The Herald Bulletin
---- — Last year, there was energy coursing throughout the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center on Christmas Eve.
Chuck Pagano was coming back to coach the final regular-season game against the Houston Texans, and the team made it official with a well-attended news conference.
But there was one lingering question: How would the team respond?
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians won nine of 12 games in Pagano's absence, and the Colts were just 1-2 when leukemia forced the first-year head coach from the sideline.
Indianapolis answered the skeptics with a thunderous 28-16 victory that cost Houston a first-round bye in the postseason. But when the team fell 24-9 at Baltimore in the wild-card round a week later — with Arians confined to a hospital because of an ear infection — the doubts carried over into the offseason.
The questions should be quelled now.
Arians has proven he's an excellent head coach and has placed his name squarely in the coach of the year debate for the second straight season.
But, make no mistake, Pagano deserves to be in the conversation as well.
Indianapolis lost starting tight end Dwyane Allen after the season opener, and left guard Donald Thomas went down in Week 2. There's been seven different starting combinations on the offensive line, and the offensive and defensive backfields have seen a rotating cast of faces.
By the time veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne was lost for the season in late October, the roster had become a full-blown M*A*S*H unit. No team has more players on season-ending injured reserve (14) than Indianapolis.
And, yet, the 10-5 Colts were the first team to clinch a division championship and own the four most impressive victories by any team — beating San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Kansas City — after throttling the Chiefs on Sunday.
After a man stands toe-to-toe with cancer, no other opponent has a chance. And Pagano has imbued that same fighting spirit in his players.
The coach made periodic visits to his team throughout his treatment in 2012. Each time he implored the players to live by a vision of what they could become and not be limited by their circumstances.
A year ago, as Christmas neared, Indianapolis' story seemed like a fairy tale. Many pundits expected it to crumble after a harsh dose of reality this time around.
It hasn't always been pretty, but Pagano has kept his vision for this team alive by steadfastly refusing to give in to circumstances.
To a man, his players have bought into his simple but effective request — hard work, 60 minutes of effort each game and 100 percent commitment to the team.
A second straight playoff season should prove the Colts have a keeper in Pagano.
But he understands better than anyone that the fight is never over.