But the questions are: Is it fair to hold Pagano accountable for how the Colts fare this season with Luck on the shelf and youngster Jacoby Brissett filling in at quarterback? And if the franchise’s latest on-field struggles are to result in Pagano’s ouster, should the Colts act now?
“No one ever said things are fair in this league,” a front office executive with one NFL team said in recent days, mentioning the Colts and Cleveland Browns as the franchises widely believed within the sport to be the leading candidates for an in-season coaching change. “It’s not always about whose fault it is. Sometimes things just run their course.”
Pagano said he spoke to owner Jim Irsay after Sunday’s 27-0 loss at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, a game in which Brissett was sacked 10 times.
“He’s like all of us: He wants to win,” Pagano told reporters Monday. “You know how Jim is. Just keep fighting. You’ve just got to keep going.”
Monday and Tuesday came and went without Irsay making a switch, leaving Pagano to prepare the Colts for Sunday’s game at Cincinnati.
“We’ve dug ourselves a nice little hole,” Pagano said Monday. “We have the opportunity to write whatever we want to write. We’ve written seven chapters of this book. And we’ve got nine chapters left. Depending on what we do with those nine chapters, it’ll be the tale of the tape. … Because you have that opportunity and you don’t know how long you’re going to get to do this, you come to work and you prepare because that’s what you do. That’s what professionals do.”
There has been fraying around the edges. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton criticized the team’s offensive line following the defeat to the Jaguars. Hilton said later that he was wrong to have made such public comments and issued an apology to the offensive line.
The Colts clearly were caught off guard by how long it is taking Luck to work his way back into the lineup. They failed to fortify the position in the offseason and opened the season with Scott Tolzien as the starter. They traded for Brissett, a second-year pro who had won a game for the New England Patriots last season as a rookie when Tom Brady was suspended and Jimmy Garoppolo was hurt, just before the season. His results have been mixed, with three interceptions to go with three touchdown passes and a passer rating of 79.8.
“He won’t make any excuses and I won’t make any,” Pagano said. “He’s a young player. We all want him to be a 10-year vet today. And he’s young. It’s like he’s a rookie. And he hasn’t been here. How long has he been here?”
The Colts reached the playoffs in their first three seasons with Pagano as their coach and Luck as their quarterback. Pagano’s personal story was inspiring, as he returned to the sideline late in the 2012 season after undergoing chemotherapy treatments for leukemia.
Luck appeared to be a worthy successor to Peyton Manning and the Colts appeared on course to winning multiple Super Bowls with him as their quarterback — the goal put forth by Irsay — when they reached the AFC championship game in the 2014 season.
But they were overwhelmed by the Patriots in that game, from which the Deflategate saga sprouted, and little has gone right since then. A Super Bowl-or-bust 2015 season, preceded by an offseason shopping spree for aging veterans, went decidedly bust, as the Colts finished 8-8. Irsay surprised many by retaining both Pagano and General Manager Ryan Grigson. But after another 8-8 disappointment last season, Irsay fired Grigson and replaced him with Chris Ballard in January.
Coaches inherited by a new GM have even less job security than usual. A 2-5 beginning to a season does little to alleviate that. Pagano’s contract runs through the 2019 season. But Irsay, when he fired Grigson, committed to Pagano as his coach only “for 2017.”
It is under those trying circumstances that Pagano must attempt to hold things together now. He vowed this week that the Colts will remain a unified group.
“We don’t have any other choice,” Pagano said. “We made this together. We’ve dug ourselves this hole. And together we’ll dig ourselves out. That’s the only way you can do it. You stay together. We’re all professional. We all know what we signed up for.”
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