INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Colts interim coach Bruce Arians expects Chuck Pagano to take full control of the team when he returns - even if that means making a coaching change in the playoffs.
Pagano has not been on the sideline since being diagnosed with leukemia Sept. 26, something Indianapolis believes will change before the season ends.
"If he comes back, he'll be the head coach," Arians said when asked if Pagano would be making all of the game day decisions.
It's the most definitive answer the Colts (7-4) have given since Pagano took an indefinite leave from the team to undergo chemotherapy treatments for cancer.
Initially, team owner Jim Irsay said Indy hoped Pagano could coach from the press box later this season. But with Pagano's prognosis steadily improving, the hopes inside Indy's team complex have grown, too.
The goal, Arians has said over the past month, is to get Pagano back on the sideline for the regular season finale Dec. 30 against Houston, and if not then, to keep playing until Pagano does return.
It looks more possible with each new report.
Pagano's physician, Dr. Larry Cripe, said earlier this month that the illness was in "complete remission" just before Pagano embarked on a second round of treatment. Pagano has made a few trips to the team complex recently and has attended each of Indy's last two home games though he watched from the coaches' and owners' boxes. He's been studying game tape, practice tape and has even advised players individually.
In Pagano's absence, though, the Colts have done things few thought possible.
Quarterback Andrew Luck has continued his pace for a record-breaking rookie season.
At age 34, receiver Reggie Wayne has continued to post the best single-season numbers of his career in a record-breaking season.
Other rookies such as T.Y. Hilton and Dwayne Allen have emerged as play-makers and a rebuilt defense has improved, too.
The combination has Arians on the cusp of history, too.
Only six coaches in NFL history have taken over a team at midseason and won more games than Arians, who is 6-2. If the Colts win Sunday at Detroit, Arians would join the Raiders' Art Shell (1989), Cincinnati's Bruce Coslet (1996) and Mike Holovak of the Boston Patriots (1961) as the only members of the seven-win club. San Diego's Don Coryell won eight games in 1978, while Wally Lemm won nine games with the Houston Oilers in 1961. Hamp Pool set the NFL record with a nine-win season with the 1952 Los Angeles Rams.
Just seven AFC teams have winning records, and the Colts are sitting in the No. 5 playoff slot, one game ahead of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
Arians, who was forced out by the Steelers after last season despite winning two Super Bowl rings in Pittsburgh, is savoring every moment.
"I'm thankful for the Pittsburgh Steelers letting me go to be here," he said last week, drawing laughter. "Truthfully, I couldn't think of a better place to be at this point in time and to have felt more needed probably in my entire life. So thank you Pittsburgh."
But Arians, himself a cancer survivor, is eager to get Pagano back on the field soon, too.
The two talk and share text messages nearly every day and whenever Pagano is healthy enough to take control, Arians will gladly slide back into his role as offensive coordinator.
"It's his team," Arians said.
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