Football is a game of emotion, requiring supreme physical and mental sacrifice on a weekly basis, demanding so much of the men who play it. It creates a brotherhood, forges a unique bond, and can be the backdrop for accomplishments that border on the surreal.
Lucas Oil Field was just such a setting Sunday afternoon, as the Colts -- facing a tremendous talent imbalance against the visiting Green Bay Packers, and a 21-3 deficit -- rallied behind their ailing head coach and pulled off one of the more remarkable results of this or any season.
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That they won at all was stirring. The way they won was startling, surging back for a 30-27 victory behind a suddenly stout defense, a rookie quarterback and an ageless wide receiver. The pure, raw, emotion that poured out when they celebrated, honoring Chuck Pagano, who is battling leukemia in a nearby hospital, both with their effort and with their words, was captivating.
To meet Pagano is to like him, and to root for him. The first-year head coach is in the thoughts and prayers of the entire NFL community. It is abundantly clear he is also in the heart and spirit of his football team, who stared down a desperate Packers outfit and blew them off the field in the final 30 minutes. Andrew Luck cemented his first fourth-quarter comeback win and Reggie Wayne posted a 13 catch, 212-yard outing.
The Colts literally were two different teams Sunday. The first, awash in a flood of feelings, looked lost, as if their thoughts were elsewhere -- and who could blame them if so. Then the team that came back out for the second half was as focused and charged as can be.
Luck, after scoring a touchdown, ran directly behind the end zone at one point and slapped his hand on one of the signs reading "CHUCKSTRONG," the rallying cry for this team and their coach.
"This was for him," Luck said of Pagano after the game. Colts linebacker Robert Mathis grabbed a white board the coaches use to diagram plays on the sidelines, and used it to fire up the crowd in the final minutes, with the board bearing this message: CHUCK STRONG!
Players came bounding into the locker room, after Mason Crosby's tying field goal sailed wide, hollering, "let's get that game ball printed up," knowing to a man that it was going to be delivered to Pagano ASAP. Owner Jim Irsay was overcome in the locker room, clutching a ball in his hand and trying to put into words how proud he was of this young team, extolling them for fighting so hard while Pagano was "fighting for his life and winning the fight," down the street. Interim coach Bruce Arians, who like Irsay has been around the game forever and been a part of championship teams, couldn't wait to address the team, thanking them for their courage and determination.
"This is the greatest win I've ever been a part of," Arians said to begin his postgame comments. "I can't say enough about the resiliency of these guys."
The Colts still have their issues, and this rebuild is ongoing, but they clearly have more fight and passion than they exuded last season, and they also have a real sense of hope that they can make things happen when it's needed most. Much of that stems from Luck, who is going to be in those annoying "is he elite?" conversations soon enough.
Luck took command of this game, with his arm and legs. Often, he used his legs and power to make plays. Storming up the gut for a touchdown, running over defensive backs on critical third downs. He finished 31 of 55 for 362 yards and two touchdowns, the last of which went to Wayne, who has been close to Pagano his entire adult life, dating back to their time together when Pagano coached defensive backs at the University of Miami. Pagano's hire as the Colts' head coach had a lot to do with Wayne's decision to stay, despite the departure of Peyton Manning.
And now the plucky Colts are 2-2, matching last season's win total. The offensive line is patchwork at best, the running game is still a work in progress and they still have holes to fill on defense. But look at all they've already accomplished, as well, and think about how good they could be, pretty quickly, with Luck at the helm.
I can't help thinking about rookie general manager Ryan Grigson, as well. The scout was plucked from relative obscurity out of Philadelphia, immediately had to oversee the exit of a true icon (Manning) and take over for a legend (departing team president Bill Polian), conduct a coaching search, getting the team's cap back in order, and then, on the bye week, process devastating news about Pagano. It would be a lot for a 20-year veteran to sort, and Grigson has handled it with aplomb.
