Behind Pagano appearance, Colts continue Hollywood-worthy season
Chuck Pagano's inspirational visit before undergoing more chemo sparked Colts
Sean Payton might stay with Saints, but other opportunities will be very enticing
Praising the Bears; Fine Fifteen; Awards of the Week; Ten Things I Think and more
Current events: This morning, Chuck Pagano checks into an Indianapolis hospital for a second round of leukemia treatment. Tomorrow, we vote. And for a long time -- weeks, months, years -- the New Jersey/New York/Connecticut region battered by Hurricane Sandy rebuilds and heals.
We start with the story in Indianapolis that seems too surreal -- and good, for now -- to be true. Six weeks ago, after the Colts lost to Jacksonville to fall to 1-2, coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia. On Sunday, before the Colts faced Miami in what had suddenly become a game with playoff implications, Pagano showed up in front of the team for the first time since his diagnosis. He spoke to the team before the game, and then after the 23-20 win, and if you haven't seen the video of his postgame speech, I'd advise getting a couple of tissues before you do.
Appearing tired and slightly thinner than when the team last saw him, Pagano spoke, his voice quivering at times. "I've got circumstances. You guys understand it, I understand it," Pagano said. "It's already beat. It's already beat. My vision is that I'm living to see two more daughters get married, dance at their weddings and then lift the Lombardi Trophy several times.''
And then the interim coach and friend of Pagano, Bruce Arians, had all the players put their hands in the middle, enveloping Pagano. Kids on third-grade soccer teams do the thing Arians called for next.
"Chuck on three!'' Arians shouted. "One-two-three CHUCK!!!!!"
Somebody has to make a T-shirt of that. It's the coolest saying in sports right now.
"Coach Pagano's a inspiration,'' Andrew Luck told me after the game. "When I found out this morning he'd be here, I was giddy. Excited. Jacked to see him in the flesh. We all were. I love him. We all do."
The Colts often this year have looked like colts, just learning how to gallop. Chicago pasted them. The Jets, who don't rout anyone, embarrassed them. But since Pagano got sick, the Colts, somehow, are 4-1. Margin of victory in those four wins: three, four, six and three points. They find a way. I'll write more about Luck's record-setting day -- with an NFL-rookie-record 433 passing yards -- and how the Colts are winning tomorrow. It's Hollywood Day today.
"The whole story's for Spielberg,'' Arians, sounding a little misty himself, told me Sunday night. "I can't explain it. No one can. I just know this: I tell Chuck, 'You coach your ass off from the couch, and we'll handle the rest. Don't worry. The job's gonna get done.' "
The story doesn't have a happy ending. Yet. Not for the Colts, and not for Pagano. "This next round of treatment's going to be brutal,'' Arians said. "He could be down and out for a while. But he felt good today, and so he wanted to come in and see the guys. It helped, big time. It's good for him, good for us.''
Then Arians gave me a surprise.
"The goal is to get Chuck on the field December 30th,'' Arians said. "I don't know if it can happen, but that's the goal.''
Final home game of the year. Houston at Indianapolis. The new power of the AFC South coming to town -- maybe with a playoff spot on the line for the little-engine-that-could Colts.
Memo to my bosses at SI and NBC: Whatever I'm doing Dec. 30, make sure I can do it from Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Sean Payton Saga
On Sunday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the contract extension Sean Payton purportedly agreed to in 2011 never was approved by the league office, and Payton will become a free agent at the end of this season, when his year-long league suspension for involvement in the Saints bounty scandal expires. On FOX, Jay Glazer, who is close to Payton, quoted Payton as saying he "absolutely plans'' to stay with the Saints, and the Saints, angry that the story leaked in the first place, insisted Payton was going nowhere other than on their coaching payroll in 2013 and beyond.
But the fact that the story got out tells me a few things. It's no lock that Payton will stay a Saint; if it were, he'd have agreed to a rewritten deal by now. Payton, despite his charred reputation from being the only coach in league history to be suspended for a year, would be sought after in the offseason if he chose to enter the market, with possible head-coaching vacancies in Dallas and Philadelphia looming largest.
And if he does leave, owner Tom Benson will likely feel betrayed -- unless Payton convinces him for family reasons he is best off in Dallas, where his family has relocated. Benson has been hugely supportive of Payton this offseason, leasing him an office and making sure he's tethered to the organization so he can make a smooth transition back to the team once his suspension is up.
Many of the possible coaching openings would be good fits for Payton. I doubt sincerely the Chargers could compete financially in Payton's $8-million-a-year league. I doubt sincerely Payton and the conservative Clark Hunt, Kansas City's owner, would be a good match. Ditto Payton and Carolina's owner Jerry Richardson. He has no connection with new Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam, though Haslam could be very aggressive if he decides to go all-in to try to get him.
That leaves New Orleans, Dallas and Philadelphia. If Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie fires Andy Reid at the end of the season, Payton, who coached quarterbacks in Philly in 1997 and '98, would be intriguing to him, and I believe Lurie would try hard to get him. It's a Lurie kind of move, trying to head off Dallas at the pass and take the kind of jump with a playoff-ready team that would give them a chance to break out of their recent malaise.
Schefter reported the league quashed the contract submitted by the Saints last year because it contained a clause that said if GM Mickey Loomis left the team, Payton could be free to leave too, even if his contract still had time on it. That'd be a bad precedent for the league, a coach having the right to void his deal if some member of the front office were no longer in the house.
