KRAVITZ: No spin from Pagano: Injured, under-performing Colts are a team in crisis

Chuck Pagano addresses the media after the first practice of Colts Camp 2016 (Rich Nye/WTHR photo)
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This was not the terminally upbeat Chuck Pagano who talks about chopping wood until the sequoia falls. No, this Chuck Pagano spoke with a distinct air of frustration and resignation, a Chuck Pagano who has seen a ghost and maybe seen the immediate future of his injured and reeling football team.

When the Colts were down to their fourth and fifth quarterbacks last season and stories were circulating about his imminent demise as the Colts head coach, Pagano turned to gallows humor, the laugh-so-you-don’t-cry approach. This year, or at least after this game, there was an unmistakable heaviness to Pagano, like he sees a team that’s falling further and further away from any kind of real contention.

Everything had gone wrong, and it went way, way beyond the 33-23 preseason home loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

First things first:

Shortly after the game, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport tweeted that starting left guard Jack Mewhort suffered an ACL injury and would be lost for the season. Pagano would neither confirm nor deny the report – “We’ll know more tomorrow after he gets his MRI,’’ he said – but players in the locker room made it sound like Mewhort was done for the season. It was almost like they were talking about him in the past tense, which is never a good sign. “I’m going to miss him,’’ Anthony Castonzo said.

For all his reliance on Coachspeak over the years, Pagano Saturday was as painfully honest and as forthright as I’ve ever heard him after a game, preseason, regular season or postseason. Yes, he said, the offensive line stunk it up. No, he said, he doesn’t have any idea what this Colts team is going to look like when the season begins in little more than two weeks.

How unsettling is that if you’re a coach – or a fan who wants to be imbued with hope, however false it may be? How unsettling to be in your third preseason game (it should be their fourth game) and have absolutely no clue who’s going to play, when they’re going to play and how they’re going to play when they can get back into the lineup? Coaches are control freaks, but what’s happening here in Indy, it’s largely out of Pagano’s control.

Football coaches always love to say, “We don’t use injuries as an excuse, but…’’ Pagano is no different. But in this case, he’s got an excuse, specifically on defense. No Vontae Davis…and Henry Anderson…and Kendall Langford…and Sio Moore…and Patrick Robinson…and Jalil Brown…and D’Joun Smith. Then Darius Butler goes and hurts his ankle and doesn’t return to the game.

The offense, they have no excuses. Right tackle Joe Reitz missed the game with a bad back, but everyone else was full go. So how do you explain that performance in a game that’s designed to be a dress rehearsal for the regular season? It’s one thing if rookie Le’Raven Clark gets beat in his first start at the position, or even Ryan Kelly, who got bull-rushed into Andrew Luck’s chest. But Anthony Castonzo? Whatever happened to the Anthony Castonzo who looked like a monument on Luck’s blind side and then got paid like a mega-star? I’m glad he doesn’t read or listen to any football commentary because he might not appreciate the following bit of candor, but here it the truth: He was awful last year and he’s still struggling this year.

Ordinarily, the post-game press conference is like a political spin zone, except the operatives happen to wear NFL gear. And ordinarily, Pagano is like our old friend Baghdad Bob, telling us things are just fine and trending in the right direction when we all know it’s falling to pieces.

Saturday? No spin.

Lord, it was refreshing. But scary if you’re a hard-core Colts fan who needs to be talked off the nearest ledge. Right now, Pagano is not your guy.

“We didn’t play well,’’ he said of the ever-embattled offensive line. “We didn’t play well. We didn’t open up any running lanes for our guys…They came with everybody from everywhere. We didn’t do a good job of protecting the quarterback (giving up three sacks and nine quarterback hits).’’

Pagano was asked, “How much did the offensive line’s performance impact your decision to pull Andrew Luck at halftime?’’

He stared straight ahead. “A lot,’’ he said.

Back in the day, when you could count on Peyton Manning finding a way to lead the Colts to double-digit victories, preseason didn’t matter. Nobody played. Nobody cared. And the Colts lost. In fact, if the Colts found a way to win a preseason game, you worried that something might be going terribly wrong.

This is a new day, a new time, and the preseason matters. Anybody else concerned?

This is a new sensation for long-time Colts followers.

Now?

We don’t know.

They can go 10-6. They can go 8-8. They can go 6-10. We knew what the old Colts would be when Manning and Bill Polian were around. We don’t know what this year’s team will look like now that Ryan Grigson and Pagano are both back and sitting pretty with contract extensions.

  • We don’t know if they can pass protect, something they did terribly Saturday night. There’s no reason to worry about how well Luck will play, but there’s ample reason to worry about how well this offensive line will let him play. Keep in mind, the Colts played four of their five offensive line starters, and they got worked over.
  • We don’t know if they can rush the passer. Granted, Robert Mathis hasn’t seen any action yet, but when you’re counting on a 35-year-old to be your primary pass rusher (or “werewolf’’ in Luck’s parlance), you’re probably in deep stuff.
  • We don’t know if they can run the football. I know I was in Rio the first couple of preseason games, but have they run the ball a lick just yet? Wait, let me check……. Um, no. That’s 54 rushing yards per game through three games, an average of 2.5 yards per carry.
  • Can they slow down a passing attack? When this team is healthy, I like the front line of Kendall Langford, David Parry and Henry Anderson, and will like it even more when Art Jones comes off his drug suspension. Now, though, you’re asking new defensive coordinator Ted Monachino to come up with schemes that protect the beat-up secondary. When the game began, your corners were Darius Butler (a nickel guy, ordinarily) and Tay Glover-Wright. Then Butler injured his ankle (that’s what Colts corners do) and he was replaced by somebody named Christopher Milton.
  • Can they do anything in the red zone? Haven’t so far this preseason. Can they convert on third- and fourth-and short? Have we been asking this question for the last 15 years? Yes. Yes, we have.

What concerns you most, though, is just how concerned Pagano is, or appears to be. No smoke-and-mirrors happy talk, no talk of “next man up’’ or “chopping wood.’’ This is a team in crisis, as far from championship contention as they’ve been in several years, and Pagano, dammit, he can’t find an axe.