Pagano looks at the clock.
He wanted the Jaguars to lose.
In that distinction lies the problem that plagues too many NFL coaches.
With 1:23 to play, the Colts trailed 16-14 with a first down on the Jacksonville 28-yard line.
Three runs later, the Colts had moved the ball nine yards, drained the Jaguars of their timeouts and booted home a go-ahead field goal with just 56 seconds remaining.
In calling three runs and not allowing his offense to operate in full, Pagano made an age-old mistake.
He trusted his defense. Therein lies his error.
NFL coaches have a terrible habit of not being introspective enough when it comes to strategy. They have an inherent bias that expects flawless execution. They don't factor in mistakes when weighing the odds.
Pagano sees the loss as a failure of execution. The players didn't do what they were supposed to do. His natural bias believes that defense is responsible to execute, but offense can't be trusted.
When it comes to weighing decisions, coaches too often make choices that depend on perfect execution of special teams and defensive units, while expecting miscues on offense.
I suspect that because at lower levels of football, offensive execution is more difficult than defensive execution, football lifers come up with a natural bias against offense.
Pagano could have trusted his quarterback. After all, Andrew Luck is the best player on his team right now.
Pagano could have trusted Reggie Wayne to get open. After all, he's done so about a thousand times in his career.
Instead, he trusted his defense.
Why on earth would he trust that? Pagano claimed it was because Blaine Gabbert had done so little all game long.
Going into that last drive, (Blaine) Gabbert was 9-of-20 for 80 yards, 45 percent completion rate and really hadn’t done anything throwing the football. That wasn’t the problem. It was the big runs that got us. We knew that they would have to throw the football so I felt confident that our defense would play well in that situation and get out of there with the win.
Of course, given that Gabbert had done so little, why did Pagano fear Jacksonville having timeouts left to work with?
There's the logical flaw. He wasn't afraid of giving Gabbert a full minute to get in position for a long field goal. Surely he knew that Josh Scobee had defeated the Colts in three previous games with field goals over 50 yards.
He was afraid of giving Gabbert a minute and a timeout, however.
Could they have put away the game with a completed pass and a first down, followed by the game-winning field goal as time expired? Absolutely. But if that pass falls incomplete, and the Colts kick the go-ahead field goal, now Jacksonville gets the ball back with more than a minute left, one timeout in its pocket and Colts-killer Josh Scobee on the sideline warming up.
Keep in mind, up to that point, Blaine Gabbert had completed 9-of-20 passes for 75 yards. Seventy-five yards. Any sane person would like the Colts' chances with the Jags taking over at their own 20, 56 seconds left and zero timeouts.
To Kravitz and Pagano, a minute wasn't enough time for the Jaguars to win, but a minute and an extra timeout or two would be an eternity.
That is utterly irrational.
Timeouts are not magic. All the same reasons to fear a comeback were present regardless of how many timeouts the Jaguars had. If Gabbert was so categorically incapable of driving the Jaguars 40 yards in a minute, the Colts had no reason to fear a timeout.
Let's assume for a moment that the Colts had not blown the coverage on Cecil Shorts' touchdown. Shorts caught the ball at the 40-yard line. Had Antoine Bethea been in position, he could have tackled him at about the 45.
Even with the clock running, the Jaguars would have still had more than 30 seconds to play. They would only have needed about 15 yards to set Josh Scobee up for a 57-yard field goal. Indianapolis knows full well that he can hit that with ease.
This isn't about one blown coverage. This is about seeing football through the wrong set of lenses.
There's no reason to pile on Pagano. He's not alone in his biases. Many coaches would do the same thing. The media too often enables such inconsistent logic and encourages bad coaching.
Pagano needs to sit down and reevaluate his decision-making process. He needs to ask himself why he expects execution from his defense (clearly his weakest unit), but not from his offense. Hasn't Luck been incredible in two-minute situations?
But instead of evaluating the decision, he is content to chalk it up to execution, convinced he made the right call. When asked if he had second thoughts about the choice, he responded,
None at all. Once we got it down there, Donnie (Brown) broke that thing down there, (Jacksonville) had three timeouts and our whole idea was to make sure that they used all their timeouts. We knew that obviously they would.
Going into that last time, we thought that we were going to make the field goal this time, which we did, and if they got 80 yards to go, well it wouldn’t have been 80 yards, but they basically needed with their kicker somewhere to get to the 40 or plus-35-yard, plus-40, going that direction with the window home and things like that, no timeouts, 56 seconds, I trust my defense to get the job done every time.
He refuses to question his decision making. He made the right call. The players screwed it up.
Oh, and for the record, this isn't a case of second-guessing the coach. Many fans at Lucas Oil Stadium were outraged at the time Donald Brown took his handoffs from Luck. Not everyone shares the "defensive execution is a given" bias.
Unlike Pagano, Colts fans don't trust their defense.
Looks like they were right, and he was wrong.
Pagano quotes provided by the Indianapolis Colts.