Ryan Grigson, the Colts' rookie general manager, was out for a rare midweek dinner in downtown Indianapolis in mid-November, mid-menu study, when his cellphone chirped. Grigson looked down. "Chuck," he said, shaking his head with a laugh, as if to say, Chuck Pagano is blowing up my cell. Again.
The leukemia-stricken coach of the Colts was on the line. Strategy call? Update on his treatment?
"Hey," Pagano said, in a voice raspy from chemotherapy, "don't forget, we gotta get a game ball made for Darius Butler."
The news had just come out: Butler, signed by the Colts in late September, earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his two interceptions, including a pick-six, in a 27--10 victory over the Jaguars. Pagano might have a port protruding from his chest to receive regular chemo cocktails, but he still gets video uploads of Colts practices every day on his iPad, and he still fires off text messages to players and coaches. The recipients were at first stunned by this intimate involvement—a man fighting for his life, yet coaching well into the night, every night. "He catches everything," Butler says. "He barely knows me, and one day there's a text: 'Be careful with your eyes.' He saw me peeking into the backfield when I should have been concentrating on my man. It's like he's on the practice field, the stuff he writes."
The easy story behind the Colts—8--4 following a 20--13 victory over the Bills on Sunday—goes like this: Led by precocious rookie Andrew Luck and motivated by their first-year coach's battle with cancer, a team with the worst record in football a year ago plays over its head, inspires a city and makes a stunning run at the playoffs. That's the framework of the story, the one everyone's running with. But it's shallow. Way too shallow.
The Colts have transitioned so quickly from the Peyton Manning era—the locals going from bemoaning the loss of the greatest quarterback they'd ever seen to embracing a new one in what seemed like 10 minutes—that it's worth retracing how it all came about.
We could start with the hiring of the 40-year-old Grigson, a former beat-the-bushes scout who has churned the roster like no other G.M. in football. Of the 61 players on his active and practice squads, 42 weren't on the roster the day he took over in January. That's 69% turnover. "Our depth chart is a living, breathing organism," says Grigson, whose leading tackler is Jerrell Freeman, a 26-year-old rookie from mighty Mary Hardin--Baylor (Texas) by way of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and whose fifth cornerback, Teddy Williams, signed in Week 9, is an All-America sprinter who never played a down of college football. Then there's Butler, the aforementioned corner. Three hours before his big game in Jacksonville, his sixth since he joined the team, he walked down the aisle of the team bus, past some coaches.
"Who's that?" quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen asked another assistant.
"That's Butler, the corner," he was told. "He's playing tonight."
Retelling the story, Christensen says, "Usually you've got two or three guys on a team you may not know because there's some transition during the season. But here ... I bet if you lined up our 30 defensive players [on the active roster and practice squad], I wouldn't know 15 of them."
Or we could start with the guy Grigson and owner Jimmy Irsay hired as their coach, the itinerant, 52-year-old Pagano. He was the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 2011, his 12th coaching position in 28 seasons, and had never interviewed for a head-coach job at any level before last January. Early in Pagano's interview, Grigson wrote on his legal pad, "[Players] will run through a brick wall for this guy." And that was it.
A diagnosis of acute promyelocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, wasn't part of the plan. Who knows why the Colts are 6--2 since Pagano got the crushing news during the Colts' bye week in late September? It's always dangerous to invoke Hollywood in a life-and-death story, but as interim coach Bruce Arians, Pagano's close friend, says, "This whole story's for Steven Spielberg. I can't explain it."
If this were a movie, it would certainly include the scene in which Pagano, in the first game he attended after the diagnosis, climbed on a chair in Grigson's stadium suite to pound on the window, trying to get the attention of the Colts' coaches about a play he wanted them to run.
