Packers Head Coach Candidate: Chuck Pagano

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Imagine a head coach candidate exists who coached defense alongside Mike Pettine in Baltimore and turned to Joe Philbin to mentor a budding superstar at quarterback.

Before that candidate was a head coach, he helped clean up the University of Miami (Florida)’s football program and recruited the players who would go on to dominate the early 2000’s of college football.

He’s been cornerback Charles Woodson’s position coach in Oakland, he coached a Browns secondary to an NFL-high 33 interceptions one season, and led a Ravens defense struggling to find its identity to finish in the top-three in points allowed.

A coach who then joined a team with a 2-14 record the previous season and won 11 games the next season. Oh, and he was fighting cancer that year, too.

That candidate is Chuck Pagano, a coach who seems utterly unappealing as a head coach candidate thanks to years of mediocrity in Indianapolis and three years of will-they-or-won’t-they-fire-him speculation.

The details on Chuck Pagano

Most recent job: Head Coach, Indianapolis Colts (2012-2017)
Record as a head coach: 53-43
First job: Graduate Assistant, University of Southern California (1984-1985)
Packers connection: Coached with Mike Pettine in Baltimore, hired Joe Philbin in Indianapolis after Philbin was fired by the Dolphins. Coached Charles Woodson in Oakland in 2005.

The background on Chuck Pagano

The 2018 NFL season was the first time Chuck Pagano in 34 years he wasn’t on the sidelines coaching football. Rather, the first time Pagano wasn’t employed and coaching football.

A leukemia diagnosis during his first season as Colts head coach in 2012 kept him away for 12 games, and his team responded by winning 11 games with rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and reaching the postseason.

His cancer in remission, Pagano’s Colts won 11 games again in 2013. With an ascending star quarterback in Luck and a defensive-minded head coach, everything broke in their favor in 2014. Indianapolis beat a 12-4 Broncos in the postseason – quarterbacked by former Colts signal caller Peyton Manning – before losing to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game that started the “Deflategate” scandal.

The 2015 season was difficult and disappointing as injuries plagued Luck and the Colts finished 8-8. ESPN reported Pagano would not return in 2016. When asked about the rumors surrounding his job, the peculiar coach said, “They can't eat you. They can fire you but they can't eat you.”

The Colts opted not to fire Pagano, and instead offered him a one-year extension. Pagano turned the contract down because he was dissatisfied in his relationship with the team’s general manager Ryan Grigson. Grigson’s major move – trading a first-round pick to Cleveland for running back Trent Richardson – was a complete flop, and the Colts roster was barren aside from the quarterback. Pagano felt the team deserved more from their general manager.

Chuck Pagano  coached the Indianapolis Colts to three playoff appearances, including one AFC Championship Game in 2014.

Chuck Pagano coached the Indianapolis Colts to three playoff appearances, including one AFC Championship Game in 2014.

Owner Jim Irsay hired psychologists to work with the pair on their communication. Sources compared the sessions to marriage counseling, and the pair were ultimately split up as the Colts fired Grigson after the 2016 season ended.

Luck’s nagging shoulder injury, an ailment that first appearance in 2015, held him out of the entire 2017 season. With a talent-depleted roster, Pagano led the Colts to a 4-12 record and was dismissed the day after the season ended.

Chuck Pagano’s biggest moment

The Colts were three years removed from quarterback Peyton Manning, who had spent the time carving up opposing defenses in Denver. Indianapolis traveled to Colorado – Pagano’s home town – to face the Broncos in the 2014 AFC Divisional Round.

The 12-4 Broncos were heavy favorites against the upstart Colts, led by Manning’s replacement, Andrew Luck. The two teams had faced off in the season opener, and the Broncos had handily beaten the Colts on the road. It was expected Denver would again roll over Indianapolis, especially in front of a raucous home crowd.

Pagano’s team, led by Luck’s finest performance of his career, stormed into Denver and beat the Broncos 24-13 to move one win away from a Super Bowl appearance.

The Broncos appeared to be the team of destiny in 2014, a year after their blowout loss to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Manning no longer had to carry the team, as Denver invested $60 million guaranteed that offseason on defensive free agents to help the 17-year veteran quarterback focus on just managing the game.

