Tear­ful Pagano back on job af­ter leukemia treat­ment

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - Bymichael Marot dar­ron CUM­MINGS / AP dave einsel Pho­tos/ap

INDIANAPOLIS — Chuck Pagano stepped to the podium Mon­day, hugged his team owner, thanked his fam­ily for its sup­port and wiped a tear from his eye.

Nearly three months to the day af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with leukemia, the Colts’ first-year coach re­turned to a team ea­ger to re­unite with a boss healthy enough to go back to work.

“I told you my best day of my life was July 1, 1989,” Pagano said, re­fer­ring to his wed­ding date. “To­day was No. 2. Get­ting to pull up, drive in, get out of my car, the key fob still worked. I was be­gin­ning to ques­tion whether it would or not. When I asked for Bruce to take over, I asked for him to kick some you-know-what and to do great. Damn Bruce, you had to go and win nine games? Tough act to fol­low. Tough act to fol­low. Best in the his­tory of the NFL. That’s what I have to come back to.”

The com­ment turned tears into the laugh­ter ev­ery­one ex­pected on such a fes­tive oc­ca­sion.

For Pagano and the Colts, Mon­day morn­ing was as pre­cious as any­one could have imag­ined when Pagano took an in­def­i­nite leave to face the big­gest op­po­nent of his life, can­cer.

In his ab­sence, all the Colts did was win nine of 12 games, make a his­toric turn­around and clinch a play­off spot all be­fore Sun­day’s reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale against Hous­ton, which they pegged as the day they hoped to have Pagano back. If all goes well at prac­tice this week, Pagano will be on the side­line for the first time since a Week 3 loss to Jack­sonville.

Pagano en­dured three rounds of chemo­ther­apy to put his can­cer in re­mis­sion.

That Pagano’s re­turn came less than 24 hours af­ter Indy (10-5) locked up the No. 5 seed in the AFC and the day be­fore Christ­mas seemed fit­ting.

“I know Chuck is ready for this chal­lenge. In speak­ing to his doc­tor mul­ti­ple times, I know that the time is right for him to grab the reins, get the head coach­ing cap on and be­gin the jour­ney,” owner Jim Ir­say said. “It’s been a mirac­u­lous story. It really is a book. It’s a fairy tale. It’s a Hol­ly­wood script. It’s all those things but it’s real.”

He is re­turn­ing to a vastly dif­fer­ent team than the one he turned over to Ari­ans, his long-time friend and first as­sis­tant coach­ing hire.

Back then, the Colts were 1-2 and most of the so-called ex­perts had writ­ten them off as one of the league’s worst teams.

Pagano also has changed. The salt-and­pep­per hair and trade­mark goa­tee that were miss­ing in Novem­ber have re­turned, and the thin­ner man who ap­peared to be catch­ing his breath dur­ing a postgame speech in early Novem­ber, looked and sounded as good as ever Mon­day. Pagano never really left. He con­tin­u­ally watched prac­tice tape and game film on his com­puter, used phone calls and text mes­sages to reg­u­larly com­mu­ni­cate with play­ers and oc­ca­sion­ally de­liv­ered a pregame or postgame speech to his team.

By Kristie Rieken HOUS­TON — The Hous­ton Tex­ans blew a chance to clinch home-field ad­van­tage through­out the AFC play­offs with Sun­day’s ugly loss to Min­nesota.

They’ll get an­other op­por­tu­nity to do it in the reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale at Indianapolis next Sun­day. But a loss could drop them to third in the AFC.

If Hous­ton loses to the Colts and both Den­ver and New Eng­land win, the Tex­ans could fall to the third-seed and lose not only home-field ad­van­tage, but also a first-round bye. If Indianapolis beats Hous­ton and Den­ver loses or New Eng­land loses or ties, Hous­ton will still get a bye.

They can also get home-field ad­van­tage with a loss if the Broncos lose and the Pa­tri­ots lose or tie.

To do that, coach Gary Ku­biak will need to cor­rect many prob­lems on his team. The big­gest one, he says, is im­prov­ing on third downs. Hous­ton (123) has strug­gled in that area re­cently. Against the Vik­ings was the worst yet as the Tex­ans con­verted 1 of 11 chances.

“Ob­vi­ously, we’ve got a prob­lem on third downs right now,” he said. “It has not been good the last three weeks. If there was one prob­lem, we’d go ad­dress that. There’s many, many is­sues go­ing on. But there is one con­sis­tent is­sue and the con­sis­tent is­sue is third-and­long.”

A glar­ing rea­son why there’s been so many long-yardage sit­u­a­tions is the in­abil­ity to run well on first and sec­ond downs. Nine of Hous­ton’s 11 third downs were 8 yards or longer Sun­day. Of those nine, five came af­ter Hous­ton had run­ning plays for no gain or neg­a­tive yardage on first or sec­ond down.

“That’s not the type of play we’re ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing,” left tackle Duane Brown said. “We’ve got to get 5 and 6 then bust out a big one. When have those 2-yard runs and set up a third-and-8, thir­dand-7, it’s tough. Against a good de­fense it’s go­ing to be hard to con­vert those third and longs. We just con­tinue to put our­selves in those sit­u­a­tions.”

Hous­ton has con­verted 10 of 38 third down at­tempts in its last three games, which in­cluded two losses. Some have blamed quar­ter­back Matt Schaub for the third down woes. But Ku­biak said he’s only part of the prob­lem, and that the run­ning backs, line­men, re­ceivers and even the coaches have to get bet­ter for things to change.

The success of Ku­biak’s of­fense is pred­i­cated on run­ning the ball well. So he was trou­bled when he re­viewed the game and re­al­ized they didn’t have a sin­gle run­ning play on third down against the Vik­ings.

“For us to do what we do best, there’s a per­cent­age of those that we need to be in po­si­tion to line up and run the foot­ball, and we haven’t done that in the last month,” Ku­biak said.

The Tex­ans had a sea­son-low 34 yards rush­ing on Sun­day. Their run­ning game was hurt by Arian Fos­ter play­ing lit­tle more than a half be­fore leav­ing with an ir­reg­u­lar heart­beat. Fos­ter, who had a sea­son-worst 10 car­ries for 15 yards on Sun­day, un­der­went tests Mon­day and is OK.

“I ap­pre­ci­ate all the con­cern and sup­port,” Fos­ter tweeted. “I am do­ing well. Saw a car­di­ol­o­gist to­day and ev­ery­thing is back to nor­mal.”

Ku­biak ex­pects him to play Sun­day.

Arian Fos­ter left Sun­day’s game with an ir­reg­u­lar heart­beat. He tweeted Mon­day that tests showed he is “back to nor­mal.”

Chuck Pagano wipes a tear dur­ing a news con­fer­ence an­nounc­ing his re­turn af­ter un­der­go­ing leukemia treat­ment.

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