GREEN BAY, Wis. — This is not a normal week of practice for the Indianapolis Colts, and interim head coach Bruce Arians isn’t trying to pretend that it is.
As the Colts prepare to host the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, they are doing so without first-year head coach Chuck Pagano. Earlier this week, Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia, and he may be hospitalized for up to two months as he undergoes treatment.
“I don’t consider myself the head coach,” Arians said in a Wednesday conference call. “I’ve just expanded my coordinator role and leadership role within the organization until Chuck comes back.”
Colts owner Jim Irsay has stated that he does not expect Pagano, 52, to return this season in a full-time coaching capacity. As the team adjusts to its head coach being away under such difficult circumstances, Arians hopes that the players and coaches can at least achieve a relatively smooth transition.
“It’s going to take time,” Arians said. “What we do is find that safe haven that’s called football and come to the office, get into the routine that Chuck has put in place and stay on our schedule and stay focused. When we’re on the field, we can leave all that behind.
“But after practice, then it’s not going to go away. Just like anything else with your family, if your mother was sick or your kids were sick, you have to leave it behind when you’re out on the field and in the meetings and then deal with it at the proper time.”
Indianapolis had a Week 4 bye, which allowed the coaching staff to enjoy a bit more time off than during a regular game week. Prior to that, though, Pagano — despite his undiagnosed (at the time) medical condition — seemed like the same person to Arians.
“We actually joked about it,” Arians said. “We said, ‘Man, we can’t wait for this open date,’ and thank God it came early this year. We had been going at it nonstop since he took the job. With his energy and enthusiasm, I didn’t see a drop-off. I didn’t see anything that would have led me to believe that this was happening. That’s why it was such a shock to everybody.”
Arians, who at age 60 has never been a head coach in the NFL, joined Pagano’s staff in Indianapolis this offseason. Most recently, Arians was the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2007-11.
Just because Pagano is in treatment doesn’t mean he’s not involved with the Colts. He and Arians are frequently sending each other text messages and plan to talk Wednesday afternoon right after practice.
“Mostly (we talk about) football because that’s what we like to talk about,” Arians said. “The other things, they’re very evident in voice and what happens to you when you go through chemo.”
When Arians first addressed the team this week after the news of Pagano’s health became public, his message was quite simple.
“It was ‘One play at a time, one day at a time; We’re going to get through it,'” Arians said. “Chuck has laid the foundation what it takes to win here, and they all know what that foundation is: family, faith, football, loyalty to each other, hard work, effort. We just continue to build on what we started until he comes back.
“I’m not overly involved in trying to do something out of the ordinary. Just do what we do and then we’ll be fine.”
For rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, who will be trying to improve the Colts to a 2-2 record this Sunday in his fourth NFL start, this certainly wasn’t the way he expected to return to practice following the bye week.
“I think guys are still sort of in shock over it — I know I am,” Luck said in a conference call. “I don’t think I fully realized the true breadth of the situation. I think not having him out at practice on Monday was really the thing that hit guys. Obviously, we all feel for him and are all behind him 100 percent in his battle with leukemia and we’ll be behind him the whole way.
“I firmly believe he’ll make it through. I think guys also try to make sure they stay focused on the task at hand. I know that’s what he’d want. Our thoughts are definitely with him.”
Though Packers coach Mike McCarthy said he does not know Pagano on a personal level, it was an unexpected way for the week to begin, even in Green Bay.
“My heart goes out to Chuck Pagano and his family,” McCarthy said. “Our support for him will definitely be there, and we’re just wishing him well.”