Who should coach the Colts next season?
Usually, this type of talk is premature, but the recent news that Andrew Luck had a setback in his rehab and will be temporarily shut down for now (and possibly for the season) puts the writing on the wall that 2017 will be a “lost year” for the Indianapolis Colts.
And unfortunately for Chuck Pagano, it almost certainly means that it’ll be his last season with the franchise. You can’t blame Pagano for the team struggling without Luck; in fact, going 2-4 this season (and 8-8 in 2015) without Luck is arguably a feather in Pagano’s cap. He’s a likable guy who usually encourages his team to play hard. However, Pagano entered the year squarely on the hot seat. 2017 wasn’t about whether he’d lose his job — it was about whether he could save his job. He won’t have that chance anymore.
With an eye to 2018, here are the candidates that GM Chris Ballard may consider in his place.
Jon Gruden, ESPN
Jon Gruden hasn’t coached since 2008, but he’s been linked to head coaching jobs ever since. For the most part, it’s been silly conjecture and pure contract leverage. After all, he’s in as cushy of a job as you get, earning millions for a few hours of work every week. Normally coaches don’t want to give up that good life for the daily grind and heartache of being a head coach.
But if there was ever a job that could lure Jon Gruden out of retirement, it’d be this Colts job. You get the sense that he’s still got that coaching itch, particularly in regards to the idea of mentoring a legitimate franchise QB in his prime. He may still have gas left in the tank for that challenge; he’s still only 54 years old. At the end of the day, it’s intriguing, but it’s still in the “unlikely” category.
Jim Harbaugh, head coach, Michigan
Similarly, Jim Harbaugh’s unlikely to jump back into the NFL. He probably wants to stay at his alma mater now that he has the Wolverines rolling once again. But then again: maybe that’s the justification why he would leave. He’s achieved a lot in Ann Arbor already and has the program back in the top 10 conversation. Sure, his goal would be to win a national championship, but that’s difficult when other powerhouses like Alabama have a natural talent advantage. Right now, Harbaugh could theoretically leave Michigan with his head held high and chase his other dream of winning the Super Bowl with his former QB Andrew Luck.
Ultimately, I still believe Harbaugh will stay at Michigan for the long haul, which is why he’s in this category as well.
David Shaw, head coach, Stanford
David Shaw, Harbaugh’s successor at Stanford, is unlikely to leave his perch as well. After all, like Harbaugh, he’s coaching at his alma mater and “dream job” himself. He’s in a good situation at the school, too; Stanford doesn’t expect national titles. As long as Shaw continues to have them in conference title contention year after year, he’s a hero.
However, the idea of Shaw jumping to the NFL isn’t as ridiculous as it may be with other college coaches. He had been an assistant in the NFL for 8 years prior to returning to the college ranks. Shaw’s game management but err on the conservative side, but he’s an extremely player and media-friendly presence that could thrive as a head coach for a long long time. He’s still only 45 years old.
But again, I’m calling this “unlikely,” because it’s hard to pry away a man who can keep his job for 20+ years for the uncertainty of the NFL.
Best realistic candidates
(3) Matt Nagy, offensive coordinator, Kansas City
Before the season, I listed young OC Matt Nagy as a “dark horse” candidate for head coaching jobs. But based on the Chiefs’ strong start, he may be the top coaching candidate of the offseason. His Arena League background has shown in the Kansas City offense this year, which appears more aggressive than ever. And while Nagy is only 39 years old, that may actually help his prospects given the success of baby Sean McVay with the Rams. Further, Colts GM Chris Ballard will be familiar with Nagy, coming from the Kansas City organization previously.
The question here isn’t about Matt Nagy’s coaching skill, but more about fit with the roster. Right now the Colts have a solid brain trust on the offensive side of the ball with OC Rob Chudzinski and assistant Joe Philbin, both former head coaches. They complement each other well and helped manage one of Andrew Luck’s most efficient seasons in 2016. Nagy may help coax even more out of Luck than that duo, but it’s hard to argue that’s one of the biggest needs on the team.
(2) Teryl Austin, defensive coordinator, Detroit Lions
Usually, teams hire a coach with the opposite resume as their recently fired one. Given that, it’d be rare for a team like the Colts to follow up a defensive coordinator – turned rookie head coach like Chuck Pagano with another defensive coordinator – turned rookie head coach. In fact, both Pagano and Teryl Austin cut their teeth on the same Baltimore Ravens coaching staff as well.
But despite that, I still think Austin would be an “upgrade” from Chuck Pagano. He’s a charismatic leader who immediately strikes you as a leader of men. If his fresh voice can spark the defense some — even into an above-average unit — then the Colts will be true playoff contenders again.
(1) Dave Toub, special teams coordinator, Kansas City
Special teams coordinators always get overlooked as head coaching candidates, despite their success with the transition throughout history. Given that, it’s a shame that Dave Toub has never gotten his chance yet considering the fact that he’s arguably the best special teams coach of all-time. His units with Devin Hester and the Chicago Bears were legendary, and he’s carried over that same success to Kansas City. Since joining the Chiefs, the team has returned 10 kicks for touchdowns. Their opponents? Zero.
Now I’m not going to sit here and argue that “special teams is a third of the game!” because it’s not. Football Outsiders and other statisticians value its impact as around 1/8 of a team’s success. But that’s not something to ignore. In fact, that 1/8 can mean the difference between winning and losing in a league where parity has run amok. It’s no coincidence that Toub’s Bears and Chiefs were both playoff staples despite not having a Hall of Fame QB on the roster.
If Dave Toub is ever going to get his chance, this Indianapolis Colts team (or the Bears, down the road) may be his best bet. GM Chris Ballard would know Toub’s acumen firsthand from his days in Kansas City. He could pair Toub with good coordinators (Chud/Philbin on offense, Mike Pettine on defense?), and have a staff that can finally take this team to the promised land.