INDIANAPOLIS – All signs point to Chuck Pagano walking back through the Indianapolis Colts practice facility doors Monday for an official day of work.
(Pagano has been there unofficially several times, including earlier this week.)
That news does not bode well for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Remember how determined the Colts were to win that Green Bay game for Pagano a week after he was diagnosed with the now-in-remission leukemia? How persistent will they be to present him with a playoff berth on his first day back?
“It'll be crazy,” safety Antoine Bethea said, envisioning Pagano's return. “A lot of smiles, a lot of emotions. It's going to be fun. We can't wait for that.”
Bruce Arians, who has kept that light on in Pagano's office since September, said he's ready for the coach's homecoming.
“Hopefully, we can get this victory and secure our playoff spot and turn it back over to Chuck,” Arians said.
This Colts team has been all business – with periodic emotional outbursts as they watched their coach fight for his life – since Pagano went on leave in late September. They've come back numerous times when they seemed headed for a loss, including the improbable final four minutes in Detroit. Critics point out that most of their wins are over sub-.500 teams. They count the same, and it's not like they could rework the schedule midway through.
Pagano's plight has not only inspired the team, but rallied the city of Indianapolis. There's a connection between players and fans that helped heal the wounds of Peyton Manning's departure and the clean sweep of great players (Gary Brackett, Jeff Saturday, Dallas Clark, etc.) from the glory years.
This week, some writers and analysts have suggested there's a delicate balance, or even some controversy, over whether Pagano or Arians should be the “head coach” with next week's game and the probable playoff berth.
Covering this team, I don't see it that way. Arians has been a perfect fit as interim coach. I don't always agree with his play-calling or in-game decisions, but he has set the exact tone needed. And that tone always – always – included the idea that he was just keeping the light on until Pagano's return.
When Pagano comes back, I would expect a “jolt of energy,” as Tom Zbikowski predicts. I would expect renewed vigor and intensity. The Colts have been trying to win for the coach all year. How much more determined will they be when he's standing right there?
I have no doubt Pagano and Arians, who have remained close during this ordeal, will navigate the game-day stuff seamlessly, however Pagano chooses to run things. It'll be his choice.
As for this Sunday, Arians should just walk into the locker room before the game, huddle for the “1-2-3, Chuck!” chant and roll. The players know what's at stake, and they know where they can draw motivation.
“The (playoff) atmosphere is alive and well, just knowing that we want to be playing in January,” outside linebacker Robert Mathis said. “We want our coach, Chuck, to lead us out, so that's a little extra added motivation.”
The Colts are set up about as well as they can be to clinch a playoff berth at Kansas City. The Chiefs have a decent defense, with a pair of strong pass rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. They have a strong running game, led by Jamaal Charles. But they're also 2-12, playing out the string, mediocre in the passing game and facing reports that the front office and coach Romeo Crennel are on their way out as soon as the season ends.
If a playoff contender can't get the job done against a reeling team like the Chiefs, is it really a playoff contender?
“I think guys understand what's at stake,” quarterback Andrew Luck said. “(There's) a little more sense of urgency to prepare well and respect the process. It is sort of like the playoffs.”
The goal for the Colts after Pagano left was to work for a playoff berth and put the team in position for Pagano to coach in the playoffs, perhaps the week before. Most people thought that was a pipe dream at the time, given the Colts were 1-2 and coming off a last-minute loss to Jacksonville when Pagano was diagnosed.
The Colts believed when others doubted. They beat the Packers after trailing 21-3. Luck now sits 74 yards from breaking the rookie record for passing yardage. He already holds a handful of other rookie records.
Reggie Wayne – the player who has known Pagano longer than any other Colt, having been together in college – has emerged as a team leader and is having one of his greatest seasons.
That's not a coincidence. The Colts are “ChuckStrong” and about to put even more Chuck into the equation. That's a winning development.