Would Payton be willing to trade that clause for money? Would Payton really consider abandoning Drew Brees with four years left on the great Brees' new contract when the coach returns in 2013? Could the Saints' current situation -- a troubled defense with a bloated future salary cap -- have a major impact on what Payton does? Will the Saints, battered and bruised by the mass suspensions and awful defensive performance through the first half of the season, feel pressured to do a new deal with Payton soon, with its rabid fan base in full panic mode at the thought Payton might leave? Does Payton feel it's time for him to be near his children every day, instead of being a commuter dad? I'd have liked to ask Payton or his agent, Don Yee, those questions on Sunday, but neither returned my requests for comment.
I do know this: From the time he was suspended last spring, Payton was not afraid of his job prospects. I believe he knew if Benson decided to part ways with him because of the bounty stain, which I don't think Benson wants to do at all, he'd be well-positioned to get a lucrative gig somewhere else.
Payton's a tremendous coach. He's imaginative, and he's a quarterback guru, and he can get players to follow what he says because they know what he says works. In this day and age, modern owners might not like the baggage of the suspension history, but Payton's so good at what he does that they'd deal with it. Happily, for many of them.
Now for the Cowboys. If you saw Jerry Jones' interview with Bob Costas Sunday night on NBC, you saw the Dallas owner give what I'd call a tepid endorsement of his current coach, Jason Garrett. I know Jones really likes Garrett, but the owner also has to be frustrated with the fact that Garrett's just 16-16 in his short career as coach, and 3-5 this season following a soft offensive performance in a 19-13 loss at Atlanta Sunday night. Awful clock management likely cost the Cowboys a good shot at a win at Baltimore three weeks ago, and Tony Romo and his receivers sometimes look as though they're all college freshmen going through orientation together. Jones liked Payton when Payton was on the Dallas staff coaching quarterbacks and the passing game from 2003 to '05, and they're similar people. They work hard and play hard.
Case in point, which you may remember from the 2010 Scouting Combine, from a Monday Morning Quarterback item I wrote then:
On Friday night, the Saints' staff at the Combine gathered in a private room at St. Elmo Steakhouse, the 108-year-old Indy foodie landmark, for a final celebratory nod to the Super Bowl won over the Colts. This is a group that likes its wine, and likes to have fun. At the restaurant, word passed that Dallas owner Jerry Jones would have his Dallas group in this exact room Saturday night for a team dinner. Jones, one of the waiters told the Saints' group, even phoned ahead to make sure a magnum of a wine he loved, Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon, was ready to be served at dinner.
Sean Payton told the waiter he'd like to have that wine, too. The waiter told him: Sorry, sir. We've got only one bottle of it left, and it's reserved for Mr. Jones.
Payton said he'd like to have the bottle nonetheless. I assume there was much angst on the part of the wait staff at that point. My God! Who do we piss off? One of the most powerful owners in the NFL, or the coach who's the toast of the NFL, the coach who just won the Super Bowl?
Here came the bottle of Caymus Special Selection, and the Saints' party drained it.
But drinking Jones' wine wasn't enough. Payton gave the waiter some instructions, took out his pen ... and, well, the Cowboys party found at the middle of their table the next evening an empty magnum of Caymus Special Selection cabernet sauvignon, with these words hand-written on the fancy label:
World Champions XLIV
That's the kind of thing Jones will get a big laugh out of. And remember.
I don't know how this story ends. But with the Cowboys on the ropes, and the specter of Lurie facing a nutty fan base tired of the same old story, and with the Saints tired of being the NFL's punching bag, Payton could turn the biggest nightmare of his life into the biggest payday. Stay tuned.
What the Bears are doing is extraordinary.
Charles Tillman forced the 33rd, 34th, 35th and 36th fumbles of his illustrious 10-year NFL career Sunday in Nashville, where the Bears humbled the Titans 51-20. (It wasn't that close.) At 31, if this is possible for a cornerback, Tillman is an ascending player.
Where I watch the games on Sundays, in the NBC viewing room, I sit next to Tony Dungy, who once had Bears head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli with him for five seasons on his Buccaneers coaching staff. "We used to have a turnover period every day in practice,'' Dungy said. The Bears do the same thing now, which is a very good reason why they forced six fumbles Sunday, intercepted one pass (Brian Urlacher returned it for a touchdown) and blocked a punt for a touchdown. The five takeaways pushed the season total through eight games to a league-best 28. Chicago is plus-16 through eight games, a vital reason they're 7-1 and the defensive scourge of pro football right now.
It was intriguing to listen to Tillman afterward discussing the turnover philosophy that runs through the defense, one that SI detailed in January. "This week,'' he said, "our whole motto was, 'Let's start fast. Defense, let's force a turnover on the first play of the game.' ''
And he did, punching the ball out from wideout Kenny Britt's grasp -- on the first Tennessee offensive play. Tillman is expert at punching the ball when a ballcarrier seems to have it securely held. He did it later in the game with running back Chris Johnson and tight ends Craig Stevens and Jared Cook. The Bears recovered three of the fumbles, turning two into touchdowns. "I guess I have gotten good over the years at punching,'' Tillman said. "And if I don't get the punch or the forced fumble, the majority of the time I get the tackle."
Urlacher told Tillman he wanted to score a touchdown Sunday. (Why not? Seemingly everyone else on defense has this crazy season.) Tillman said he told Urlacher, "Call it, man. The tongue has the power of life and death. Call it, say it, speak it, believe it. He did, and he got in the end zone.''
Then Tillman channeled his inner Iverson. "Our whole motto on defense is 'score,' '' he said. "We practice it every single day. Practice.''
He sounded like Allen Iverson just then, but no one in the media crowd got the message.
"You like that reference?'' he said. "You're supposed to laugh!''
I have a feeling the Bears laughed most of the flight home to Chicago.