Colts Make Puzzling Decision to Keep Regime Intact After Disappointing Season

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Colts Make Puzzling Decision to Keep Regime Intact After Disappointing Season
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

After Chuck Pagano's Indianapolis Colts finished 11-5 and made the AFC Championship Game last year, general manager Ryan Grigson pushed all-in to give Pagano a championship-caliber roster.

After the Colts busted out with an 8-8 season in the NFL's weakest division, it seemed as though both Grigson's and Pagano's heads were on the chopping block. Instead, with a tweet—what else?—from the team's official account in the waning hours of Black Monday, it was confirmed that both Grigson and Pagano will be back with the Colts next season:

"I'm convinced," Colts owner Jim Irsay said, per team reporter Kevin Bowen, "that we have the right stuff on my right and left here to win a world championship."

But wait. Didn't Irsay himself insist on setting the bar as high as it could go? The Colts not only fell far short in 2015, but well below where they finished in 2014—and it has to be somebody's fault.

Pagano was famously brought in to "build the monster": copy the perennially dominant Baltimore Ravens defense he coached from 2008 to 2011. The Colts defense was ranked 28th in points allowed and 25th in yards allowed before Pagano took over. After this, Pagano's fourth season, they were ranked 25th in scoring defense and 26th in total defense.

Offensively, the story's much the same: 2012 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck immediately lifted the Colts out of their Peyton Manning-less doldrums. Despite switching from the Pep Hamilton-coached offense he ran at Stanford to Bruce Arians' complex pro-style system, and then to a hybrid thereof when the Colts hired Hamilton to replace the departed Arians, Luck showed geometric year-over-year improvement.

Bill Wippert/Associated Press

Despite frequent, head-scratching assertions from Pagano and Hamilton that the Colts were a run-first team that happened to have a generational talent at quarterback, only five quarterbacks threw the ball more often than Luck in his first three seasons, per Pro Football Reference.

The Colts finished just 17th in rushing attempts, 21st in rushing yards and 23rd in rushing yards per attempt over the same span.

In the Colts' 2014 playoff run, Luck was magnificent, almost flawless. In 2015, he looked like the Star Trek Mirror Universe version of himself: impulsive, self-destructive and sporting way more facial hair.

Hamilton took the fall, scapegoated by Pagano in early November. While Pagano's predecessor, Jim Caldwell, pulled a similar maneuver in Detroit this season, it was a response to obvious scheme-fit concerns—and his quarterback, Matthew Stafford, responded by playing the best football of his life.

Nobody on planet Earth has gotten better play out of Luck, or knows him better, than Hamilton. And Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star reported Friday that Luck was playing through a rib cartilage injury that affected his performance.

If Pagano fired Hamilton knowing Luck's problem was his health, not his coordinator, that's all but indefensible.

But let's say for the moment that isn't so. Let's look at Pagano through Irsay's eyes and see a man who beat cancer in the middle of his first season on the job, who has the support of his players, who's accomplished more than any Manning-less Colts head coach since Ted Marchibroda.

Let's say he had no control over Luck's struggles or health.

Blame, then, must fall on Grigson.

While Pagano's a well-thought-of coach who seemed to have things moving in the right direction before 2015, Grigson's moves have been almost universally panned.

There was his bizarre first free-agent class, which he anchored by wildly overspending for third-tier players in free agency's opening days. There was the disastrous Trent Richardson trade. His big moves this spring for aging Pro Bowlers Frank Gore and Andre Johnson were also underwhelming.

A general manager really makes his hay in the draft, though—and after a home run 2012 class headlined by Luck and T.Y. Hilton, Grigson's recent top picks have been all over the map.

Receiver Phillip Dorsett was a first-round reach at one of the most stacked position groups in football. Bjoern Werner was a long-term project at a position of immediate need; in three seasons Pagano hasn't been able to carve a useful football player out of all that raw talent.

This, then, is the bottom line: If Grigson's a gifted young talent evaluator who's not afraid to take risks or think outside the box, then Pagano's failing to get the most out of the players Grigson's put in place. If Pagano knows what he's doing, then Grigson's repeated free-agency failures and draft-day flights of fancy have robbed Pagano of the talent he needs to build his monster.

Even if they, somehow, are both doing their job well despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, they certainly aren't working well together.

The one decision Irsay couldn't defensibly make was to stay the course—yet that's the choice he's made. Maybe the bar's not so high after all.

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