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Chuck Pagano Couldn't Withstand the Colts Wasting Andrew Luck

After spending the first half of his term leading a contender, Pagano’s team returned to the cellar of the AFC

Chuck Pagano Associated Press/Ringer illustration

The Indianapolis Colts fired Chuck Pagano Sunday, bringing an end to a six-year run during which the Colts climbed from the cellar to the verge of the Super Bowl, only to fall back to a bottom-five record in the league.

The Colts released a statement on their website officially announcing the move.

“Throughout his tenure in Indianapolis, [Pagano] impacted the lives of the players he coached, those who he worked with in the organization and Colts fans across the globe. Chuck’s first season was one of the more inspirational stories in NFL history as he courageously battled and overcame leukemia. As a result, his CHUCKSTRONG Foundation has raised millions for cancer research. We are thankful for Chuck’s contributions to our franchise and community and we wish him, Tina and the entire Pagano family nothing but the best moving forward.”

Pagano finishes 53-43 as Colts head coach, though that tally includes the 9-3 record interim coach Bruce Arians accrued in 2012. He was hired in a 2012 organizational reset that also brought in then-general manager Ryan Grigson and Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. The trio seemed poised to turn the franchise around on the fly, going 11-5 in each of their first three seasons. But less than three years after the Colts made the AFC championship game, Grigson and Pagano are gone, and the Colts’ $123 million quarterback hasn’t played since last January and is still recovering from a shoulder surgery.

Yet, for all of the promise that recent Colts teams may have squandered, Pagano’s tenure will be defined by how it began, not how it ended. Just three games into his tenure with the Colts, Pagano was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. He took a leave of absence to undergo chemotherapy, and under interim coach Bruce Arians, the Colts rallied around Pagano. In the first game without Pagano, Reggie Wayne, defying league rules by wearing orange gloves to bring awareness to leukemia, led the Colts to a 18-point comeback on a career-high 212 yards. A month later, Pagano made a surprise visit to the Colts’ locker room in between rounds of chemotherapy to address the team after a win over the Miami Dolphins.

Pagano returned cancer-free in Week 17, and the team finished 11-5 before losing in the wild-card round. The following season, the team went 11-5 again and won the AFC South before losing to the Patriots in the divisional round. In 2014, the Colts went 11-5 a third time and repeated as division champs, but again lost to the Patriots in the postseason—this time in the infamous AFC championship game that spawned the Deflategate controversy. Indianapolis hasn’t been to the playoffs since, going 20-28 in the last three seasons under Pagano after starting 33-15.

Grigson’s tenure was defined by repeated whiffs in the draft, in trades, and in free agency, eventually depleting the roster around Luck until it was one of the weakest in the league. He was fired in January and replaced by former Chiefs executive Chris Ballard, who then took until September to acquire a competent quarterback to stand in for Luck—far too late to allow the team to seriously compete in the wide-open AFC wild-card race. While Pagano doesn’t bear the blame for the roster, he hasn’t helped his case as a coach this season. The Colts finished 4-12, and their only wins came against the Browns, the pre–Jimmy Garoppolo 49ers, and the post–Deshaun Watson Texans.

The first three years of Pagano’s tenure were some of the most inspiring in recent memory. But the last three years showed that the NFL rarely produces fairy tale endings.