By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
Chuck Pagano opened his media session Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine by joking about the unruliness of his hair. He said his wife, Tina, is trying to find a gel that can calm it down, but nothing seems to do the trick.
Of course, it’s a welcome problem to have.
Last fall, Pagano lost all of his hair — even his trademark salt-and-pepper goatee — while receiving chemotherapy in his fight against leukemia.
That he can stand tall some four months after his diagnosis and address the national media with a healthy visage and his natural humor is the biggest victory of this annual event.
“It’s great to be here, it’s great to be healthy and I’m blessed,” Pagano said in a lobby at Lucas Oil Stadium. “I’m really blessed.”
The courage Pagano showed throughout his battle inspired a city-wide “ChuckStrong” campaign that saw more than 30 members of the Indianapolis Colts — and two brave cheerleaders — as well as countless fans and others throughout the state shave their heads in solidarity.
It also inspired the team to rebound from a 2-14 season to 11-5 and earn an unlikely wild-card berth in the AFC Playoffs. The Colts were 9-3 in the 12 games Pagano missed while receiving treatment, and one of the first questions he was asked Friday concerned the team’s chances of replicating their success without their famous rallying cry.
“We set our expectations high a year ago when we got here,” he said. “We knew where everybody basically had us, based on all the turnover in the front office, coaching staff, players, etc. We know what the expectations are now. Players have set high expectations for themselves. The bar is really high. We’re just going to keep working the process, continuing to build the monster and move forward. We fully expect to back up next year with another great season.”
The Colts will have more than $43 million in salary-cap space when free agency begins March 12, and they are expected to renovate the offensive line and perhaps the defensive backfield. They’ll also need to find a replacement for outside linebacker Dwight Freeney, who will not be re-signed after 11 seasons.
“I can’t thank Dwight enough,” Pagano said. “He’s been a pillar, a guy here for a long, long time. Obviously, we know what he did on the football field was tremendous. What he’s done for the city, what he’s done for the fans, what he’s done for this community, the organization, you just can’t repay him enough.”
Jerry Hughes and Justin Hickman will get the first crack at replacing Freeney on the field, and general manager Ryan Grigson said he’ll endeavor to create competition at the position before training camp.
The Colts also could be in the market for a safety, a cornerback and reinforcements for at least one guard and one offensive tackle position.
Pagano said the team already has reached out to its own free agent punter, Pat McAfee, and will try to re-sign cornerback Jerraud Powers and defensive end Fili Moala as well.
As for a philosophy in the draft, Pagano echoed Grigson’s statements from Thursday. The team is keeping its options wide open.
“We’re going to look at everything,” he said. “There are a ton of players here to look at. We’ve analyzed ourselves pretty good, delved in as far as self-scouting. There are some areas there we all know that need to be addressed. We’re not going to just earmark one or two areas. We’re going to take a look at everybody here and hopefully plug in a few pieces to help us.”
One major change already has taken place. Offensive coordinator — and interim head coach — Bruce Arians left to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton — who coached Andrew Luck during his last two years at Stanford — was brought in as Arians’ replacement.
Hamilton promises to introduce West Coast offensive principles into the Colts’ wide-open aerial attack. That could mean shorter throws for Luck and more yards after catch for receivers. But Pagano wasn’t ready to peel the lid off many offensive secrets at the combine.
“It’s probably a little bit premature to say what we’re going to look like next fall,” Pagano said. “I really don’t want to give that out. (Hamilton’s) a bright guy. He’s got some great ideas. Football is pure to him. He loves to run the ball, loves to take his shots down the field. We’re not going to waste any plays. It’s great to have Pep. Once we continue to move forward and get through this combine, we’ll have a better idea of where we need to go as far as adding players.”
One thing that won’t change in 2013? Pagano’s commitment to returning Indianapolis to the top of the NFL world.
“Our goal is never going to change,” he said. “That’s the ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl. So when (the players) show up April 15, we’re going to slap that trophy back up on the big screen and say here’s what we’re working for. This is why we do what we do. It’s why we coach, it’s why we play, it’s why we train, it’s why we make all the sacrifices that we make is to win the ultimate goal and feel the confetti.”