Column: NFL's 'nice little story' gets even better


Column: NFL's 'nice little story' gets even better

The Colts were a nice little story six weeks ago.

That's when a team that started 1-2 and had ``rebuilding'' written all over it responded to the loss of rookie coach Chuck Pagano with one of those how-did-they-do-it winning streaks - and that was supposed to be that. Considering the Colts finished 2-14 a year ago, then said goodbye to Peyton Manning and turned the rest of the roster upside-down, the season was already a success.

Fans in Indianapolis knew can't-miss rookie quarterback Andrew Luck was bound to improve, but explaining the 4-1 run after Pagano left the team to deal with leukemia was tough enough, especially because there was precious little room elsewhere for improvement. The Colts still can't run the ball, and they still start rookies at nearly every one of the skill positions. The defense? Don't ask.

Yet the story just got better.

Indianapolis was outgained by more than 200 yards Sunday in Kansas City. The Colts lost the time-of-possession battle but still won 20-13 and locked up an improbable playoff spot.

``Mission accomplished,'' Colts interim coach Bruce Arians said, as though he expected as much. ``That's all I can say. It's a fantastic feeling.''

And the story is about to get better still.

Pagano has been cleared to return, perhaps as early as Monday. He might have been the only guy in the entire organization who was expecting great things when he took over, but an entire squad and staff have come over to his side in his absence.

Arians, who stepped in for his close pal and consulted Pagano throughout his ordeal, is a candidate for coach of the year. And Luck, who threw for a modest 205 yards and a touchdown, still made up a lot of ground in his race against similarly impressive first-year quarterback starters Robert Griffin III of Washington and Russell Wilson of Seattle because of something he didn't do - throw a costly interception.

Even the much-maligned defense got into the act, with Darius Butler picking off Brady Quinn's pass and returning it for a touchdown five plays into the game, and whole unit rising up to stuff Quinn on a quarterback sneak late in the game, turning the ball back over to Luck in time for a rookie-record seventh winning drive.

``Whenever teams go for it on fourth down, the defense takes it personal,'' Indianapolis end Dwight Freeney said.

If the defensive stand was a surprise, what Luck did with the opportunity wasn't. The Colts' running game is still little more than a chance for Luck to catch his breath, and despite the emergence of receivers T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen, just about everybody in Arrowhead Stadium was looking at veteran wideout Reggie Wayne. So was Luck, who saw him cut through a seam in the middle of the defense, then fired a high, hard pass that Wayne latched onto in the end zone for a 7-yard score.

Luck owns the rookie records for most yards, most 300-yard games, most winning drives, and the strike to Wayne put him closer to the rookie record of 26 touchdown passes set by none other than Manning. And just like Manning, to whom Luck was often compared before the season, the rookie knew exactly what to say about all of them.

``I think it definitely means something. After the season I'll have a chance to reflect back on it. Obviously, it is nicer to be in the playoffs and know that,'' Luck said, ``but it is nice to have a couple records that I'm sure will be broken in the next year.''

What he said next, though, came as something of a surprise.

``I think we were confident in the locker room from day one. I remember going in, trying to gauge the feel of what it was going to be like. Guys were confident on this team, like Reggie Wayne who had never missed a playoff until that year. Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, those guys are winners, they know how to win, so I think they imparted some of that magic, if you will, on some of the younger guys, the newer guys.

``It was a confident bunch, we never prepared to lose a game, we always prepared to win, and I guess that worked out.''

It's still a mystery exactly how, but Luck wasn't going to spend much more time dwelling on that than he did on accumulating records.

``I guess it will be an extra special Christmas,'' he said, referring to Pagano's return. ``There will be a lot of emotions when he comes through the door. It's funny, there are probably 10 guys who have never met Chuck on the team, but I think they will be emotional too because I'm sure they feel like they know him, too, because his presence is felt so much in the building out here, and wherever we go.''


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him athttp://twitter.com/JimLitke

Quick Links

Phil Chenier becomes fifth Bullets player to ever have his jersey retired


Phil Chenier becomes fifth Bullets player to ever have his jersey retired

On the newest banner that hangs from the rafters at Capital One Arena, a small microphone - embroidered with a white 33 - is subtly stitched into the bottom left corner. 

You'd barely notice it was there; Phil Chenier certainly didn't.

Chenier, who had his #45 jersey retired tonight during halftime of tonight's Wizards-Nuggets game, didn't even notice the mic, added to signify his three decades as a broadcaster with the team.

"I had no idea there was even a mic on it," Chenier said, laughing. "I'll have to go back out and look at it some more."

Despite the Wizards' 108-100 loss, the night was first and foremost a celebration of Chenier - the 5th player in franchise history to have his number rasied in the rafters. He joins Earl Monroe, Elvin Hayes, Gus Johnson, and Wes Unseld as the only players to achieve the honor so far.

"To be up there with the other 4 names means a lot – people I had the fortune of playing with," he added. "I remember my first day of practice and I had just watched this team play in the finals and now I’m plopped down with Wes Unfeld and Earl Monroe and Gus Johnson. It seemed like they accepted me from the get go."

Many from that 1978 Championship team were in attendance on Friday night, watching as one of their teammates cemented his professional legacy. For Chenier, that acceptance as an All-Time Bullets great is at the core of why he played the game.