Or we could start with Pagano's stand-in, the 60-year-old Arians, hired to be Luck's offensive coordinator, then finding himself thrown into something he never could have expected. The first thing Arians, formerly the Steelers' coordinator, did when he took the interim job was to flip on the light switch in Pagano's office and, energy conservation be darned, order that it stay on until Pagano's return. Tutoring Luck would have been more than a full-time job alone, but adding his first head-coaching duties and the awkwardness of stepping aside when Pagano intercedes with a text makes the job a balancing act that no other coach has ever had to deal with.
Arians waves this off and says, "I tell Chuck, 'You coach your ass off from the couch, and we'll handle the rest. Don't worry. The job's gonna get done.'"
Or we could start with the response of so many Hoosiers, who have embraced a man many of them had never heard of 11 months ago. By last weekend locals had bought enough CHUCKSTRONG T-shirts and bracelets to raise more than a quarter million dollars for leukemia research. Others have shown their support by shaving their heads in solidarity with Pagano, who has gone bald from his chemo treatments. Nearly three dozen Colts players and staff, including Luck, did so in early November, as did players from the nearby Covenant Christian High football team. And on the sideline during Sunday's Colts-Bills game, cheerleaders Megan Meadors, 26, and Crystal Anne Belen, 24, had their long brunette locks shorn, raising almost $23,000 in donations. This was not a small decision for Meadors, the 2008 Miss Indiana. "This is going to have a shock factor," she said last week. "I want to send a message."
But really, to be simple and straightforward about it, we should start with the importance of one player.
Andrew Luck was drafted No. 1 overall by the Colts on April 26, but because NFL rules dictate that drafted seniors can't report to their new teams until after completing their degrees, Luck was at a severe disadvantage. Save for two postdraft minicamps, he couldn't report to Indy until mid-June, six weeks before training camp was to begin. By comparison, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson could report full time to Washington and Seattle, respectively, in mid-May.
Why this matters: Luck played in a mostly short-passing, move-the-sticks West Coast scheme at Stanford, and Arians hates the West Coast offense. He doesn't think it sufficiently empowers a QB to change his protections or his hot (safety valve) receivers at the line of scrimmage. "My quarterback has to be able to fix problems," says Arians. Learning how to do that would take time, even for a sponge like Luck. But from the time he arrived in Indianapolis, Luck showed the learning curve wasn't going to intimidate him.
In one of his first practices, Luck faced eight snaps against blitzes. It was a disaster. He completed one pass, appeared totally discombobulated, and as one defensive player on the field that day recalls, "If that had been a heavyweight fight, it would have been a first-round knockout."
"I have no idea what just happened," Luck said to Christensen as he walked off the field. "It was like a tsunami."
Later, watching film with Arians, the quarterback realized, "God, that's easy." He just had to learn which players to move where in protection. For instance, if he had an empty backfield in shotgun and he saw a blitzer threatening the A gap (the holes on either side of the center), he could call out a code word to reposition a tight end as a sidecar in the backfield. If he saw a defensive back creeping up to blitz, he could shift every lineman one assignment in that direction.
"In the next blitz period," recalls defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, "he'd call out who we were bringing and our coverages, right at the line. You could tell he'd studied the crap out of each play. He had an answer for everything. That's something you see in a second- or third-year quarterback, maybe. Or in a Manning."
In Indy, Luck is already famous for this learning ability. After his first minicamp, Christensen sent him home with a binder of all the Colts' three- and five-step-drop passes. The next afternoon Luck called Christensen and asked, "I got it; what have you got for me now?"
"He gets the most irritated when I repeat something, like I shouldn't be wasting his time," says Christensen. "One day I noticed he was dropping his arm just before he threw. I said to him, 'Move that ball up six inches.' I haven't had to say a word about it since."
Luck has been ... well, different, for veteran coaches like Arians and Christensen to deal with. "Dorky," says Christensen, "but so, so smart." One day in practice, Luck asked Christensen, "How are you doing today?"
"Good," Christensen answered.
"Well," Luck corrected. "You're doing well, not good."
