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Ryan Grigson, the Colts' rookie general manager, was out for a rare midweek dinner in downtown Indianapolis in mid-November, mid-menu study, when his cellphone chirped. Grigson looked down. "Chuck," he said, shaking his head with a laugh, as if to say, Chuck Pagano is blowing up my cell. Again.
The leukemia-stricken coach of the Colts was on the line. Strategy call? Update on his treatment?
"Hey," Pagano said, in a voice raspy from chemotherapy, "don't forget, we gotta get a game ball made for Darius Butler."
The news had just come out: Butler, signed by the Colts in late September, earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his two interceptions, including a pick-six, in a 27--10 victory over the Jaguars. Pagano might have a port protruding from his chest to receive regular chemo cocktails, but he still gets video uploads of Colts practices every day on his iPad, and he still fires off text messages to players and coaches. The recipients were at first stunned by this intimate involvement—a man fighting for his life, yet coaching well into the night, every night. "He catches everything," Butler says. "He barely knows me, and one day there's a text: 'Be careful with your eyes.' He saw me peeking into the backfield when I should have been concentrating on my man. It's like he's on the practice field, the stuff he writes."
The easy story behind the Colts—8--4 following a 20--13 victory over the Bills on Sunday—goes like this: Led by precocious rookie Andrew Luck and motivated by their first-year coach's battle with cancer, a team with the worst record in football a year ago plays over its head, inspires a city and makes a stunning run at the playoffs. That's the framework of the story, the one everyone's running with. But it's shallow. Way too shallow.
The Colts have transitioned so quickly from the Peyton Manning era—the locals going from bemoaning the loss of the greatest quarterback they'd ever seen to embracing a new one in what seemed like 10 minutes—that it's worth retracing how it all came about.
We could start with the hiring of the 40-year-old Grigson, a former beat-the-bushes scout who has churned the roster like no other G.M. in football. Of the 61 players on his active and practice squads, 42 weren't on the roster the day he took over in January. That's 69% turnover. "Our depth chart is a living, breathing organism," says Grigson, whose leading tackler is Jerrell Freeman, a 26-year-old rookie from mighty Mary Hardin--Baylor (Texas) by way of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and whose fifth cornerback, Teddy Williams, signed in Week 9, is an All-America sprinter who never played a down of college football. Then there's Butler, the aforementioned corner. Three hours before his big game in Jacksonville, his sixth since he joined the team, he walked down the aisle of the team bus, past some coaches.
"Who's that?" quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen asked another assistant.
"That's Butler, the corner," he was told. "He's playing tonight."
Retelling the story, Christensen says, "Usually you've got two or three guys on a team you may not know because there's some transition during the season. But here ... I bet if you lined up our 30 defensive players [on the active roster and practice squad], I wouldn't know 15 of them."