With Pagano’s illness, the Colts face the “interim coach” trap


Chuck Pagano, new Colts head coach with team owner Jim Irsay
Dramatic news that Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano has been struck with leukemia means that he is in for drastic treatment. The same is true for the Colts.

Pagano suffers from a form of acute myeloid leukemia. Information at the Johns Hopkins Medicine web site puts it as:

"…the original acute leukemia cell goes on to form about a trillion more leukemia cells. These cells are described as "nonfunctional" because they do not work like normal cells. They also crowd out the normal cells in the marrow, causing a decrease in the number of new normal cells made in the marrow. The lack of normal white cells impairs the body's ability to fight infections. A shortage of platelets results in bruising and easy bleeding."

Pagano's wife prompted him to seek treatment when he showed acute symptoms that did not go away. Pagano began treatment in secrecy last Wednesday at Indiana University's Simon Cancer Center. Dr. Larry Cripe, the specialist treating Pagano, says the goal of the treatment is to cure the disease.  The coach faces immediate chemotherapy in the hospital for up to six weeks. Then he takes a drug cocktail that has cured 80 to 90 percent of patients suffering the same form of cancer as Pagano. A cure, yes, but not an overnight cure.

Neither Dr. Cripe, nor team owner Jim Irsay held any real hope for Pagano returning to his duties this season. Irsay's statement that Pagano might return in a limited role in the press box struck me as upbeat, hopeful and supportive. You expect that, but Irsay has some hardnosed, indelicate executive decisions to make. Irsay may need to ease Pagano aside.

How is interim working for the New Orleans Saints?

The Saints are blazing an unhappy trail through the land of interim coach. It's not working for winless New Orleans. The Saints need an honest-to-goodness full-time head coach. That example should not escape Irsay.  

Lets put this out there – "interim" delays the development of the Colts and Andrew Luck. Bruce Arians, or somebody, needs to be named the head coach. Irsay can work out a supportive, sympathetic role for Pagano based on his health and energy level. That role may lead to a return to coaching someday. The need is now, however. The job calls for 18-hour days with head coaching as the sole focus. The Saints prove every week that wearing two hats leads to half the effectiveness for both roles.

The Saints toyed with the idea of naming Bill Parcells as full-time head coach during Sean Payton's exile. Lets pick up that thought and ask this question.

Who are the best candidates for Colts head coach for the year 2012?  

It would be heartless of Irsay to fire Pagano outright. Pagano was his choice to replace Jim Caldwell. If the reasons for hiring Pagano are still valid, Irsay ought not to close the option of Pagano's return in 2013, or 2014. The trick is to find a candidate who can do the job, have instant credibility with the coaching staff and build rapport with the players. To keep faith with Pagano and Colts fans, that candidate has to be willing to work on a two-year contract.

Here's a list of veteran coaches who might be on Irsay's call list.

Bruce Arians – This is the easiest path to follow because it keeps the staff intact with the least disruption. Drop the "acting" from Arians title and have him focus solely on the head coach role. Backfill his offensive coordinator role from within and hire an outsider to fill the role of whoever is promoted to OC. No more double duty and no adjustment needed by the players. The gotcha is that Arians has been coaching in the NFL since 1988 and has not been a prominent candidate for head coach elsewhere. Maybe he is not right for the job.

Brad Childress – is from the Andy Reid coaching tree, which means there is an existing relationship with Colts GM Ryan Grigson, an Eagles alumnus like Childress. Childress helped mold Donovan McNabb into a premier quarterback and he got a good year out of Brett Favre in the Vikings' near miss Super Bowl run in 2009. That's no small consideration with Andrew Luck is on the roster. Childress may not be interested in a two-year contract.

Dan Reeves – Age (68) is a factor for the former coach of the Broncos and Falcons and acorn from the Tom Landry coaching tree. He has been out of coaching since 2003, but interviewed for the 49ers offensive coordinator job in 2009. Reeves' experience with quadruple bypass surgery in the 1998 while coaching the Falcons could be invaluable for both Pagano and the Colts. Age may be the reason Reeves considers a two-year contract.

Joe Gibbs – The comments about Dan Reeves apply to Gibbs. Gibbs is the only prospect on this list who is already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Age is more of a factor for 72-year old Gibbs than for Reeves. The Redskins made two playoff appearances in four years during Gibbs' return to coaching after an 11-year absence from it. He left the Redskins abruptly to return to his family in North Carolina when a grandchild was diagnosed with leukemia.  Like Reeves, his experience of coping with disease could be invaluable to the Colts and Pagano. He is unlikely to leave Joe Gibbs Racing to return to the NFL.   

Bill Parcells – Since leaving the Giants in 1990, The Tuna has become Mr. Fixit for troubled NFL franchises. The Patriots, Jets, Cowboys and Dolphins benefited from his gruff love. Parcells committed, and then backed away from a one-year role as Saints coach. He would get players' attention, but has shown no interest in returning to coaching at age 71.

Jon Gruden – would be a great coaching candidate for anyone and he recently hinted interest in returning to the sideline. He would not accept a two-year contract. Signing him to a standard five-year deal would be a PR nightmare for Irsay, worthwhile only if he has made up his mind to replace Pagano now and wants the best man as permanent head coach.

Brian Billick – Offense-minded Billick is loyal to a fault. His loyalty to quarterback Kyle Boller cost him his job with the Ravens. But then, Billick won the Super Bowl with Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer as quarterbacks. Imagine what he can do with Andrew Luck. Billick hopes to return to coaching. Like Gruden, he would not be interested in a two-year contract.

Jim Fassel – The former Giants coach led the team to a Super Bowl appearance and popularized the phrase "all in." NFL teams flirted with him, but Fassel has not drawn serious interest since departing New York. He is the head coach, GM and president of the Las Vegas Locomotives of the UFL. He would chuck it all to return to the NFL under Irsay's terms. He has the experience to manage a team and call a game. Fassel is not a bad candidate. He just won't excite fans.

Marty Schottenheimer – 69-year old Schottenheimer is the winningest coach never to win an NFL championship. He coached in Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington and San Diego before leading the Virginia Destroyers to a UFL championship over the Las Vegas Locomotives. Schottenheimer would demand total control of football operations. Irsay appears hands-off on football matters, but might not relinquish the control Shotty would demand.

Bill Cowher – If Cowher wanted to return to coaching, he would have done so by now and with his pick of every vacancy since 2007. Bruce Arians is a member of Cowher's coaching tree. That relationship would be face-saving for Arians if Cowher took an offer. The short timeline caused by Pagano's possible return might intrigue Cowher who shows no desire for the five-year coaching grind. That marriage could work, but this union is remote.    


About Anthony Brown

Lifelong Redskins fan and blogger about football and life since 2004. Joined MVN's Hog Heaven blog in 2005 and then moved Redskins Hog Heaven to Bolguin Network. Believes that the course of a season is pre-ordained by management decisions made during the offseason. Can occasionally be found on the This Given Sunday blog and he does guest posts.