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Broncos, Texans have example to follow in Chuckstrong Colts

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From the very beginning, Chuck Pagano kept a depth chart beside his hospital bed. When the chemotherapy weakened him, Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson would stop by and move the names to keep it current.

The texts and phone calls from Pagano to Colts players came so frequently -- sometimes during games, to remind a defensive player to set the edge, sometimes late at night -- that punter Pat McAfee used to wonder about his coach.

"Don't you have something you should be doing?" McAfee said he asked Pagano, during a conversation we had last winter. "Shouldn't you be beating leukemia right now?"

It turned out, happily, that Pagano was beating leukemia last year in a way that perhaps only another coach could understand: with a relentless plan to stay involved in team matters that was made up as the Colts went along, swimming through their fear of the unknown for Pagano and the confusion of the uncharted for the team.

"There was no blueprint to follow," Grigson said this week. "You couldn't even call another owner and ask anybody. There wasn't another situation like this."

This week, jarringly, there are two.

When Denver Broncos coach John Fox went to the hospital last weekend with shortness of breath, one day before Houston Texans boss Gary Kubiak collapsed on the field, the irony and agony were not lost on Grigson. Last year, he had nobody to talk to about how to proceed with a season when the head coach was ailing and absent. This week, John Elway called Grigson for advice on what responsibilities his interim head coach, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, should shoulder and how to handle the transition while Fox recovers from surgery to replace a heart valve. Kubiak could return to work next week after suffering what has been termed a mini-stroke; in the meantime, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips will act as the head coach. But Fox is likely to be out for several more weeks -- he remains hospitalized -- setting the Broncos on almost exactly the same path the Colts were on at this time last season: that of a team trying to keep itself steady so everything will be ready when the head coach is well enough to return.

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Much already has been written about the immense toll of coaching in the NFL. But Grigson's recollections of last season, one very short on sleep and long on late-night phone calls and meetings with team owner Jim Irsay, speak to the strain that a head coach's absence places on the entire organization as it scrambles to keep going. While Grigson's inexperience as a first-year GM might have added to his worries, the Broncos have another burden. The Colts were surprisingly successful last season as they rebuilt their roster, but the Broncos have the pressure of being favorites to make it to the Super Bowl.

From the outset of Pagano's illness, the Colts' stated goal was to extend the season long enough for Pagano to return. Grigson said he felt he had to be at work nearly around the clock because someone had to have a hand on the wheel. He was so immersed in the day-to-day operation of the team that only after the season was over did he realize the Colts never lost consecutive games. There were middle-of-the-night conference calls with Pagano's doctors to discuss how his treatment was going, and conversations with interim head coach Bruce Arians about personnel needs. Where once Grigson would walk into Pagano's adjoining office to figure something out, Grigson often was operating almost alone, bent on minimizing what he called "the background noise" for Arians. For example, Grigson had to decide who would do the coach's show (settling on a rotating cast of assistants) and figure out the protocol for sideline visitors.

"It was like dog years for me," Grigson said. "Last year, every day, you got to the end of the day and you had nothing left. You realize that physical stress is so much easier than mental anguish. That's the stuff that beats the crud out of you. It's like a 15-round fight every day. You're dealing with so much emotion. You're winning and you have these highs and lows here, then you see Chuck in the hospital and he's losing his hair."

Because of the expected length of Fox's absence, the Broncos are likely to endure something similar -- and in some ways, they already have. When last weekend's incidents occurred, the Broncos and Texans, like the Colts last year, were fortunate in one significant respect: They each had on staff a man with head-coaching experience, someone familiar with the minutiae that job often entails.

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"The biggest thing that I learned during that was just do my job, which was the offensive coordinator, and keep the seat warm for Chuck until he got back," said Arians, who served as a head coach at Temple in the 1980s and now is the Arizona Cardinals' head man. "I'm sure that they'll do the same things over there."

Perhaps so. Del Rio, who will continue to call defensive plays during the game, has spoken to Arians about how he juggled being the play-caller and being the head coach. Del Rio told reporters Wednesday he was taking almost no role in managing the offense -- which is largely run by Peyton Manning -- beyond making in-game decisions on fourth down.

"I think, really, that's what it's about; something occurs, you've got to adjust, and how do you handle it," Del Rio said. "And can you get your focus back, get back in the groove and do the things you need to do, and I feel really good about the way things started this week."

Like Del Rio, Arians changed almost nothing, keeping practice and meeting schedules exactly as Pagano had planned. Arians was determined never to allow the light in Pagano's office to be turned off, so the Colts put locks on the switch to make sure it was never flipped.

On many days, Arians would talk to Pagano directly and then deliver Pagano's message to the team, allowing him to coach in absentia. Arians, said one player, acted almost as a ventriloquist. Quarterback Andrew Luck said the transition was so seamless that it was almost as if Pagano was not gone at all. Meanwhile, Grigson had received a particular order from Irsay. He would watch "Thursday Night Football" with Pagano, and they'd talk about the Colts. And Grigson would visit Pagano at home. But Irsay told his GM he also had to be a steward, to make sure Pagano did not try to do too much too soon and suffer a setback.

