Pagano and Grigson Have Driven Andrew Luck and the Colts into the Ground

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 4, 2016

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano looks on ahead of the NFL International Series match between Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on October 2, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)
Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

Like any accident that slows traffic, it's impossible not to look at what the Indianapolis Colts could have been and wonder where it all went wrong.

If you look hard, though, the answers are clear.

Head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson were the spoiled teenagers who were handed the keys to a custom hot rod on their birthdays five years ago.

They took the hot rod for granted. They drove fast and didn't worry about tomorrow. There were fender benders. They went to the shop for air filters and a tune-up and came away with fuzzy dice and a subwoofer. Oil changes? Insurance premiums? Closing the sunroof before a thunderstorm? Dude, don't be lame. That hot rod was going to last forever and take them everywhere they wanted to go.

Grigson and Pagano drafted Andrew Luck first overall in 2012. As acts of football acumen go, it was like your brother-in-law showing up at the fantasy draft with the magazine he bought from a gas station and selecting Antonio Brown. A no-brainer. Luck was everything a team could want in a young quarterback. If Grigson and Pagano had held up their end of the bargain, even a little, he'd be the NFL's biggest star, and the Colts would be contenders.

But Pagano and Grigson have done nothing to protect the precious, valuable, rare gift they were given when they took over the Colts in January 2012. Luck's paint is chipping, and his engine is knocking. The Colts' gears are grinding.

It's time for someone to take the keys away.

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Ryan Grigson, Jim Irsay and Chuck Pagano in January.
Ryan Grigson, Jim Irsay and Chuck Pagano in January.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

There are folks who try to assign blame for the Colts' woes to Grigson and not Pagano, or vice versa. Even those who want the Colts to perform a clean sweep like to puzzle over who is more to blame for the team's methodical collapse from playoff contention to expensive mediocrity.

The only way to fairly assign blame for the Colts' shortcomings between Grigson and Pagano is to start at the edges and work your way toward the middle.

When Antonio Cromartie signed a $3 million contract in the offseason, that was on Grigson. Cromartie got burnt like the skillet in a Cajun restaurant all last year for the Jets, a team that has never met a big-name defender it couldn't overpay. When the Jets decide they would rather eat dead money than keep a veteran, anyone who throws millions at that veteran needs an intervention.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Allen Robinson of Jacksonville breaks free from the tackle of Antonio Cromartie of Indianapolis during the NFL International Series match between Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on October 2, 2
Ben Hoskins/Getty Images

When Cromartie got isolated against Allen Robinson on Sunday, giving up a touchdown and a string of clutch-for-dear-life penalties, that's on Pagano—though the Colts are so thin at cornerback that it's hard for them to match up against the receiver-rich Jaguars, so that's a little on Grigson, too.

When the Colts lined up in shotgun on 4th-and-1 with 1:42 to play, with Frank Gore on the bench, then executed a play in which four receivers ran routes within five yards of the line of scrimmage and bunched themselves within a phalanx of Jaguars defenders, that's on Pagano.

When Gore's replacement for that play was undrafted rookie Josh Ferguson, who dropped two passes earlier in the game, that's on Grigson for failing to stock the bench. So is the fact that the entire right side of the Colts line was manned by rookies—though it makes more sense to ask inexperienced linemen to block straight ahead for Gore than to pass protect in such a critical situation, so some of the blame rocks back to Pagano.

And so it goes. Some of the assignments are easy. The Trent Richardson trade was pure Grigson. The hallucinatory fake punt against the Patriots last year was 100 percent Pagano. The fact that Erik Walden still earns $4 million to play professional football is peak Grigson. Wasting six seconds at the end of a close game by not sending a returner to fair-catch a punt in exchange for a half-hearted block attempt? That's pure Pagano.

But the Colts' biggest issues are a result of the unique Grigson-Pagano synergy.

The Colts haven't had a 100-yard performance from a running back since Vick Ballard rushed for 105 yards in a December loss to the Texans in 2012. It takes a special coach-general manager combo to go over three seasons without a 100-yard rusher. The general manager must trade for Richardson, sign Gore (still good, though with no big-play punch) and Ahmad Bradshaw and draft the likes of Ballard, Josh Robinson and Kerwynn Williams. The coach must abandon the run immediately in losses and sacrifice Gore to a stacked defense to hammer out perilous wins. And, of course, both must collaborate to keep the offensive line in disarray.