"You know, when you play this game, you play for acceptance," he said. "You want to be the best, you want to be accepted. Having players and childhood friends – and of course, your family – here, you’re surrounded by so many people that meant a lot to you both before and now. It’s a really humbling feeling.”

It was hard to find someone in DC without something good to say about Chenier on Friday night. Even in the basement of Capital One Center, after the Wizards' fifth loss in seven games, head coach Scott Brooks took a moment out of his press conference to praise Chenier. 

"[Chenier] is a great ambassador and we all love him," Brooks said. "It's well deserved. It's going to be pretty cool seeing his jersey every time we step into this building."

Fans left the arena with a commemorative Phil Chenier cut out. Phil Chenier left the arena with his number retired. The experience was, according to the man himself, everything he thought it'd be. 

"You don’t know what the emotions are going to be..." he told media members after the ceremony."...Obviously it’s something I thought about, but it really was exciting to see the 45 up there and my name."

Then Chenier cracked a smile.

"I’m glad it’s over with."

Quick Links

Wizards lose again, this time to Nuggets as offense falls flat

USA Today Sports Images

Wizards lose again, this time to Nuggets as offense falls flat

The Washington Wizards lost to the Denver Nuggets 108-100 on Friday night. Here's analysis of what went down...

Another loss: It is becoming more and more clear that the Wizards need a shot in the arm, something to change the direction of where they are currently heading.

Whether that will come in the form of All-Star point guard John Wall returning from his months-long absence, an adjustment to their lineup or strategy, or something else entirely, the losses are piling up and at a tough time in the season.

With another loss on Friday night, their seventh in their last 11 games, the Wizards are now 40-32. They have plenty of room to still clinch a playoff berth, as their magic number stands at two, but they only have 10 games left to secure their all-important playoff seed.

Both the Pacers and Cavaliers, two teams just ahead of them in the playoff race, won on Friday.

The Wizards lost their second straight game and again offense was their problem. They scored 100 points, six below their season average, and committed 17 turnovers.

Big third quarter: The Denver Nuggets have emerged as a team on the rise, a young squad with burgeoning stars that could someday soon make some noise in the Western Conference. The reason is because they are very good on offense. Defense is a much different story.

That was not the case on Friday night, as the Wizards had all sorts of trouble scoring in three of their four quarters. They managed just 43 points by halftime, the fewest the Nuggets have allowed in a first half since Jan. 27.

The Wizards, though, did get cooking in the third quarter. They erupted for 33 points in the frame while shooting 63.2 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from three. Markieff Morris, who finished with 17, had 11 points in the third quarter and Bradley Beal (24 points) hit three threes.

The Wizards also found a solution for Jamal Murray, one of the Nuggets' brightest young stars. He had 20 points at halftime, but went scoreless in nine minutes in the third quarter. Kelly Oubre, Jr. (15 points) was among those who gave him trouble. Murry finished with 25.

The big third quarter reflected well on the Wizards' ability to make adjustments, but their 24-point fourth quarter flipped the script again.


Didn't force mistakes: The first time these teams squared off back in October, the Wizards forced the Nuggets into 23 turnovers. This game was a very different story. 

The Nuggets didn't commit their first turnover until midway through the second quarter and had only three by halftime. They had just 10 turnovers for the game.

Denver deserves some credit for limiting their mistakes, but all of it did not reflect well on the Wizards' defense. They didn't put enough pressure on the ball and failed to disrupt passing lanes like they usually do. It was uncharacteristic, as the Wizards entered the game 10th in average turnovers forced.

Not creating mistakes allowed the Nuggets to get way to many field goal attempts. Though they shot just 43.5 percent, Denver managed 108 points. And not getting turnovers offered the Wizards few opportunities for easy transition buckets.

Turnovers were one issue with the Wizards' defense. So was defending the perimeter, as the Nuggets shot 17-for-34 (50%) from long range. It is worth noting the Nuggets were without their leading scorer Gary Harris, a guy who is dangerous from long range.


Special night: Halftime offered a memorable moment in franchise history as legendary player and broadcast Phil Chenier had his No. 45 jersey retired by the team. His longtime broadcaster and friend Steve Buckhantz hosted the ceremony with about 20 friends and family members of Chenier's seated behind him. Buckhantz had opening comments, then majority owner Ted Leonsis spoke as everyone in the crowd stood and cheered.

Then, it was Chenier's time to talk. He thanked his former teammates, members of the organization and those close to him. He kept his composure until the very end when he brought up his mother, Peggy, who could not make the event. Chenier choked up and wiped away tears as he described what she has meant to him in his life.

It was a powerful moment and a great ceremony to honor a guy who has impacted the lives of many in the D.C. area. Now, his No. 45 will hang up in the rafters forever. That banner, by the way, features a picture of a microphone and the phrase '33 years,' signifying how long he was the color analyst for Bullets and Wizards games.


Up next: The Wizards do not have a game Saturday, though they are going to practice and Wall is expected to take a big step forward in his rehab. Their next game is Sunday at 6 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington when they host the Knicks. That will also be a special game, as the Wizards are set to honor the 40th anniversary of their 1978 NBA championship.

NBC Sports Washington is on Apple News. Favorite us!