INDIANAPOLIS -- What the Chuck?
In an ignominious moment that took the air out of a surprisingly tense Sunday Night Football showdown between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts -- you know, the defending Super Bowl champs, and the rival organization whose official complaint during last January's AFC Championship Game triggered the deflated-ball controversy that engulfed an entire offseason -- Chuck Pagano sabotaged his team's chances with what might have been the most ruinous and farcical fake-punt call in NFL history.
If it seems absurd that a man who has guided the Colts to 11-5 records and playoff appearances in each of his three seasons (though interim coach Bruce Arians was responsible for nine of those victories when Pagano was battling leukemia in 2012) could be in danger of losing his job -- well, that's life in the Land of (Andrew) Luck. There was already a possibility that owner Jim Irsay will feel compelled to move on from Pagano at season's end, and it certainly didn't get any less likely based on Sunday's events.
Were Pagano's critics looking for a signature moment to make their case for change, they could not have gotten a more indelible and unfathomable one than the surreal scene that played out with 1:14 remaining in the third quarter.
The setup: Though the game was handicapped by many as a vengeful fantasy for deflated-ball defendant Tom Brady, and despite the fact that the Pats had manhandled Indy in two meetings last season, the Colts (3-3) had come out looking crisp and competitive. Luck, who'd missed the previous two games with an injury to his throwing shoulder, had guided Indy to a 21-20 halftime lead, with a pair of pinpoint touchdown passes sandwiched around safety Mike Adams' second-quarter pick-six of Brady, the first interception thrown by the great quarterback this season -- one that clearly wasn't his fault.
Now the Pats led 27-21, and the Colts faced a fourth-and-3 at their own 37. On came the punt team -- and all sanity disappeared.
After deploying in a conventional alignment, nine Indy players shifted to their right and lined up in a stance over ... well, not the ball, but a phantom ball ... and, as it turned out, illegally. Meanwhile, receiver Griff Whalen -- who is generously listed at 5 feet 11, 190 pounds -- stood over the real ball, with safety Colt Anderson behind him as the de facto quarterback.
The notion that a team coached by Bill Belichick, whose meticulous preparation for such arcane situations is the stuff of legend, would fall for the ruse was preposterous.
The sight of Whalen snapping the ball to Anderson and getting steamrolled as the helpless ball carrier was smothered by PatriotsBrandon Bolden and Logan Ryan for a one-yard loss -- with three other New England players (Jon Bostic, Nate Ebner and Matthew Slater) in position to stop Anderson short had he somehow wriggled free -- was sheer lunacy.
As Whalen snapped the ball, even Anderson appeared to be caught off guard -- while 66,726 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium and millions of television viewers screamed in unison: "Paga-nooooooooo!"
Six plays later, Brady would throw an 11-yard touchdown pass to LeGarrette Blount to give the Pats a 13-point cushion, and New England was never seriously challenged thereafter.
Pagano's decision was not so fortunate, and later, as the Colts confronted their disappointment in the locker room, some of them weren't shy about venting.
"I don't know what the (expletive) that was," one Indy player said of the fake. "I mean, go right at them, play them straight up ... but don't just give it to them."
It was so bad, even Michigan punter Blake O'Neill was probably cursing Pagano's decision in his Ann Arbor abode.
Indy had worked on the play in practice during the week and, said a third Colts player, "it made no sense to me then, either."
After the fact, the premise remained nonsensical. Perhaps if the Colts had been able to shift the ball to the right via mental telepathy, the play would have had a prayer of succeeding.
Afterward, their attempts to explain the call were also clunky and ineffective.
"I take responsibility," Pagano said. "The whole idea there was on a fourth-and-3 or less, shift to an alignment where you either catch them misaligned, they try to sub some people in, catch 'em with more men on the field, 12 men on the field, and if you get a certain look, you've got three yards, two yards, you can make a play. But, again, we shifted over and I didn't a good enough job of coaching it during the week. Alignment-wise, we weren't lined up correctly, and then a communication breakdown between the quarterback and the snapper and that's all on me.
"I take full responsibility on that, and I didn't do a good enough job of getting that communicated to the guys, and obviously it played a huge factor in this loss, given the field position at the point in the game and the touchdown that resulted from that."
Whalen and Anderson each stuck with the vague miscommunication theme, with the former saying, "Obviously ... we shouldn't have done it. It was a miscommunication between all of us, between us and the coaches and everything. We'll take a look at it tomorrow and get it all worked out."
Pagano, whose 3-3 team remains atop the flaccid AFC South, has plenty to ponder. Having turned down an offer for a one-year extension to his contract, which expires after the season -- and thus, essentially, betting on himself to come up big in 2015 -- Pagano undoubtedly understands the stakes.
Last month, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport reported that people close to the coach believe Pagano has "doubts" he'll return to Indy next year. They can't be any more confident after Sunday.
Though general manager Ryan Grigson has downplayed reports of tension between him and Pagano, the coach seemed to take a shot at the team's talent level after a Week 2 defeat to the New York Jets, suggesting that the Colts have had longstanding offensive-line issues that have yet to be remedied. Thus far, Grigson has refrained from firing back.
The final say likely will belong to Irsay, who could not be reached for comment after the game. Though Luck struggled early in the season, he is considered the NFL's most promising young quarterback and likely will command a second contract that makes him the league's highest-paid player. His presence should make the Indy job extremely attractive to potential replacements, and the owner might choose to consider some high-profile options, given Pagano's impending free-agent status.
It's also possible Irsay, like most people at Lucas Oil Stadium Sunday night, believes Pagano's gaffe in such a high-profile game was unconscionable, and that it will factor into the owner's ultimate assessment.
Other than that, Pagano didn't really have a whole lot on the line when Whalen snapped that ball to Anderson.
In fairness, Pagano seemed to recognize the urgency of the moment heading into Sunday's game, and it resonated with his players. After Luck methodically drove Indy down the field on the game's opening drive, Pagano elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the New England 5 -- and Donte Moncrief made a terrific catch of a fade from Luck on the left side of the end zone, giving the Colts a 7-0 lead.
After Adams' 14-yard interception for a touchdown put Indy up 14-10 with 11:30 left in the second quarter, Pagano called for an onside kick -- which replays seemed to show a Colts player recovering. However, officials ruled that the Patriots had possession and declined to overturn the call after Pagano threw his challenge flag.
"Look, we knew we were gonna be aggressive," veteran linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said afterward. "So, you know what? As a defense, we've gotta do our job.
"Chuck put it out there. We've got to back him up, man. That was the mindset going out on that field -- we've got to make sure we protect him. (After the fake punt failed), we've got to find a way to stop their offense on a short field. We didn't, and he's gonna take the blame. But he shouldn't."
When I brought up the subject of Pagano's job security, Jackson shook his head and said, "Man, listen: I don't even want to think about that. He's the right guy for the job, and we'd do anything for that guy."
Right now, if the Colts want to do something for Pagano, they'll invent a time machine and transport him back to the middle of the third quarter. Failing that, they'll need to play the way they played in the first half of Sunday's game for much of the rest of the season -- and, most likely, elevate their game in the playoffs.