REGGIE HAYES: Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay wouldn’t give Chuck Pagano a third chance, would he?

Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano watches the action from the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore, Saturday, Dec 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano watches the action from the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore, Saturday, Dec 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

Most observers seem to agree this is it for Chuck Pagano as coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

He has one more game, against Houston on Sunday, and maybe even a final win. After that, Colts owner Jim Irsay can praise Pagano for his service and for being a terrific human while handing him his pink slip and talking about the dreaded need for a new direction. Even Pagano made a reference Wednesday to this being the “last rodeo,” saying no team is ever the same from one year to the next.

There’s only one possible twist to this predetermined story most Colts fans and reporters haven’t considered: What if Pagano stays?

What if Irsay being Irsay decides the absence of quarterback Andrew Luck skewed everything, including Pagano’s ability to build a defense, hold onto fourth-quarter leads and call situation-appropriate timeouts? Yes, the Colts won a mere three games, and they blew half a dozen opportunities. But Luck never played.

Earlier this season, Pagano joked with reporters about being in “Groundhog Day,” the Bill Murray movie about a man who wakes up in the same circumstances day after day after day. What if he’s right? What if this is “Groundhog Day” for real?

Maybe “Groundhog January” would be the better phrase.

January 2016: Irsay announces Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson will be retained and “tied at the hip” after “careful consideration.”

January 2017: Irsay fires Grigson but announces Pagano will be retained, saying the coach “will be the best coach he has ever been going into this year.”

January 2018: Irsay fires Pagano. Or retains him once more.

The NFL’s so-called “Black Monday” is Jan. 1, the perfect date for wiping the slate clean.

All signs and NFL logic point toward the Colts dumping Pagano. The coach has two years left on a four-year deal, but contracts are made to be broken. The Colts will miss the playoffs for the third straight season, in large part because Luck will have missed 26 games due to injury over those seasons.

Luck’s absence can’t be dismissed, but can it be considered the sole reason the Colts are in line for a Top 3 pick in the 2018 draft? Most people would say no, but we shouldn’t take for granted Irsay sees things that way.

The mistake many of us make is to assume Irsay shares the point of view of fans and media. He doesn’t. For example, Irsay underestimated the enmity arising from his decision to release Peyton Manning after the 2011 season. He saw the Manning move as a mutual, unavoidable separation. Others vehemently disagreed. The Colts lost some fans when Irsay released Manning, even as Irsay and Manning shared a news conference to announce the separation.

Irsay took a hit on his judgment when he fired Grigson, since it was Irsay who ditched long-time general manager Bill Polian and took a chance on a first-time general manager. Irsay will take another hit if he fires Pagano. That would be a “two strikes” situation in Irsay’s plan to build a better, post-Manning franchise.

In retrospect, it’s even more obvious how transcendent Manning was as Colts quarterback. He made it look easy to win division titles and be in contention for a Super Bowl year after year. Polian knew how to build a team around Manning.

After the first three years of Luck’s career, with the Colts going further in each playoff, it appeared Irsay might have struck gold again.

Alas, Grigson proved to be no Polian. Pagano proved to be no Tony Dungy. Luck proved to be more fragile than anticipated. To say Luck is no Manning is unfair, if true in many regards. Until that lost 2011 season with his neck problem, Manning was indestructible.

How much of the Colts’ 19-28 record over the last three years is Pagano’s fault? How much is Luck’s fault, having missed more than half of those games? How much can be chalked up to simple bad luck?

Irsay faces his usual January decision, this time perhaps with the help of general manager Chris Ballard.

It seems obvious Pagano’s time is up. But the person whose opinion matters most is Irsay. To assume we can predict his next move would be an exercise in foolishness.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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