The question, “Who’s the coach of the year?” could as easily be asked inside the Indianapolis Colts locker room as it could be around the NFL.
Few outside the Colts huddle expected Indianapolis to win six games this season, let alone six of its first nine. So who deserves the credit? Head Coach Chuck Pagano? Or interim head coach Bruce Arians?
You could argue either way. The best answer, though, is probably both.
Pagano laid much of the groundwork through training camp and the early season. The early record didn’t necessarily reflect the progress. He went 1-2 before being sidelined with leukemia. Arians has gone 5-1 after being elevated from offensive coordinator after week three of this season. No one thought he would do so well dealing with such tumult.
Consider for a moment that Arians was brought in this season to revive the Colts’ moribund offense and shepherd a rookie quarterback through his maiden season. Not easy tasks considering the youth of the Colts’ offense. But he’s done all that and then some.
More than a few head coaches have stumbled trying to run the offense while acting as head coach. Arians has made few bobbles, and NFL executives have noticed.
If the Colts continue their trajectory—or even come close to it—NFL sources say Arians should expect phone calls following this season from the likes of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and others looking for a new head coach.
Arians, who was the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator before joining the Colts last off-season, has made all the right moves off the field as well as on it, rightly keeping the focus on Pagano and the inspiration he brings the team.
And what about Pagano? League sources say he, too, deserves a fair measure of credit for this team’s success.
While it’s easy to focus on quarterback Andrew Luck and the Colts rejuvenated offense, it’s important to note how Pagano, a defensive specialist, and his defensive coordinator, Greg Manusky, completely re-built the team’s defense. A new-found feisty attitude was evident as early as August during the team’s training camp scrimmages.
In addition to drawing up the initial game plan for the team, Pagano never let Colts players believe all the negative things people said about them before the season, Arians said, adding that it’s Pagano’s vision that is propelling the Colts to unforeseen heights. Following last year’s 2-14 season, there wasn’t a single pigskin prognosticator calling for the Colts to win more than eight games this year. Most predicted between four and six.
The challenges Pagano and his staff faced coming into this season were extraordinary. The entire team had been gutted and needed to be re-built. Those circumstances haven’t gotten any more ordinary since the season started. Pagano’s stunning leukemia diagnoses in late September would have been enough to sink many teams.
But Pagano had a stern, real-life message for his players and coaches. It was clear he wanted them to continue their fight as he continued his. They did, in addition to standing firmly behind him in his much more serious off-the-field battle.
Though he’s spent the last few weeks in the hospital and at home recovering, Pagano has kept in touch with his players and coaching staff through a stream of texts, e-mails and phone calls. He even made an unforgettable stop by the locker room after last week's home victory against Miami.
Of course, there are other NFL Coach of the Year candidates; Miami's Joe Philbin, Atlanta's Mike Smith, Houston's Gary Kubiak and Chicago's Lovie Smith are certainly in the conversation. But none have faced the type of challenges Pagano and Arians have.
On the NFL Network’s pre-game telecast of the Colts-Jacksonville Jaguars game on Thursday, analyst Rich Eisen said if the Colts continue their successful ways, he could see Pagano and Arians sharing coach of the year honors.
If it happens, it would be the first time since the late 1960s for co-head coaches of the year and the first time ever that they’ve been on the same team.
It makes you wonder if there’s enough space in the Colts locker room for both men next year. As long as he’s healthy enough to coach, Pagano is going nowhere. So how that plays out will largely be determined by Arians.
For now, Arians isn’t commenting on any of the possibilities that await him after this year’s magical run.
The full focus right now is on extending the season into the playoffs—and buying Pagano enough time to regain his health and join the team on the sidelines. Arians would love nothing more than to make this team’s circumstances and Pagano’s vision one in the same.
Sure, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy this season seems pretty preposterous.
But 10—or even seven—weeks ago, so did a 6-3 record.
And so did having the NFL's Coach of the Year living in Indianapolis. Or even crazier, having two of them in the same locker room.