KRAVITZ: Is Pagano’s job on the line? There’s a very good chance it is

Chuck Pagano (Sept. 2014 file photo)
Bob Kravitz

From a certain distance, it seems absurd to suggest that Chuck Pagano’s job security is in any kind of peril here in Indianapolis. After all, he’s 33-15 in three years – 22-10 in the last two years, when he’s been healthy and coached the entire season – and has taken the Colts one step deeper into the playoffs each season. Pagano is a universally beloved figure in that locker room; that much cannot be denied.

And yet, the truth about his future is this: It is monumentally uncertain.

It’s not quite as simple as saying, "Well, unless he takes the Colts to the Super Bowl, he’ll be let go at season’s end." It’s possible that if they reach the playoffs and win one game, two games, even three games before losing in another AFC title game, Pagano, who is in the final year of his four-year contract, may be retained. The only thing we can say for sure is, if the Colts somehow fall miserably below all expectations - this is, they fail to make the playoffs - Pagano will be replaced.

I don’t believe it’s that black and white.

But his long-term future is murky here. Without question.

At this point, you’re probably reading this and thinking, "Huh? What? Why?"

I can understand that. From a distance, this looks like a marriage made in heaven. Together, Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson have taken a 2-14 team that was saddled with mega-millions in dead cap money and, led by Andrew Luck, have reached the playoffs three consecutive years.

But there are problems, internal problems, a growing disconnect between Grigson, who has a five-year deal, and Pagano, who is in the final year of his four-year deal.

After poking around the last few weeks and talking to people who understand the dynamics of the situation, here’s my read on things: As is so often the case in professional football, the head coach wants more say in personnel decisions. As Bill Parcells used to say, if he’s going to cook the meal, he wants to pick out the groceries. I cannot list with any certainty specific examples where Grigson and Pagano have butted heads in personnel, but I can say they haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.

This is not at all unusual in professional football, or really, all of sports. Even the most harmonious front offices have disagreements. It’s the nature of the beast: two strong-willed men with lots on the line personally, they’re going to want what they want in order to win.

The question, though, is whether it is ultimately a workable situation, and right now, there are rumblings this is heading in the wrong direction, specifically for Pagano. There’s a reason why the Colts only offered Pagano a one-year contract extension for a not-very-significant amount of money: Neither owner Jim Irsay nor Grigson is completely convinced Pagano can take them the places they want to go. And we know how high the stakes are here, not just for this season, but for this era: Already, Irsay has gone on the record, perhaps imprudently, and said he expects to compete for multiple championships during the Luck Era. He is still smarting from the fact the Colts won "just" one Super Bowl with Peyton Manning. My sense is, he’s not going to show the same kind of patience with his leaders that he’s shown in the past.

From my conversations with people who know what’s going on, Irsay and Grigson have questions as to whether Pagano, a players’ coach, has the ability or the inclination to put a boot up somebody’s backside. Even at this level, fear is still a healthy motivator. They also look at his record outside of the abysmal AFC South and the fact the Colts have gotten trounced in several games against elite opponents. Fair or not, and I think both men deserve the opportunity to remain and work toward a title, those are the facts. Again, there’s a reason Pagano wasn’t extended several years and offered a healthy raise. The decision-makers, Irsay and Grigson, have questions.

Now, understand, I am on the outside peering in, and don’t know what happens behind closed doors at West 56th Street. None of us do. On the surface, I feel like both guys have done strong jobs with this team, and that it really shouldn’t come down to an either-or situation. I’m not banging the drum for Grigson here, nor am I banging the drum for Pagano. I like both. I believe they can win a Super Bowl together, if not this year, then sometime in the near future.

What I am saying, though, is that there are issues that may be difficult to rectify.

Winning doesn’t solve everything in this league. Look at what happened last year with Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers. Not saying that this relationship is as poisonous as the one Harbaugh had with his bosses, but just because you win in the NFL doesn’t guarantee you will keep your job.

I will be the first to acknowledge, Grigson has swung and missed on some occasions: Trent Richardson. Bjoern Werner. You simply can’t miss on first-rounders. You can’t. Free agency? LaRon Landry, who was coming off a Pro Bowl season, turned out to be someone who was more interested in his musculature than he was his job. Some of it, though, was just bad luck: Donald Thomas was injured for two straight years and recently got cut. Gosder Cherilus, who was very effective his first year here, played hurt all of last year and was let go this summer. Undeniably, it’s been a mixed bag.

But... he also took a 2-14 team with lots of dead money on the cap and helped rebuild it overnight into a group that won 11 games three years in a row. Granted, Andrew Luck made that rebuild a whole lot easier, but he couldn’t do it all by himself. Grigson used a lot of Band-Aids and duct tape to keep the thing together, but he got it done – with a lot of help from Pagano and his coaching staff.

So the pressure is on, and the questions linger. Crazy as it sounds, Pagano’s future is in some peril. This is going to be one very interesting football season.