The Colts have only seven sacks this year and had only 35 last year despite playing in a division full of novice quarterbacks and perpetually rebuilding franchises with shaky offensive lines. That's only possible because Grigson fills the roster with pricey 30-something pass-rushers (Walden, Trent Cole, what's left of Robert Mathis) while squandering draft picks on projects like Bjoern Werner. Pagano then does nothing innovative to get the most from the veterans and doesn't develop the projects.

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 02:  Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts is sacked by  Chris Smith #98 of the Jacksonville Jaguars during the NFL game between Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on October 2, 2016 in London, Eng
Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Luck's 2015 injuries came from taking too many hits, which is the result of playing from behind (Pagano) and needing to do too much to generate offense (Pagano and his offensive coordinators) behind a terrible offensive line (Grigson). This year, nagging shoulder injuries have landed Luck on injury reports, but the Colts are down to protecting him with multiple rookies because they are still eating nearly $6 million in dead cap money for giving up on right tackle Gosder Cherilus two seasons ago (maximum Grigson).

So Pagano vs. Grigson is a chicken-or-egg argument. Grigson's roster is a misshapen, haphazard amalgam of past spending sprees and failed draft experiments. Pagano's schemes are unimpressive, and his game management is often comical. One feeds the other, so the Colts spin their wheels at a time when Luck should have them lapping the field.

The AFC South is like a combination pyramid scheme/self-esteem workshop for mediocre coaches and executives. Show up and demonstrate minimum competency, and you can go at least 4-2 in the division. Bring a special player with you, such as Luck or J.J. Watt, and you can almost earn a playoff berth by default.

The weakness of the AFC South helped Grigson and Pagano rise to power as much as Luck's excellence. They also had the leftover talent from the Peyton Manning era at their disposal: Mathis, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Adam Vinatieri and Pat McAfee.

The Grigson-Pagano era was born on second base, and it was easy to steal third when the battery consisted of the Jaguars and Titans. The Colts went 16-2 in their division from 2012-14 and 17-13 out of their division. No wonder the Patriots kept socking them back to reality in the postseason. If the Colts were in the NFC West during that run, they might never have even made the playoffs.

The AFC South is still making Pagano and Grigson look better than they really are. The soft schedule handed them four wins last year, including a victory over the Zach Mettenberger-led Titans in the season finale, which helped them finish 8-8. If you wait for a team with a player like Luck to finish 4-12 in the AFC South before making a change, you will wait forever.

Andrew Luck, sacked a league-high 15 times through Week 4, has spent this season again on the run from defensive pressure.
Andrew Luck, sacked a league-high 15 times through Week 4, has spent this season again on the run from defensive pressure.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Strip away Luck's sometimes single-handed heroics and the padding of the schedule, and it's hard to figure out what Pagano and Grigson have done right in the last four years. For all the drafting, spending and coordinator-juggling, just about all of the reliable players on the Colts roster are those who arrived with Luck, or before. Grigson and Pagano are trying to coast on one burst of success for five years. In the cases of Mathis and Vinatieri, they are still relying on stars from a long-ago era.

Think about it: Five years into the regime of a coach, general manager and franchise quarterback, the Colts needed a 43-year-old kicker from their previous administration to rescue them with long field goals against a divisional doormat. And they still lost.

'Nuff said?

Jim Irsay is a slow, deliberate decision-maker, which is usually to a team owner's credit. There were no trans-Atlantic firings Sunday, no bye week reorganizations. But he must realize he has now spent a year at this crossroads. He also spent over $120 million on Luck in the offseason, only to see the quarterback surrounded by a weaker roster than ever and losing on late-game blunders to opponents the Colts used to clobber.

At some point, the parents see that once-glorious roadster in the driveway, tailpipe hanging low and tires bare, and decide they need to give it to someone who appreciates it and takes care of it before it's too late.

For Luck, the end of the season may be too long to wait.

    

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.