INDIANAPOLIS --- Usually when an NFL team doesn't make the playoffs, there are some players that are frustrated with the head coach, but Chuck Pagano maintained overwhelming support inside the Colts locker room after the season ended.
It started with 12-year Colts veteran Robert Mathis reversing roles after a season-ending win over the Titans. In the locker room after the game, it was Mathis who gave Pagano a game ball. It may have been a little out of Mathis's comfort zone, but it was clearly important to him to tell how the players feel about their coach.
"Game ball to a guy mind, body, and soul, literally, (who) poured it on, put it on the line, and gave us everything he got and then some," said Mathis, before any reporters were allowed in after the game. "I'm talking about our love, friendship, brotherhood, fatherhood, whatever you want to call it. We love you. Game ball for you."
An emotional Pagano accepted the football, and when the media entered the locker room both on Sunday and Monday, the sentiments for Pagano continued.
"Yeah, he's a players' coach," said left tackle Anthony Castonzo Monday. "I don't think there's a guy in this locker room who doesn't like him. We definitely love coach."
But what does that mean to be a "players' coach" in this case? How does that label manifest on a day-to-day basis over the course of the offseason program, training camp, and season?
"I really respect the man. He's a good friend and a person that really cares about us, not just as a football player but as a human being, as an individual, as a family man," said kicker Adam Vinatieri Monday, who has had six head coaches with varying coaching styles in his 20 NFL seasons (Bill Parcells, Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, and Pagano). "He's brought that family aspect to this locker room, and I think everybody really appreciates that about Chuck."
Vinatieri also said Pagano is the kind of coach that makes you want to work hard, obviously a key with any NFL head coach.
"To (the media), he says a lot of cliches and stuff like that, and he keeps it very basic with the media with the information he lets out and everything like that," said punter Pat McAfee Monday. "But to the players, he shows nothing but love and respect for us, which is what we appreciate. I'm a huge Chuck Pagano fan. I know everybody else in here is."
The players admitted Monday afternoon they didn't know if Pagano would return for 2016 before many celebrated on Twitter later that night when news broke of his 4-year contract extension.
"I don't see any reason for change," said inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson Monday afternoon, before the 9-year NFL veteran presented a very wise observation in retrospect. "There is some hope. At other places, moves have been made. There haven't been any moves that are official here. So there is hope, and we're hoping for the best."
Nostra-Jackson for the win.
"Yes, I think every guy in this locker room would say yes," defensive end Kendall Langford told reporters, when asked if he'd advocate for Pagano if asked. "If it was up to us it wouldn't even be a question...I can definitely say every guy in this locker room hopes that we have Chuck back."
Asked why the locker room was united behind Pagano despite an 8-8 season, Lanford said Pagano has proven he’s a winning coach, having made the playoffs three years in a row before that.
But strongest words for Pagano from the locker Monday came from the franchise quarterback.
"I'll tell you this. He's given his heart and soul everyday since I've been here," said Andrew Luck. "I feel like I've grown so much as a player, as a person under him. Through this season, which again was trying and disappointing, he's always been sort of a bastion of whatever that is."
Such a strong word. A fortification. A stronghold. In a person, one that strongly defends and upholds particular principles, attitudes, or activities. A word also with a connotation that implies this person is unwavering in his defense of those principles.
"A good coach," said Luck. "He's been so positive and kept everybody going, as evidenced by how hard guys played (against the Titans week 17) and getting that win."
Players like Jackson and fellow inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman admitted after the final game of 2015 they were playing, in large part, for their head coach. The Colts locker room will have the opportunity to do so again.