Posted: 5:33 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8, 2013
By Josh Wilson
I am in no way obligated to carry any water for Chuck Pagano and the Colts coaching staff. I am a huge fan of Chuck Pagano the person and I'm not ashamed to admit it, as I really respect him. But that doesn't make him a good head coach. Heck, I know plenty of great people who don't know anything about football. Just because I like Pagano personally in no way means that I automatically like him as a head coach.
In fact, after last week's win over the Texans in a game the Colts had no business winning, I criticized the coaching staff and I want to do the same here. I realize, however, that what we don't need is another article bashing the coaching staff but rather a rational approach that looks at the whole picture. There were so many overreactions after last week's win that it drove me crazy. So even though I'd ideally like to criticize Pagano and his staff for last week (especially the first half), I realize that because of all of those overreactions, what I really need to do is offer a defense of Chuck Pagano.
The easiest place to start is the basics. His offense ranks 8th in the NFL in points per game with 26.8 points per game. His defense is tied for 7th in the NFL in points allowed per game with 19.4 points per game. The Colts are 6-2 at the halfway point of the season and hold a 2 game lead over the next closest team in the AFC South. They are ranked first or second in many power rankings, and in the top five of pretty much every power ranking you will find. Their wins over the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, and Denver Broncos (a combined 21-1 against all other teams besides the Colts) are widely considered the three biggest wins for any team this season. In those three games, the Colts averaged 33.3 points per game. That's an incredibly impressive resume any way you look at it - perhaps the best resume of any coach this year when looking purely at that (and not what the team was expected to do, which would bring coaches like Andy Reid and Rex Ryan into the conversation).
Go even further into the numbers and you'll realize that Chuck Pagano has only been on the sidelines for 13 games as head coach, and that's including a playoff game. His record is 8-5. People consider him a second year head coach but fail to remember that for much of last season, he was battling leukemia and was not handling the coaching duties from the sidelines (or the booth, from that matter). Last season, he coached five games, including the playoffs, and in those five games he faced three teams that made the playoffs and another that went 10-6 but just missed the playoffs. This year, the Colts' opponents they have played so far are a combined 34-31 - and that includes 6 victories by the Colts over those teams and the 0-8 Jaguars bringing it down as well. Subtract those and the Colts' opponents are a combined 34-17.
So far this year, the Colts defense has faced three of the six highest rated quarterbacks in the league. They have also faced two of the top seven running backs in the NFL in terms of rushing yards on the season. In addition, they have faced three of the top ten scoring offenses in the league, including the runaway leader Broncos who average 42.9 points per game. The offense has faced two of the top five defenses in terms of points per game allowed, as well.
There are three main areas of criticism I have heard leveled at Pagano - the issue of consistency and preparation, the issue of the Colts' run emphasis, and the issue of the run defense. We'll look at each of them.
First, the consistency and preparation. The Colts looked completely unprepared week one against the Raiders. The Colts looked completely unprepared week six against the Chargers. The Colts looked completely unprepared week nine against the Texans. I will be the first one to tell you that Pagano and his staff need to get more consistent week in and week out, but also I want to look at the fact that in games such as the ones against the 49ers or the Broncos, they were totally prepared. So this inconsistency is not always a bad thing in that regard. But I totally agree that the product needs to get more consistent, and that must lie with Pagano when the team doesn't look prepared. But even then, let me say that the Colts have absolutely been a second half team and have been much, much better there. So while Pagano's preparations the week before the game may be suspect and inadequate at times, he has done a great job at adjusting in-game.
Second is the run emphasis. Most people are blaming Pep Hamilton for this but saying that at the same time Chuck Pagano needs to be held responsible and that he is fully in support of a running offense. Well, that's technically true - Chuck Pagano would ideally like to run an offense that places an emphasis on the run game. But he's adaptable - after all, he hired Bruce Arians last year, who runs the ball but especially likes to chuck it downfield. And honestly, that's ok with Pagano. From what I gather from talking to people, Chuck Pagno's main emphasis is running the ball to protect a lead. That game against the Texans in week 17 last year when Pagano returned is a perfect example of what he wants to do. They didn't limit Andrew Luck early on but in the fourth quarter ran the ball a lot en route to a game ending drive that lasted over 9 minutes. That's what Pagano wantes to do.
When the Colts hired Pep Hamilton, they knew what they were getting, and Chuck Pagano was perfectly fine with Pep's run emphasis. In an ideal world, Pagano would like to run the ball a lot but he also realizes that passing wins in today's NFL (after all, he was a secondary coach for many years). If you think that Pagano is the one driving Hamilton's offense, that's simply not true. He is certainly on board with Pep's offense but that doesn't mean that it was his idea, and even then he defers to his offensive coordinator's wishes most of the time. In training camp, he let the offensive coordinator run his offense. The same is true now. Pagano has had two offensive coordinators in two years in Indy, and they have had drastically different styles. All Chuck Pagano wants to do is win, and so while he would like to run the ball and is on the same page as his offensive coordinator, it's unfair to blame Pagano for a run game emphasis that isn't working as well as the offense could potentially.
