OWINGS MILLS, Md. — As much as Lee Evans’ failed effort to catch the game-winning touchdown and Billy Cundiff’s subsequent missed field goal broke the hearts of the Ravens and their fans in last year’s AFC Championship, the pair of unfortunate events created a unique opportunity for one member of the organization.
The chance to become the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts may not have come for Chuck Pagano had the Ravens advanced to the Super Bowl. The former defensive coordinator departed Baltimore on the day following the conference championship game and never looked back as he was hired to replace Jim Caldwell, who is now the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach of the Ravens. The Colts may not have waited an additional two weeks to talk to Pagano had Evans made that catch or Cundiff converted the 32-yard field goal and the Ravens prevailed in overtime.
Having defeated leukemia before retaking his place on the sideline last Sunday, Pagano now brings his Colts to Baltimore for Sunday’s wild-card playoff game, knowing he might still be in Baltimore if not for the failures of two former players.
“We had the catch we thought that was a touchdown and then [Cundiff] runs off and pulls that one,” Pagano said. “There’s a lot of things that transpired through the course of the end of that football game that you look at and say, ‘Yeah we make that catch and score that touchdown or make that kick and go to overtime and win that football game and you don’t have an opportunity to visit with somebody about a job.’ It’s funny how things happen.”
Caldwell could say the same about his final year in Indianapolis after he saw his longtime quarterback Peyton Manning miss the entire 2011 season after undergoing several neck surgeries. The current Denver Broncos signal-caller had never missed a game prior to that point in his first 13 NFL seasons.
Left without a viable quarterback, Indianapolis went an abysmal 2-14 and Caldwell was fired after his third season as head coach of the Colts. A few months later, the organization drafted rookie quarterback Andrew Lucky and began a turnaround that left them with an 11-5 record and a trip to M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
A year later, does Caldwell wonder what would have happened had Manning not been injured or if Indianapolis had stuck with him another year with the veteran quarterback departing and Luck joining the fray?
“It doesn’t even cross my mind — not one second,” said Caldwell, who was promoted to offensive coordinator following the firing of Cam Cameron on Dec. 10. “I think for the most part, I believe that the good Lord has a plan for us. Often times, it’s not as picturesque as we might like it. It may not unfold exactly the way that we had it planned, but it unfolded in [the way] He wanted it.”
The feelings toward Pagano are conflicted this week as he brings the Colts to M&T Bank Stadium to face the Ravens in the postseason for the third time — and second in Baltimore — in the last seven seasons. It’s in a Baltimorean’s DNA to hate the Indianapolis Colts for obvious reasons, but Pagano’s inspiring story makes that more and more difficult every day.
His courageous fight against leukemia inspired not only his own team but also players in the Ravens locker room, including a defensive line that shaved their heads and facial hair in support of the former coordinator. Veteran Ray Lewis estimated that he exchanged text messages with Pagano “every other day” as the linebacker rehabbed his surgically-repaired triceps and the coach underwent cancer treatments during the regular season.
There are nothing but positive memories for Pagano, who spent four seasons as a member of Harbaugh’s coaching staff in Baltimore.
“[I] love all those guys. [I have] great relationships with so many people in that organization,” Pagano said. “They were so good to me and my family. I wouldn’t be sitting where I’m at today if John Harbaugh hadn’t given me the opportunity to join him when he was first hired as a head football coach there.”
The Baltimore defense received extra motivation with the expected return to action but unexpected retirement announcement of Lewis earlier this week, but many players were already eager to show Pagano what his former unit was still capable of doing. Despite struggling for most of the season, an improving Baltimore defense finished 17th in yards allowed and tied for 12th in points allowed despite a plethora of injuries.
The admiration is still there almost a year after Pagano last coached the prideful group.
“It’ll be great; Chuck is a motivation to all of us with all he went through,” linebacker Dannell Ellerbe said. “Just to know a person that strong says a lot. Chuck always shot you straight. He was great in the meeting rooms. He was never one of those coaches to [get] down his players or cuss them out. He’s a very likable guy.”
Not to be outdone, Caldwell acknowledges it will be different coaching against the team with which he spent a decade, but the Ravens offensive coordinator denied any chance of it impacting his performance on Sunday. With a new coaching staff in place in Indianapolis, Caldwell hardly recognizes what new coordinator Bruce Arians has done with the offense and Pagano has implemented a defense similar to what he did with the Ravens.
It’s a battle both men are looking forward to as they now look on from the opposite side.
“It’s ironic that we get an opportunity to play against them, which is going to be a lot of fun,” Caldwell said. “You have two teams with great desire. Chuck probably feels the same way on the other side of it. It’s going to be fun.”
Both can look back on the ironic events of last season to explain where they are today.