KRAVITZ: Pagano’s emotional firing was the right move at the right time – and we all saw it coming

Chuck Pagano, front right, runs off the field for the last time as the Indianapolis Colts' head coach following an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Before he was officially fired – and let’s face it, Chuck Pagano was toast the minute Scott Tolzien’s season-opening pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown in Los Angeles – the Colts’ head coach these past six years said goodbye. It wasn’t an official goodbye, Pagano standing at the podium after the Colts’ 22-13 victory over the Texans, saying he hadn’t yet spoken to owner Jim Irsay or general manager Chris Ballard. But he knew. We all knew. We’ve known for a very long time.

“The price of love, sometimes you have to say goodbye,’’ Pagano said during a long response to the question, “Do you think you’ll be back next year?’’ “I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but I know I’m grateful for every one of them (the players and coaches)…I’m forever grateful to every man and all the players that I’ve had the opportunity to coach past and present.’’

He thanked Irsay.

He thanked Ballard.

He thanked the fans.

He even thanked the local media.

He knew. Of course, he knew. How could he not?

Some of us will always question and wonder why the Colts brought Pagano back this season after they’d just hired a new general manager: Maybe they knew this would be a dumpster fire of a season and saw Pagano as the sacrificial lamb. Maybe they wanted to give him one season without having to deal with Ryan Grigson. Whatever.

This much cannot be argued, though: It was time for him to go. Six years is forever in the National Football League, and after six years, the Colts were no closer to “building the monster’’ than they were when Pagano walked in the door. In fact, they are further from their stated goal of raising a Lombardi Trophy than they ever were these past six years.

Once upon a time, there was a love affair between Pagano and this city. When he fought and beat leukemia, the local populace rallied around him and his family, helped him raise $4.7 million for the cause with #chuckstrong as a rallying cry. The Colts went 11-5, 11-5 and 11-5, won three playoff games, reached the AFC title game during the 2014 season, and there was every reason to believe the Colts were on the cusp of greatness.

And then it all fell apart. It all fell apart because the franchise quarterback fell apart, with lots of help from an offensive line that is no better today than it was six years ago. These last three years, Luck has played just 22 of a possible 48 games, and in most of those games he played, Luck was dealing with injuries and was not near the top of his game. It fell apart, too, because the former general manager, Ryan Grigson, missed more than he hit on his drafts and free-agent acquisitions. And it fell apart because Pagano wasn’t as good as he needed to be.

Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano talks with Andrew Luck before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano talks with Andrew Luck before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

My belief is this: Pagano is a dime a dozen head football coach. Not great, not awful. Give him a franchise quarterback whose skills mask several roster deficiencies, and he can win games and reach the playoffs. Give him one backup after another -- the Colts used five quarterbacks in 2015 and relied on Tolzien and Jacoby Brissett this season – and he’s very ordinary, or even worse. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know: Pagano was too much of a players’ coach, didn’t hold erring players’ feet to the fire. And his game-day machinations, his clock management, his judgment, never seemed to improve, even on this last day as the Colts head coach.

This much must be said, though, before moving on to the Next Guy: Pagano is one hell of a human being. He was a hell of a human being before the cancer scare, and his heart only grew after he survived several hellish months of treatment for leukemia. His office is filled with mementos of his time in the Simon Cancer Center, drawings and notes from others who were afflicted by this terrible disease. Every game, home and away, Pagano met with people who were fighting the same fight that he experienced back in 2012.

“…We fight for him because he’s special,’’ owner Jim Irsay said of Pagano as he gave his soon-to-be-ex-coach the game ball. “We follow him because he’s special. Chuck, we love you…He’s our leader, he’s a true man, and the love I have for him, I can’t tell you.’’

Then Irsay hugged Pagano, whose eyes welled with tears.

“I love you to death, brother,’’ Irsay said.

Then, roughly an hour later, Irsay pulled off the Band-Aid and fired Pagano, a move we saw coming for several months.

This move makes sense now because this is Ballard’s team now, and as he moves forward with the third pick in the NFL Draft and roughly $85 million to spend on free agents, it’s time for him to proceed with his hand-picked head coach and hand-picked coaching staff. No question, Irsay will be involved in the coaching search and no question, he will have the final word, but if I’m him, I’m deferring to Ballard on this next big move – the same Ballard the owner once described as the best GM candidate of the 21st Century.

There are lots of compelling names out there. Josh McDaniels (New England). Matt Nagy (Kansas City). Dave Toub (Kansas City). Pat Shurmur (Minnesota). There are grand-slam home runs, like Jim Harbaugh. There’s Stanford’s David Shaw. I’ve proposed the Colts take a hard look at former Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan. Or maybe they go completely off the grid and hire someone we never saw coming, just as they did when they hired Pagano. Do they want a coach with head coaching experience? Is a first-timer acceptable? Irsay and Ballard will speak to the media Monday; presumably, we’ll get a better idea about their plans.

That’s another story for another day – like Monday.

For now, Indy says goodbye to Pagano, who never quite built the monster but touched scores of lives in this community. This was, in fact, his last rodeo as the Colts head coach.

“We’ll always be Hoosiers no matter what happens,’’ Pagano said before learning his fate shortly after his post-game press conference. “Again, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring or the next hour, I just know that right now, I’ve got a lot of joy in my heart…’’

The next hour brought a pink slip. But Pagano will be fine, more than fine, and so will the Indianapolis Colts.

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