In Chuck Pagano’s own words

After nearly three decades coaching football and moving his family across the country, Pagano had finally achieved his goal of becoming an NFL head coach. He landed perhaps the most coveted position, too, coaching rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.

Luck was heralded as the most complete quarterback to enter the NFL since Peyton Manning, who had left the Colts that offseason. Nearly every team wanted Luck, and Indianapolis even turned down an offer from Browns president Mike Holmgren of his entire set of eleven picks in the 2012 draft for just their first pick.

No pressure. That September, Pagano was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. He went from dreaming about winning Super Bowls with a potential Hall of Fame quarterback to wondering if he’d live to see Christmas.

“[The cancer diagnosis] puts things in perspective. I've never really taken anything for granted,” Pagano said in a 2014 interview. “I've always looked at being able to coach as a privilege, not a right. We know the expectations of this job and you can get caught up in those if you allow yourself to. But at the end of the day, we're coaching a kids' game. The stakes are high and we all understand that. We understand what we signed up for.

(The cancer experience) brings it all into focus a little more. You win a big game or you beat cancer or things are going well, you don't relax. You don't take it for granted and we all have a tendency to do that. I'm feeling well, but I can't let a day go by where I don't realize if I don't do this, this and this, I could be right back like so many others.”

What are the chances Chuck Pagano is the next Packers head coach?

Jon’s Rating: 2/5

In 2016, I worked for WIBC in Indianapolis. The 2015 Colts had just slogged through a disappointing 8-8 season and it seemed for all the world that Pagano was on the way out. Sure, the Colts had been forced to rely on a series of unexciting backup quarterbacks that year, but Pagano had done little to inspire confidence. His firing seemed like a foregone conclusion in the news and sports community.

The Colts official radio station, WFNI, is a sister station to WIBC and had worked with us to craft a coverage plan for Pagano’s seemingly inevitable firing. When Pagano was called in for a meeting with Colts owner Jim Irsay, we had our coverage ready to go for his firing.

Instead, the Colts extended Pagano’s contract.

I’ve covered quite a few different stories in my news career, but I’ve never seen anything quite like the utter befuddlement in the newsroom that day. No one had anticipated that Pagano would keep his job, much less get a contract extension, and we had good sourcing to back up the supposition that he would be fired.

This was a town that had seen the highs of the Chuck Pagano experience, from his solid 11-5 seasons with the Colts to his heroic battle with cancer. And not one person with any kind of connection to the team thought he had a snowball’s chance of keeping his job.

Maybe the fact that he did says something about the kind of confidence he can produce in people, but I’m a lot more swayed by the group that thought Pagano was a goner after one .500 season. After all, things never got any better. Why should we think they would in Green Bay?

Gary’s Rating: 2/5

Chuck Pagano’s candidacy makes sense for the Packers because of his connections with both Mike Pettine and Joe Philbin. If hired, the Packers would likely continue to run the same defensive style and potentially even retain Philbin, a coach players have lobbied behind in recent weeks.

Another feather in Pagano’s cap is his (small sample size) success against the Packers as a head coach. If Mark Murphy pays attention to the opponents the Packers face, he’s likely been impressed with Pagano. His Colts were 2-0 against Green Bay, and were the last team to win at Lambeau Field until the Arizona Cardinals beat the Packers in the game that served as the catalyst for firing Mike McCarthy.

The problem I see with Pagano is that his teams have never been tremendous offensive juggernauts. The Packers do have capable playmakers on defense – the core of Kenny Clark, Jaire Alexander, Blake Martinez, and Mike Daniels is at least above-average – but their offense needs a fresh set of eyes.

The growing theory that Green Bay simply needs to hire a good leader – whether it be an offensive, defensive, collegiate or special teams coach – to corral Rodgers and the Packers is a sound one. Pagano may be just the man for the job, but his inability in his tenure with the Colts to find the right offensive mind to develop and lead Luck should scare Green Bay.

With as many as eight potential openings at head coach throughout the NFL, it’s likely Pagano may get another shot to be a head coach in 2019. It could be in Green Bay, where he’s already interviewed, but it feels less likely than other candidates.