After his fifth or sixth such redressing, Christensen shouted back, "Shut up! I don't care about your grammar and your vocabulary!"
You'd think this type of thing might rub some players the wrong way. But this team is so young—when Luck peers into the huddle, he sees as many as six rookies—that his leadership has seemed natural. No one batted an eye when, in his first minicamp following the draft, Luck snapped, "Get your asses going! We gotta win this practice!"
It's taken a village to contribute to Luck's rookie success, and that village includes Pagano, even in absentia. "Coach Pagano started the first week of the season with a great Friday-morning quarterbacks meeting," says Luck. "He'd walk us through 10 or 15 plays of the opposing defense. I learned a lot. Then, with the leukemia, I figured, 'I guess we're not doing our meetings anymore.' But that first Friday I got eight text messages from him—looks, indicators and things to watch for."
Luck's results so far? Mixed. Asked after Week 9 what rookie midterm grade he'd give himself, he said, "C. Average." A bit harsh perhaps given the Colts' 5--3 record at the time, but the stats would suggest the grade should actually be lower. He's 29th in the league in passer rating at 76.7, only slightly better than Mark Sanchez. And if Indy fails to make the playoffs, Luck will likely look back in disgust on his three interceptions and one lost fumble in a 59--24 loss to the Patriots on Nov. 18, a game that followed a week in which Arians had preached the importance of zero turnovers.
On the other hand, Luck is on pace to throw for more yards, 4,662, than Manning did in all but one of his 13 seasons with the Colts.
So what's the fair assessment of Luck's play? Several factors balance out that poor passer rating. One: His 10.27-yard average pass length (how far downfield his typical pass was touched by a receiver) is far and away the highest in the league—2.07 yards longer than Manning's. Someone who throws deep a lot isn't likely to have a starry completion percentage. Two: The Colts are 6--1 in their seven games that have been decided by six or fewer points, and it's had everything to do with Luck. In those games, he had eight drives that resulted in points during the final two minutes of the second or fourth quarter, or in OT. And three: Unaccounted for in his passer rating are his fleet feet, which lend Indy an added option on the goal line. He has five rushing TDs, trailing only RG3 among quarterbacks.
True, in watching video of Luck you see some impetuousness that must be coached out of his game. His second of two pick-sixes against the Patriots was totally irresponsible, seemingly chucked out of frustration. "Horrendous," says Christensen. "No explanation for it."
But rewatch the Miami game. The Dolphins entered that early November meeting ranked first in the league in third-down defense, and Luck, in his eighth NFL game, converted on third-and-12, -14, -20, -10, -16 and -11. Ask Luck for a play that he's proud of in 2012 and he'll cite that last one: third-and-11 at his own five with 11:48 to play in a 20--20 game. Indy had two wideouts to the right, one to the left, and tight end Dwayne Allen lined up just off right tackle. At the snap only three Dolphins rushed, which left Luck standing in the end zone with seven men, including Allen and running back Vick Ballard, in protection.
Seven blocking three: Big, big waste of manpower. But after stoning defensive end Cameron Wake, Allen knew to release him to the tackle and drift into the flat.
Meanwhile, Luck looked downfield at two curl routes and an out pattern—all covered. "Critical juncture of the game, third and somewhat long," says Luck. "You hesitate throwing the ball into the flat on third-and long because if he gets tackled he's short, but I felt the defender was soft on that side, so I got it out to him."
Allen split two defenders at the first-down spot and dived ahead. Gain of 20. Why'd Luck like it? Because he didn't force the ball to a covered receiver. And with eight first-year Colts in the game, they all had to know what to do at a vital time, and they did it.
I was more impressed by another play later in that drive, on second-and-seven. All week long Indy's offensive staff had guessed at what new Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle would do to pressure Luck, and they settled on studying the blitzes of his mentor in Cincinnati, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, because Coyle had used familiar schemes in much of the first half of the season. Zimmer liked A gap blitzes, and the Colts prepared for both A gaps to be rushed.