Watching all of this unfold Sunday could do nothing but boost Pagano's resolve. Months of arduous treatment are ahead, but few communities can rally behind a friend in need like Indianapolis, and without a doubt there is no other team he'd rather ever coach after today.
D is for Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins would have been wise, many believed, to have found a way to retain ex-defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. But it turns out, the decision has been beneficial for all parties, Nolan included.
Nolan has transformed the Falcons' defense, overcoming a lack of cover corners and minimal pass rushing options with a superb scheme that has confounded the likes of Peyton Manning and stifled the soaring Redskins' attack Sunday. And the Dolphins defense is absolutely shocking people with its strong play, with rookie defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle a big reason why.
Coyle, blocked from interviews for years by the Bengals, who coveted the secondary coach and wanted to keep him, is doing wonders with a Miami team that isn't exactly overloaded with defensive standouts outside of Cameron Wake. Both are being overshadowed somewhat by their team's offensive exploits -- Matt Ryan is an early MVP candidate for Atlanta and Reggie Bush has totally rejuvenated his career, while rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill has started more quickly than some thought he might.
But make no mistake, these defenses have been recast under their new coordinators. And if this continues, and if the usual seven or so head coaching vacancies come up, then good luck coming up with interview lists that don't include these guys.
Sunday's victories had to be especially sweet. Coyle found a way to stymie the Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green connection, with his secondary clinching the win with an interception against his former team. While Nolan got a huge win, his defense kept Robert Griffin III bottled up before eventually knocking him from the game. Nolan also pulled it off at FedEx Field in front of Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who once left ice cream in Nolan's office when he ran the Redskins' defense -- making a point of how "vanilla" his schemes were.
Sometimes, I suppose, revenge is a dish best served cold.
Coordinators in the crosshairs
Two coordinators who must be feeling the heat, conversely, are Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Their units are among the worst in the NFL, and expectations were high for both. Never a good combination.
The Titans have scored only 67 points on offense -- second-worst in the NFL of all teams to play five games. Only Jacksonville (65 points) is worse. The Titans are the only team in the NFL without a rushing touchdown. Many believe the run scheme has much to do with Chris Johnson's struggles. Even the return of Kenny Britt on Sunday failed to give this unit any life.
The Bills are a disaster defensively. They became the first team since 1950 to give up 550 yards or more in consecutive weeks. Despite all the spending owner Ralph Wilson did on new toys on that side of the ball, like Mario Williams, this unit has no bite and little fight.
The Jets hung 48 points on them in Week 1 (The Jets, people. That's like 150 points allowed on a sliding scale). The Pats dropped 52 on them last week despite taking a good part of the first half off, and the 49ers put up 45 Sunday, and had more than 600 yards. Upcoming games against Arizona and Tennessee should stem some of the bleeding, but then the Texans and Patriots loom after that.
• Rashard Mendenhall restored Pittsburgh's run game, and none too soon. The coaches there were running out of ideas to get the other backs going, and Mendenhall was immediately effective in his first game back from ACL surgery. The Steelers brass was surprised with how much he could do, this soon, and his workload will only be increasing.
• Another great week for Christian Ponder and the upstart Vikings. I'm liking them more and more to be a factor in the NFC North, and I jumped on that bandwagon a few weeks back.
• Still can't believe the Chiefs found a way to blow that game against the Ravens. They racked up damn near 200 yards rushing in the first half, ran the ball on 34 of their first 38 offensive plays, including repeatedly for huge gains in the two-minute offense, gashing Baltimore with Jamaal Charles on draw plays. Even with all of the turnovers, and all of the penalties -- like offensive pass interference calls that negated a huge first down and a potential game-winning touchdown -- it was still crazy to see the Ravens win, 9-6. It's just been that kind of year for the Chiefs, who face a steep climb out of 1-4 now.
• Is it just me, or are there fewer truly dominant tackles in the game than usual right now, which might have something to do with the suspect line play and avalanche of sacks we're seeing in game after game, week after week?