Pagano’s head-coaching career is, as a practical matter, over
In theory, Colts coach Chuck Pagano can still secure a new contract to continue in his job beyond 2015. The Colts, now 3-3, could continue to run roughshod over the worst division in football (sorry, fans of AFC South teams, but someone has to be the worst division in football), get hot late in the year, win a wild-card game at home, beat the Broncos or Bengals in the divisional round on the road, somehow upset the Patriots in Gillette Stadium in the AFC title game, and make it to the Super Bowl.
With anything short of that, there’s no way owner Jim Irsay can keep Pagano around. Not after the most bizarre special-teams play in NFL history.
It’s definitely the worst since former Washington coach Jim Zorn tried the “swinging gate” against the Giants on Monday Night Football in 2009. Eerily similar to the Pagano gaffe, Zorn’s goofball concept came during a field-goal try. With the play starting on the right hash mark, seven players sprinted toward the left sideline, leaving four behind. One of them went in motion to the left, and the plan apparently was to throw a pass to the player who went in motion and have him gain at least the four yards needed for a first down behind the phalanx of blockers.
The only problem? Six Giants stayed home, the guy who got the snapped was swarmed by three of them, he threw up a wobbly pass, and the Giants picked it off.
Zorn was fired two weeks later. Of course, Zorn was getting fired even if that play had worked; the reckless desperation of his imminent demise simply fueled the idiotic special-teams play.
Pagano, possibly feeling that same kind of reckless desperation due to his inability to stay within 20 points of the Patriots, took a flicker of hope for securing his future with the team and snuffed it out in one glorious fit of calculated madness.
While some would say it’s possibly just the right amount of crazy to resonate with an eccentric owner, it’s certifiable madness for any coach of any major college or professional program to come up with a play that was so poorly conceived and yet somehow executed even worse.
Pagano defenders argue that receiver Griff Whalen wasn’t supposed to snap the ball to safety Colt Anderson. Fine, then what was the point of it? To get the Patriots to fall over laughing into the neutral zone?
Making it worse is that Pagano can’t claim temporary insanity. The arrow that he shot into his own foot had been lurking in the quiver for a while.
“We started working on it last year and then we put it back in this week,” punter Pat McAfee told reporters after the game. “It’s a play where you try to take advantage of numbers. You try to confuse the defense and hopefully get an edge numbers wise. The look was not there that we normally have in practice where it’s a go. There must have been some miscommunication between the snapper and Colt [Anderson] and it turned out to be one of the most failed fakes probably of all time.”
McAfee is right about that. Given the circumstances and the stakes, it’s probably the most memorable coaching blunder the NFL has seen, at least since the AFL-NFL merger.
Irsay will never be able to forget it, or to forgive it. Short of a Super Bowl berth, the failed fake becomes the thing that seals Pagano’s fate, both in Indy and elsewhere. What owner in good conscience could ever hire Pagano again to run an NFL team? This is Marty Mornhinweg winning the toss in true sudden-death overtime and choosing to kick, times 1,000.
So, basically, when the 55-year-old Pagano vowed that his current job will be his last one, he didn’t realize how accurate he was.
He’ll resurface (if he wants to) as a defensive coordinator or a position coach. But unless he finds a way to win enough games in the regular season and postseason to qualify for a berth in Super Bowl 50, he won’t be able to erase the Roman numeral by which that game otherwise would have been known from his forehead.