INDIANAPOLIS --- One of the major takeaways from Colts Owner and CEO Jim Irsay's press conference Monday night announcing a 4-year contract extension for head coach Chuck Pagano was that Irsay's current tag team of Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson has had more success in their first four years than former GM Bill Polian.
That's high praise, considering Polian was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer but also important perspective. After a disappointing 4th season with Polian and head coach Jim Mora in 2001, Irsay made a coaching change.
This time he did not.
"Again, when I look at the old regime, the old era, you look at those first four years and you have two out of four seasons that were losing seasons. You have no playoff wins. I think again, that's with a Hall of Fame quarterback and Hall of Fame general manager now," said Irsay Monday night. "These guys have surpassed that in their first four years...So again, we're always competing against ourselves. We know we had great success, early success. That's something we are competing against. I'm really thrilled. Chuck has earned the opportunity again."
Let's compare and contrast the first four years of both regimes:
Polian-Mora-Manning 1st Four Regular Seasons
Total: 32-32 (.500)
Grigson-Pagano-Luck 1st Four Regular Seasons
Total: 41-23 (.641)
Conclusion: There's no contest when comparing the first four years of these two regimes. Grigson, Pagano, and Luck didn't have a losing season, despite the franchise quarterback missing more than half the season in year four. The Colts also only won the division once in Polian's first four years and made the playoffs twice. In Grigson and Pagano's first four years, they won the division twice and made the playoffs three times. Pagano joined Jim Harbaugh as the only coach in NFL history to win 11 games in each of his first three seasons as an NFL head coach. Only a year apart, it's also interesting to note the different directions the Colts and 49ers went after year four.
Playoff Wins 1st Four Seasons
Conclusion: Playoffs?! Once again, add one to the win column for the new regime. The 1999 Colts had the most successful regular seasons of the eight seasons we are looking at, going 13-3 and earning a 1st round bye, but it was spoiled by a 19-16 home loss in the divisional round to a powerful 13-3 Titans wild card team that came within a yard of sending the Super Bowl to overtime against the Rams. The new regime won a wild card game for the ages over the Chiefs in 2013, then dominated the Bengals before upsetting the Broncos to reach the AFC Championship in 2014.
Following a 6-10 year in season four with head coach Jim Mora, Jim Irsay opted to bring in Tony Dungy. On Monday, using that experience to help make a decision in a very similar situation, he put his faith in Chuck Pagano.
"Look, I could have walked someone in that door tonight or tomorrow night and have them come walking in with eight-figures a year on themselves or whatever and say, 'I'm making the big splash.' Look, if that was the best for us, believe me, I would do it," said Irsay Monday night. "This guy is a great coach. I mean, you don't have to go too far to ask a lot of people about what he's done."
Irsay went on to praise his general manager again as well.
"Like I said, what we did in the first four years – Bill Polian is going to the Hall of Fame. Ryan has outdone him, but it gets lost in the translation," Irsay said. "I know that everyone expects more. They want to win it all, and we wanted to win it all this year as well."
The final results of the first four seasons aren't the only indication of growth, compared to the start of a regime that brought Indianapolis the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The rosters are too, which are greatly built by the general manager with help from the head coach in recruiting free agents and developing young players.
Polian-Mora-Manning Pro Bowlers 1st Four Seasons
Grigson-Pagano-Luck Pro Bowlers 1st Four Seasons
Conclusion: Advantage - new regime. There were not only more total Pro Bowlers in the past four seasons, but if you take away multiple trips by the same player, there were still 10 different Pro Bowl players in the past four seasons compared to just 5 from 1998-2001. In the old regime, there also wasn't a single defensive Pro Bowler, compared to four defensive Pro Bowlers from 2012-2014. One could argue Robert Mathis was a product of Bill Polian, but you could also argue Reggie Wayne was a product of Chuck Pagano recruiting him to stay. It was a conscious decision by Grigson and Pagano to keep try to keep players like Mathis, Wayne, Vinatieri, and McAfee, cornerstone franchise players.
Polian-Mora-Manning Scoring Offense 1st Four Seasons
Grigson-Pagano-Luck Scoring Offense 1st Four Seasons
Conclusion: 2015 is the outlier here with the starting quarterback having missed 9 games, including the final 7 games of the season. The Polian era has the advantage here though with one of the best quarterbacks of all-time at the helm orchestrating three top-5 offensive seasons. It's interesting to see the 2001 Colts went 6-10 though, despite the #2 scoring offense in the NFL. Perhaps the scoring defense stats will shed some light on that.
Polian-Mora-Manning Scoring Defense 1st Four Seasons
2001: 31st (last)
Grigson-Pagano-Luck Scoring Defense 1st Four Seasons
Conclusion: Both eras took a step backwards in their fourth seasons, but we see the ultimate demise of Jim Mora's 2001 season, despite having the #2 scoring offense in the league. In 2001, the Colts were dead last in scoring defense by a wide margin, allowing 30.4 points per game. The 2nd worst scoring defense in 2001 was almost four points per game better, allowing 26.5 points per game. The Colts bounced back to form the #8 scoring defense in Bill Polian's 5th season. That led to a 10-6 record, after going 6-10 the previous season. Can Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano do the same?
Ultimately, Jim Irsay was on point with his explanations Monday evening. When you step back and look at the results of this regime through a wider lense and not just a disappointing 4th season, it becomes clear. The Colts are still ahead of schedule from the era that eventually brought Indianapolis a Super Bowl Champion. With the owner's backing now, Ryan Grigson, Chuck Pagano, and Andrew Luck have a mandate to move forward.