INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts answered one big question Monday -- just not that one.
Less than 30 minutes after using the franchise tag on Robert Mathis, the team confirmed it had agreed to terms on a new long-term deal with the Pro Bowl defensive end -- keeping one of the NFL's most feared pass rushing tandems intact. The move comes three days before the Colts must make an even bigger decision about Peyton Manning's future, but keeping Mathis and Dwight Freeney together in Indy was, clearly, one of the team's offseason priorities.
"First and foremost, we're going to make sure that we put both of those guys in position to make plays," Pagano told reporters during the NFL's recent scouting combine in Indianapolis. "I don't think it would be very smart on my part or anybody else's part to make sure that doesn't happen."
Pagano even referred to Freeney and Mathis as game-wreckers.
But there are still questions about where the undersized pass-rushers will fit in Pagano's new defense, which is likely to be a hybrid of Pagano's preferred 3-4 scheme and the Colts' longtime 4-3 alignment.
At 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, critics have long argued he wasn't stout enough to hold up over time against the run. And while there was a time during Tony Dungy's tenure that Indy experimented with Mathis at linebacker, a spot he could be tailor-made for in a 3-4 defense, he's played well enough to make three Pro Bowls.
Mathis responded to the deal by writing on Twitter: "Still Bleedin BLUE!!!"
Freeney holds the club record for sacks (102½), while Mathis is second in franchise history (83½) and their propensity for stripping the ball from quarterbacks has made them a menace to opposing offenses for the past nine seasons.
That's why Indy wanted them both back.
"We're going to do our best to keep everyone we can here. We've chipped away at one big thing after another and we're going to try to do our best to keep the talent in-house," Grigson said during the combine. "Like I said when I first started, I'm not here to just blow the place up. I have evaluated everybody, and I think there's a lot of talent here. We just have to find out a way and how to best manage it, do what's best for the organization moving forward."
An even bigger decision, on Manning, is now on the clock.
If Indy pays Peyton Manning a $28 million bonus by Thursday, it will trigger the final four years of the five-year, $90 million contract Manning signed in July. If the Colts don't pay up and can't work out a new contract before March 13, the only four-time MVP in league history would become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his NFL career.
Manning, who turns 36 later this month, missed the entire 2011 season after having neck surgery in September. Surgeons were hoping the fusion of two vertebrae would repair a damaged nerve that was causing weakness in his throwing arm. Manning was cleared to practice in December and has been throwing ever since.
Former team vice chairman Bill Polian and running back Joseph Addai, who has caught passes from Manning, both have said Manning threw with good velocity from 25 to 30 yards during a late December throwing session. Doctors say a full recovery from the fusion usually takes nine to 12 months.
Grigson said Manning has not been throwing at the Colts complex and rules in the new collective bargaining agreement prohibit coaches and general managers from watching Manning until April.
That doesn't mean they can't watch the Internet, where a short videotape of Manning making four throws at Duke surfaced Saturday. Three of his four throws were clearly shorter than 30 yards.
Team owner Jim Irsay has said if Manning is healthy, he will return to the team. But the franchise quarterback has not yet passed a team physical.
The other complication is that the Colts are expected to use the No. 1 pick in April's draft on their quarterback of the future -- potentially Stanford's Andrew Luck.
Plus, the Colts are rebuilding. Over the past two months, Irsay has fired Polian, coach Jim Caldwell; most of Caldwell's staff and general manager Chris Polian.
Manning isn't the only one in limbo.
Longtime center Jeff Saturday and longtime starting offensive lineman Ryan Diem are both free agents and could retire. And with the Colts already up against the salary cap, Grigson might try to redo other contracts with Freeney, linebacker Gary Brackett and safety Melvin Bullitt to clear cap room.
Mathis just happened to be the first domino to fall.
"Both of those guys (Mathis and Freeney) have been great players and have been for a long time," Pagano said. "Those guys are Colts, through and through, and fully expect to have them here as long as we can."