There is no way new Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano can spin the departure of Peyton Manning as a positive.
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Wisely, Pagano didn’t plan to try Monday when his club opened its first offseason workout program since 1999 without Manning in the fold.
Pagano is realistic about where the Colts stand as an organization after finishing last season with a 2-14 record followed by three months of personnel bloodletting. Manning — a future Hall of Fame selection and face of the franchise since 1998 — was released because of health and contract considerations. Other mainstays like center Jeff Saturday, tight end Dallas Clark, wide receiver Pierre Garcon, running back Joe Addai, safety Melvin Bullitt, right guard Ryan Diem, and linebacker Gary Brackett were cut, signed elsewhere in free agency or retired.
Those eight players combined for 70 years of NFL experience — all with the Colts.
“You’re talking about losing one of, if not the best quarterbacks to ever play this game,” Pagano said last week at the NFL annual meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. “Some of the other players (released) because of cap issues and things like that we’re going to have to replace. We’re going to be playing with a rookie quarterback probably.
“Those are just some of the things looking ahead that you’ve got to piece together.”
Pagano doesn’t plan on trying to assemble this puzzle alone.
Pagano hopes the low outside expectations surrounding Indianapolis for the 2012 season can provide the kind of player motivation and inspiration that will help the Colts accelerate the rebuilding process.
“My biggest thing is we’re going to challenge each and every one of them,” said Pagano, who met with Colts players en masse Monday for the first time since his January hiring.
“Even though we’ve lost some great players, it’s next man up. It’s a great opportunity not only for myself and the coaching staff we put together but these players who have been waiting in the wings, so to speak, to get out there and showcase their talent.”
This is especially true at quarterback. There are only two currently on the roster: Drew Stanton and Trevor Vittatoe.
More than anything accomplished in four nondescript seasons with Detroit, Stanton is best known in the NFL for getting shafted by the New York Jets last month when they acquired Tim Tebow as Mark Sanchez’s new backup. Vittatoe was headed to the Arena League before the Colts signed him in February as a developmental prospect.
The cavalry will arrive later this month when Indianapolis selects a quarterback with the draft’s top overall pick. But while Stanford’s Andrew Luck (the heavy favorite) or Baylor’s Robert Griffin III has the potential to become the Colts’ next marquee passer, whoever takes the reins faces intense post-Manning scrutiny as well as the challenge of playing on a squad that is admittedly in rebuilding mode.
That’s why team leadership must initially come from another source. Pagano believes it will emanate most from what he calls the “three pillars” – wide receiver Reggie Wayne and outside linebackers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Like Manning, each member of that trio seemed like a potential goner earlier in the offseason. The Colts, though, inked Mathis to a long-term contract extension in late February. After initially testing free agency, Wayne decided to re-sign and not wait for a possible reunion elsewhere with Manning as the quarterback weighed his options. And although Freeney counts $19 million against the $120 million salary cap, the Colts have opted to honor the final year of his contract.
“It’s huge,” Pagano said of being able to retain Wayne, Freeney and Mathis. “They’ve been such great players there for a long time and great in the community. They’re guys our fans obviously can relate to. They’re just going to be great leaders for us. It’s going to help not only myself but everybody else to get us back on track.”
Pagano, though, also realizes those Colts mainstays will be going through some adjustments themselves. Not only does Wayne have to build chemistry with a new quarterback, he also must learn the new system being installed by ex-Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
Freeney and Mathis are being forced to make an even more radical change. They will shift from being 4-3 ends in a Tampa-2 scheme to playing outside linebacker in the 3-4 that Pagano ran last season as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator.
Mathis wrote on his Twitter account that the Colts will deploy him in a role similar to the one played by ex-Ravens linebacker Jarrett Johnson. Freeney, too, will be expected to drop into coverage at times and play off the line of scrimmage. Both players will be trying to make this switch for the first time in their 30s.
Ex-Colts president and general manager Bill Polian has questioned whether Freeney can be effective in that role. Appearing as my co-host on Sirius XM NFL Radio, Polian said both he and then-head coach Tony Dungy thought Freeney shouldn’t play from a standing position when making him a 2002 first-round draft pick. Freeney has enjoyed his greatest career success when aligned as a seven- or nine-technique end outside the left tackle.
Pagano said he understands why so much is being made of how Freeney and Mathis will fit in his defense but also added that “a little bit is blown out of proportion some.”
“They say, ‘Chuck Pagano, he’s this 3-4 guy coming to town,’” he said. “We’ve said it from Day 1: We’re not going to try to fit a square peg into a round hole. We’re going to put these guys in the best possible position to be successful. There will be some different things for them. But at the end of the day, if we’re not sending them forward and after the quarterback, then we’re not very smart.”
It’s now up to Pagano and new general manager Ryan Grigson to make Colts owner Jim Irsay look like a genius for radically overhauling his franchise and placing them in charge. Irsay was excited enough Monday morning to send a Twitter message espousing a “new era” for the Colts and the “high-energy buzz” emanating from team headquarters.
“It’s a great challenge — a huge challenge,” said Pagano, an NFL defensive assistant for 10 years who is getting his first head coaching opportunity. “But ownership is unbelievable. Jim Irsay is a great man. I’ve had a ton of support in the building. Teaming up with Ryan, I can only see great things moving forward for us.”
After taking so many steps backward in the past year, the offseason program in Indianapolis couldn’t have started soon enough.