But they noticed one tweak. When the Dolphins blitzed the A gap, they also occasionally blitzed a corner, leaving the wideout on the right (usually Reggie Wayne's spot for the Colts) uncovered momentarily. "If that happens," Arians told Luck, "just know this: That corner has seven steps to get to you. You've got maybe three steps to release. And they'll probably send one of those linebackers over to cover Reggie."
Back to the play: Miami put linebackers Kevin Burnett and Karlos Dansby in the A gaps, and as Luck moved Ballard into protection, Burnett and Dansby backed off. But at the snap, safety Jimmy Wilson blitzed from Luck's right side, and Dansby sprinted over to latch onto Wayne, the hot read, just as Arians had warned. Luck never had time to seriously consider any receiver to his left, and he figured that if he threw quickly to Wayne, Dansby would be there in time. So he lasered a throw to Allen, uncovered for a second up the right seam, just off the line. Gain of 20. Total veteran stuff, and it led to the game-winning field goal.
The Patriots debacle showed the other side, that Luck's got plenty to learn. "But he's a great forgetter," says Christensen. "He won't be cocky the day after he played a great game, like against Miami, and he won't be down in the dumps after a game like New England. That Monday I said to him, 'You're a rookie on the road, playing Belichick, and you drove us 80 yards for touchdowns in your first two drives. That's big time. We'll work on the other stuff.' And he knows."
Luck has a six-year-old flip phone, the same one he had at Stanford. He's not on Twitter and doesn't immerse himself 24/7 in social media. "I'm no Luddite," he says, "but staying unconnected ... it's a way for me to get away from things. There's a lot in this business you don't need to know."
Luck's a voracious reader but avoids heavy stuff during the season because once he starts a good book he can't stop. On his night table now: A Short History of Nearly Everything, by humorist Bill Bryson. "I can pick it up for 15 minutes, get something fun out of it, then put it down and go to sleep," he says.
He didn't want to have dinner with a visiting SI writer, didn't want to have his photo taken. As at Stanford, it's clear Luck doesn't want to draw attention to himself in a sport in which the quarterback is already so magnified to the public eye.
Back at Lucas Oil Field on Sunday, Pagano sat in Grigson's box for the win over Buffalo, and when the crowd gave him an ovation, he stood, waved and tapped his heart. Emotional moment.
But Pagano's coaching moment—a day doesn't go by without one or two of those, you've seen—came earlier that morning. He texted rookie receiver-returner T.Y. Hilton with instructions about his returns: "Remember, stretch and cut." Meaning, when you field the punt, run sideways at first to stretch out the coverage, then cut upfield fast to take advantage of the holes this creates.
In a scoreless game five minutes old, Hilton remembered that advice. Taking a punt at the Indy 25, he moved to his right for several strides, then cut upfield, deked one tackler and was off for a 75-yard touchdown.
"That text really helped me score," Hilton said afterward. "He's a great coach. I love him.''
Join the club.
"He catches everything," Butler says of Pagano's texts to players. "It's like he's on the practice field."
FIRST STEPS Luck's 433 passing yards in Week 9 broke Cam Newton's rookie record.
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
A NEW MANNING Luck has helped the franchise move on from his predecessor—whom, if fate has it, he may meet in the postseason.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (LUCK BEFORE)
SHORN IN THE U.S.A. After Luck got a head shave in support of his coach, fellow Indianapolitans—including cheerleader Meadors (below left) and players from Covenant Christian High—went from hirsute to following suit.
KIM KLEMENT/US PRESSWIRE (LUCK AFTER)
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DAVID E. KLUTHO (MEADORS BEFORE)
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SIMON BRUTY (MEADORS AFTER)
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Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
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PHELAN M. EBENHACK/AP
GONE GRONKERS Celebrating rushing TDs has become common for Luck, who spiked like a Patriots tight end after his fourth of five in '12, against the Jags in Week 10.