"All we wanted to do throughout the entire process was to make sure that the only thing he could worry about was getting well and having no setbacks," Grigson said. "We were trying to achieve the right balance from our end. These head coaches aren't where they are because they are soft. He would have gone out there with his team with an IV in his arm. You have to be 100 percent to work in this league. You can't be out there when you're trying to recuperate."

That almost certainly is something the Broncos will have to be aware of, too. Fox is immensely popular with his players, and they undoubtedly will be anxious for his return, although a date for that has not yet been set. In the Colts' case, one of Grigson's sharpest memories of last season was sitting with Irsay and realizing that Pagano's expected return date was Christmas Eve.

"Are you kidding me?" Grigson recalled thinking. "You can't make this up."

Arians handed the baton back to Pagano as soon as he returned, selflessness that Grigson said was an example of human beings at their finest. And by the time the playoffs began, the only reminders of Pagano's ordeal were a small Chuckstrong sign in the locker room, tiny orange stickers with his initials on each player's nameplate and all the text messages and emails the coach had sent. A few weeks after he returned to work, Pagano had so completely resumed his normal routine that, he told me at the time, when he reflected with his wife and family, it was surreal: "Did we actually just go through what we went through?"

They did. And now Pagano's experience, and the few mementos that remain, will serve as guideposts for other teams hoping to emerge with a successful season and a healthier coach.

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Here are 10 more things to ponder heading into Week 10:

1) How does the firestorm surrounding Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin affect the Dolphins and their playoff push? At the simplest level, Miami has to figure out how to protect Ryan Tannehill. The second-year signal-caller has been sacked 35 times -- the most in the NFL this season, just two fewer than the Dolphins' total for the entire 2012 campaign -- and now is missing two starters on the offensive line. The Dolphins play the Buccaneers in the Dysfunction Bowl on Monday night.

2) How do the Packers cope without Aaron Rodgers? Coach Mike McCarthy said the offense, which is second overall and third in scoring, won't change with backup Seneca Wallace, but Green Bay converted just 11.1 percent of third-down chances against Chicago on Monday night. It was the worst figure in the NFL in Week 9, a striking dip for a team that ranked third in that category to that point in the season. The Packers' rushing offense is second in the league, though, and that could get more attention while Rodgers is out.

3) Can Nick Foles put a stranglehold on the Eagles' starting quarterback job after his seven-touchdown day? Philadelphia hasn't beaten a team with a winning record this season, and Green Bay's defense is allowing fewer yards as the season progresses, giving up just 309.4 yards per game over the past five contests.

4) Who will win the battle between two of the NFL's hottest teams? Can the Carolina Panthers' third-ranked defense (a unit that also has 12 interceptions) slow a San Francisco 49ers offense that has scored at least 30 points in five consecutive games?

5) Will Aldon Smith return to action? Smith recently was activated by the 49ers after missing five consecutive games while away for rehabilitation. Despite the time lost, Smith still leads the team with 4.5 sacks. His return would be a major reinforcement for a defense that has given up just 12.2 points per game since Week 4 -- but was tied for 25th in sacks (17) entering this week's play.

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6) Will punters get the day off in Broncos-Chargers? These are the league's two best offenses on third down, with Denver converting on 50.5 percent of its chances and San Diego on 47.9. There is one way to stop the Broncos: force a fumble. They lead the league with 11 lost fumbles this season, including four by Peyton Manning. That might not help the Chargers, though, as they rank dead last in turnovers forced -- and are the only team in the league without a multiple-takeaway game this season.

7) Can the Bears' declining defense slow the Lions' explosive offense? It's a critical NFC North matchup between two 5-3 teams. Detroit won the first meeting in September behind 139 rushing yards from Reggie Bush -- his only 100-yard rushing game of the season thus far. But he is accounting for 25 percent of the Lions' yards from scrimmage -- one percent more than Calvin Johnson.

8) Which defense gets up off the mat in Cowboys-Saints? New Orleans -- Rob Ryan's current team -- has given up as many points in its last three games (73) as it did in its first five. Dallas, which dumped Ryan and hired Monte Kiffin, is one of just two NFL teams giving up more than 300 passing yards per game. Drew Brees has thrown 21 touchdown passes for the Saints, and Tony Romo has 20 for the Cowboys -- though Romo might struggle to go deep Sunday. Romo's passer rating on throws of at least 21 yards is 101.7. On throws that deep, New Orleans' defense has allowed quarterbacks a passer rating of just 18.7 -- the lowest in the league.

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9) Can Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton right himself after committing four turnovers last Thursday? Dalton, who had thrown 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in the three games preceding the loss to the Dolphins, is just 1-3 in his career against the Ravens. The Bengals lead the AFC North by two games over the Browns.

10) Will Russell Wilson spend the rest of the season under siege? Seahawks quarterbacks have been hurried more times (51) than any others in the league, and Wilson has been under pressure on nearly half of his dropbacks. The Falcons, though, have just 18 sacks this season. And Atlanta might devote more energy to stopping Marshawn Lynch after giving up at least 100 rushing yards in five consecutive games.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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