and relationships.
You would think that No. 3 would trump everything, and it should. That happened in Chicago last year when the Cubs fired Rick Renteria and hired Joe Maddon. It wasn’t fair. Cubs president Theo Epstein admitted it. Renteria had managed for one year and had been told he was coming back. And it wasn’t really about relationships. There were no known problems with Renteria. It was just about winning. Maddon was an upgrade. Simple as that.
But it usually doesn’t happen that way. Usually, factors No. 1 (fairness) and 2 (relationships) play a role.
When 49ers owner York and his general manager, Trent Baalke, ran off Harbaugh, they chose relationships over both “fairness” and winning. They were so blinded by animosity toward Harbaugh that they actually hired their next coach, Tomsula, based on personal relationships. They were so determined to prove that Harbaugh’s personality was holding the team back, they hired a guy who had no business being an NFL head coach, to prove the point.
Stunningly, that didn’t work.
Irsay is too smart and too experienced to make a mistake like that. If he had replaced Pagano, he would have found a better candidate than Tomsula. But he also is banking on Pagano and Grigson being good enough at their jobs to help a healthy Luck win the Super Bowl.
We don’t know that about either one, yet. Pagano is beloved by players, but his game coaching has been questioned. Grigson did miss on some high-profile moves, though he has hit on more than his share.
Nobody celebrates 8-8. But you can do a lot worse, too. An NFL team does not go 8-8 with a bad roster, a bad coach and a backup quarterback. So somebody must be doing something right.
The Colts are not as far off as they appeared. Their coach and GM were probably not be as far apart as they appeared, either.
If Luck is a star again next year, the Colts should be very good again. Then people will probably say they are winning because Pagano and Grigson are happier with each other. More likely, Pagano and Grigson will be happier because they are winning.