KRAVITZ: Grigson’s "meddling" helped undermine soon-to-be-fired Pagano

Colts GM Ryan Grigson
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Bob Kravitz

For the better part of four years, Chuck Pagano has tried to coach the Indianapolis Colts with one hand tied behind his back. At least that’s the picture multiple sources with knowledge of the situation paint when describing what Pagano has dealt with while attempting to work with a man sources describe as a "terrible meddler," general manager Ryan Grigson.

The Colts were once run by a strong-armed, micro-managing general manager, Bill Polian, but my sources tell me Grigson is significantly more involved in the coaching area than Polian ever was. Sources tell me Grigson not only dictated who would and would not play, but undermined Pagano when he wanted to discipline certain players.

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Now comes word from ESPN.com’s Mike Wells that Pagano will not be retained, although nothing is official, nor has Pagano been told he's history, according to my sources. The die has been cast, though, since this summer, when Pagano turned down a one-year contract extension offer that he found insufficient and even insulting. It was written in this space before the season began: Sources were telling me that even if Pagano took the Colts deep into the playoffs, he was likely going to be set free at season’s end.

Grigson’s future is contingent on who owner Jim Irsay gets as his next head coach. If it’s somebody who demands and gets full control over personnel, Grigson will be in trouble. If it’s not somebody who demands personnel control, Grigson is likely to remain – although the new coach should be aware of how involved Grigson gets in the coaching of the team.

There have been several – I mean, SEVERAL – occasions in the past four years when Grigson and Pagano have crossed swords over personnel issues, but these are just a few of those examples:

  • Grigson, who traded a first-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for running back Trent Richardson, continued to insist that Richardson play, and even start, despite the running back’s weight issues and obvious lack of production. According to sources, Grigson was concerned with creating the narrative that it was a good trade, something it clearly was not.
     
  • Grigson insisted the Colts continue to use Josh Cribbs, the veteran punt and kick returner he signed last season, despite the wishes of Pagano and some elements of his coaching staff. Cribbs committed a devastating fumble on a punt return in the AFC title game that opened the door to the Patriots’ 45-7 blowout.
     
  • According to sources, when Pagano wanted to discipline players – one of them being Billy Winn, who was late for some meetings – Grigson overruled him and would not let Pagano do what he wanted to do. "The culture here now is the worst I’ve ever seen it," a source said, pointing to the number of times Colts players have been arrested in the past year or two.
     
  • As reported previously elsewhere and confirmed by my sources, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton was forced on Pagano. Hamilton was finally fired during the season and replaced by a Pagano confidante, Rob Chudzinski. "Pep was never answerable to Chuck," a source told me. "Pep answered to Ryan, and everybody in the building knew it."

Understand, that is just a snapshot, a small sampling of the areas where Grigson strong-armed Pagano. My sources said there were multiple examples where Grigson overstepped the usual GM/coach boundaries, but these were a few of the ones they were willing to share.

According to sources, Grigson was overly involved in the coaching side of things since the day both he and Pagano arrived in Indianapolis in 2012, and that nothing has changed. Ordinarily, there is a line of demarcation between the general manager and the head coach; one man buys the groceries, another cooks the meal. The picture that has been painted is one where the GM wanted to do all the personnel work and a good deal of the coaching work.

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All of this has created a situation that was not terribly different from what the team experienced late in Jim Caldwell's tenure. True or not, there was a sense that the coach was not the man in charge of coaching the football team, a sense that undermined Caldwell's ability to do what he thought was right. That has been the situation with Grigson and Pagano, only it's far, far worse. Players have continually shown great loyalty toward Pagano, but they know, deep down, that Grigson is deeply involved in areas ordinarily reserved for coaches.

According to sources, assistant coaches would suggest to Pagano that he try something, only to have Pagano respond, "We can’t do that." He never pointed at Grigson, but everybody knew the score.

It got so bad during the season, there was a report from ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that the team’s top brass gathered to discuss the coaching situation after the loss to New England – which featured the crazy misplay on the fake punt.

If the Colts win Sunday, Pagano will leave the Colts with a 41-23 regular-season record and three playoff victories. If the Colts lose Sunday, Pagano will leave the Colts with a 40-24 regular-season record and three playoff victories. Clearly, there are question about Pagano’s game-day ability and clock-management; nobody is confusing him with Chuck Noll or Bill Belichick.

But understand: He has a chance to lead the Colts to a .500 record while using four quarterbacks. He not only lost his franchise quarterback for nine games, but when Andrew Luck was playing, he was playing well below his ability, finishing just 2-5 as a starter. With Matt Hasselbeck starting, the Colts have gone 5-3, a remarkable record considering that league-wide, backups have won roughly 40% of their games this year. This Sunday, either Ryan Lindley or Josh Freeman, two players who signed here Tuesday, will start with the Colts on a day when the team needs nine games to fall perfectly in order to reach the playoffs.

Meanwhile, those sources have told me the Grigson/Pagano relationship is almost non-existent. "They barely talk," one source said.

When it was reported Thursday that the Colts had made up their mind to jettison Pagano, a source told me Pagano had not been told he was going to be let go after Sunday’s game. (Keep in mind, Pagano’s contract will expire at the end of the league year).

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Meanwhile, the Colts issued a statement from Irsay, who said, "As of today, no decision has been made with respect to any structural changes within the Colts organization for 2016 and beyond."

Maybe not officially, but the decision has been made, and was made a very long time ago.

In some ways, Pagano never really had a chance he fully deserved. 

Read all Kravitz columns here.