Thirdly, since Pagano is a defensive coach, people expect him to take the responsibility for that, so we'll take a closer look at the defense. Their pass defense has allowed 242.4 yards per game, ranking 17th in the league. They rank 14th in opponent passer rating. They rank 7th in the NFL in opponent completion percentage and rank tied for tenth in opponent passing touchdowns.
In terms of run defense, the Colts rank 27th in the league, allowing 124.9 yards per game on the ground, and they're tied for 22nd in yards per attempt, allowing 4.4 yards per rush attempt (all but nine teams are allowing 4 yards per carry or more). But this unit also is ranked tied for tenth in the NFL in opponent rushing touchdowns.
I understand that we must talk about yards and all of that, but I also think that by focusing so much on that we can miss the big picture. And that is this - the Colts defense is top ten in the NFL in points per game allowed. Looking more at the big picture, we see a unit that has long been bad and which just played it's 13th game under Chuck Pagano - many of them playing just their 8th.
Rebuilding a franchise doesn't happen overnight. Perhaps last year's sudden and stunning success caused us to think that was the case all of the time. Perhaps it got us to forget that the Colts defense was still bad and that the team still had a lot of work to do. That's why they brought in new players - a bunch of them. Teams already rebuilt don't just bring in a bunch of outsiders like that - it takes a while to adapt to playing together. But this Colts team needed a lot of work, and unfortunately many got caught up in the expectations for this season without realizing that while the expectation was to win (which the Colts are doing) it still wouldn't be the complete picture (which it hasn't been).
People have placed the lack of success of the run defense squarely on Pagano's shoulders and focused on that because that is what Pagano repeatedly stated they were focusing on. But no one seemed to consider that perhaps the Colts were focusing on that because they knew it was the weakest unit and so they were honestly telling us what they were working on. That kind of change doesn't happen overnight, and honestly it might require new players. While many will point to the run defense as Pagano's fault because that's where his mouth was, I point to the pass defense as Pagano's success because that's where his expertise is.
Before coming to Indianapolis as the head coach, Pagano had 20 years of experience coaching defensive backs. He was (and still is) considered one of the league's better defensive minds, and that's because of his skill working with defensive backs. When he came to Indy, he did his best to work with them but then missed most of the year so the progress was put on hold.
This year, however, look at the secondary and you'll notice that it has shown massive improvement and is perhaps the best secondary the Colts have had in years - regardless of whether the numbers show it or not. Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, Darius Butler Antoine Bethea, LaRon Landry, and Delano Howell have all seen extensive time and have all showed great signs (some more consistently than others). Vontae Davis was brought in last year as an elite talent but not there yet, and especially early on he struggled. This year, he's among the league's best. Darius Butler was signed off the street mid-season last year and he has rejuvenated his career in Indy, improving from last year to this year significantly as well. Delano Howell was border-line to even make the roster coming out of training camp, and now he has people discussing whether or not he will be Antoine Bethea's eventual replacement (which is another discussion for another time). Pagano's impact on the secondary is clear and noticeable.
But instead of looking at the area Pagano has coached for years, people instead choose to look at an area that was even weaker when Pagnao arrived. The run defense hasn't been good, but it's coming. A monster isn't built in a day, and Pagano hasn't had the time needed to improve the defense to the level that we suddenly expect now. He's coached just 13 games. He's had one real offseason of additions (the first year the team was severely tied by the salary cap).
Now, hear me on this - Chuck Pagano deserves the criticism for the defensive failures. I watched him every day at training camp and he was often very hands-on involved with the defense. Some head coaches will oversee the whole thing, but Pagano (while he does pay attention to the offense) focuses primarily on the defense. Holding him accountable to defensive failures is appropriate and necessary. But we also need to take a deep breath and look at the whole picture, and that picture is incomplete. We've seen bits and pieces of it, but Chuck Pagano hasn't even had 16 games yet. The Colts are so much improved from where they were when Pagano took over to today that we often miss just how improved they actually are. We forget that this was a team we thought in three years they might be playoff contenders, and saying in two years was pushing it. Now, just midway into the second year, the Colts are coming off of a playoff berth, have a two game lead in the AFC South and are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Whether or not you want to credit Pagano for that is your choice. But keeping the whole thing in context is not optional. These Colts are much better much sooner than we even imagined, their defense is showing major signs of improvement, and their head coach Chuck Pagano has been a driving force behind a very impressive 6-2 start in 2013. The Colts have transitioned out of the "ChuckStrong" motto and to the "ColtStrong" one, but even that embodies their head coach. And that is a good thing. His players love him. They play hard for him. They fight for him. If they doubted his coaching, you'd begin to see signs. But he has the team believing, and that is a head coach's biggest task - by far.
Chuck Pagano the person? I'm a HUGE fan. Chuck Pagano the coach? I'm giving him time, but I like what I've seen so far. The Colts are in good hands. I'll continue to criticize Pagano, because that's what I do and I'm going to be fair in my analysis. But at the same time, I'm not going to overreact and if that means that I have to counter other people's criticisms that are taking things too far, I will. Does Chuck Pagano have room to improve? Absolutely, there's a lot of room for improvement. But there also has been a lot of improvement already, and that gives me confidence that Chuck Pagano - just 13 games into his head coaching career - will continue to improve and that his team will follow suit. The future is bright, and it is made brighter by the fact that Chuck Pagano is at the helm.