INDIANAPOLIS -- An argument could be made that Chuck Pagano's head coaching record in 2012 should have an asterisk next to it. The Indianapolis Colts went 11-5 during his first year. Pagano, though, only coached four of those games (2-2) because of an unfortunate battle with leukemia.
So a deserving question heading into this season was: Could Pagano really coach?
The Colts had everything it took to make a run in the AFC this season. Playmakers on offense to go with franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. A defense that was supposed to be better in Year 2 of Pagano's 3-4 defense.
But one by one, key offensive players went down.
Running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw. Guard Donald Thomas. Tight end Dwayne Allen. Then the big hit happened, the kind of devastating blow that had Pagano choked up during the press conference. Future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne was lost for the season with a torn ACL.
That in itself gave the Colts every reason to start to crumble.
Not only was Pagano's coaching put to the test, but also his ability to keep his team tied together during that time because sympathy cards weren't going to start coming in the mail from their opponents.
The journey wasn't smooth. It was actually bumpy at times, as some of Pagano's coaching decisions came into question. But when it was all said and done, the “family,” as they call themselves, stuck together, had another 11-win season and are headed back to the playoffs for the second straight sesaon.
“We're talking about a guy who fought every day during his battle with cancer,” Robert Mathis said. “If he did that, we could definitely go every single day and compete. If he told me to run through a brick wall, I'd do it for him. That's the type of coach he is.”
Pagano's name isn't near the top of the list when it comes to coach of the year candidates, but the job he did this season can't be discounted after they used a league-high 73 players during the regular season.
Here they stand, AFC South champs and days away from hosting the Kansas City Chiefs in a wild-card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium while 20 other teams are on vacation.
“You don't want to let Chuck down,” defensive end Cory Redding. “That's the biggest thing that will hurt anybody in this locker room if you let Chuck down. Chuck believes in you, so you want to give him everything you've got.”
The big picture has never changed for Pagano.
It started at training camp in Anderson, Ind., when he told his team that they had one shot because nothing is guaranteed, so they needed to “pour everything we have into this season.” It remained the same as players were lost to injury and continued when the defense couldn't stop giving up big plays and you wondered why they continued to try to run the ball this season.
It boiled down to trust, loyalty and respect with Pagano. Those are the three things he constantly preached to his players through the good and bad times.
“Really from the beginning we wanted a leader of men and someone that had those qualities and weren't fake about it,” Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. “That's the one thing that people don't realize, football players get shortchanged. They're a lot smarter than people think and they know when someone is full of baloney. Chuck is someone who is genuine and he's someone that can get his players to buy into his message.”
There's no clear definition of what a player's coach is. But do an Internet search of it and there's a good chance Pagano's picture will pop up, punter Pat McAfee said. He treats every player the same, no matter if it's Andrew Luck or the last player on the practice squad.
Redding's phone went off earlier this season. He looked down at it and noticed it was a text message from Pagano.
“It basically said get your beep out your head and start playing like you know how to,” Redding recalled the message saying.
Upset or embarrassed?
Not one bit.
Redding embraced how Pagano handled the situation. The coach didn't call him out in a team meeting or berate him on the sideline in front of everybody at practice. That's not how Pagano learned to do things from his father, a former high school football coach in Colorado.
“Trust me, he does have a temper,” Redding said. “He'll dog cuss you out in a heartbeat, but it takes a lot for him to get there. He does it in a way that's coachable, in a way that's a constructive criticism type deal. He will get on you like that, but never in a way that will degrade you as a person or a man or insult your manhood. You respect a man who respects you.”
Pagano's first playoff game as a head coach didn't go well, as they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card game last season. They used that as a learning experience.
“I think players, coaches, everybody has got a year under their belt,” Pagano said. “So you know a little bit more what to expect. Again, it's playoffs. It's one and done. We know that. We know it's a tournament type of atmosphere, all those things. We're just going to prepare like we always prepare and try to go play better than we did last week.”