INDIANAPOLIS –In the last three seasons, Chuck Pagano has tasted defeat in every playoff round except the Super Bowl.
Joining Indianapolis after reaching the conference finals, Pagano took his second squad past the Wild Card round, and he still has sights on a bigger future.
"This is one of the tougher days in football," said Pagano Monday as players who toiled selflessly since April departed for the off-season. "The finality of it, it's hard to prepare for. We all signed up for greater things."
Twenty of 32 teams did not make the playoffs and eight more have been dismissed. The letdown of Saturday's 43-22 loss at New England still hung palpably with Pagano, but he could frame achievements that happened.
"We had a great season and accomplished a lot," said Pagano. "To follow up an 11-5 first year with another 11-win season, a division championship, sweep the division, win a home playoff game, I think we took the next step in building this program.
"We talked about building a program for sustained success. We definitely took a step forward. I told guys, 'Hold your head high.' I'm very, very proud of the players and coaches for what they accomplished."
The business of the off-season that was in motion in other departments outside the coaching area now includes the coaching staff.
Indianapolis has a number of players who could be unrestricted free agents later in the spring. Some are household names like Antoine Bethea, Donald Brown and Adam Vinatieri.
Time spent previously on game plans now will focus on 2014 in a business that knows no end.
"We got a lot of decisions to make," said Pagano. "Ryan (Grigson) and I have not had an opportunity yet to discuss the roster. At some point in the upcoming days, we'll have a chance to discuss that.
"We will begin the evaluation process, starting with ourselves, starting with myself. Our coaches will turn every stone. We will look to get better in every area that we need to improve on. That starts with research."
Indianapolis used 73 different players to get through 18 games. Among high points was being the second NFL team in 26 years to lead the league in fewest turnovers (14) and penalties (66).
Among points of emphasis could be tightening a defense that yielded 125 rushing yards per game, including five of the last seven outings (playoffs included) where opponents rushed for 150-plus yards.
Indianapolis gave up 87 points in two playoff games, rarely played with an even scoreboard and held its only lead for 4:21 – after overcoming a 38-10 deficit to Kansas City.
Those were moments at the end that were only possible after a gutty, early-season response to crippling injuries.
Indianapolis lost four offensive starters for the season in the first three weeks, then Reggie Wayne was shelved after the seventh game. Like Pagano in 2012, players did not crumple under circumstance.
"We had to overcome a lot of injuries (and) adversity," said Pagano. "These guys stuck to the process, never wavered, never batted an eyelash (and) never flinched.
"That's a credit to our coaches and players. They've got a ton of grit, resolve, resiliency, perseverance, anything that you want to use to describe them."
It is impossible to quantify the hours spent and the time sacrificed to get where the Colts ventured in 2013. Pagano feels the future is bright and offered a peek at the organization's internal resolve.
"They (players and coaches) sacrificed everything," said Pagano. I want to thank (them) for their commitment, their dedication to the horseshoe. It's unwavering.
"Our ultimate goal, we fell short of, but we will never stop chasing that as long as we're living and breathing and upright. Looking to the future, it looks very bright going into year three of our program."
COLTS NOTES –Pagano could not offer injury updates on Stanley Havili, Josh Gordy, Hugh Thornton and Darius Butler, four players hurt at New England. "(They're) still being evaluated as to whether they'll need or require some sort of surgery. As far as the (17) IR guys go, the latest update that I have (is) all those guys are working extremely hard to get back to 100 percent."
ALOHA COACHES –Indianapolis will be one of the coaching staffs involved at the Pro Bowl played January 26 in Honolulu.
"Fortunately for the coaching staff and well-deserved, they get to go to Hawaii, because of the circumstances of how the Pro Bowl coaches are determined now," said Pagano. "It'll be a well-deserved break for those guys.
"It's not a real grind as far as meetings and practice and things like that. Those guys are excited about it and much-deserved for them."
COLTS NOTES –When free agency starts in March, 18 Colts are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents – Pat Angerer, Antoine Bethea, Ahmad Bradshaw, Deion Branch, Donald Brown, Sergio Brown, Kavell Conner, Vontae Davis, Aubrayo Franklin, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jeff Linkenbach, Ricardo Mathews, Pat McAfee, Mike McGlynn, Fili Moala, Lawrence Sidbury, Cassius Vaughn, Adam Vinatieri. Joe Reitz and Josh Gordy could be restricted free agents.