INDIANAPOLIS — The next chapter in the Peyton Manning saga could take a decidedly defensive turn.
Indianapolis hired Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano as its new coach Wednesday and will introduce him at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
It’s the third time Jim Irsay has turned to a defensive-minded coach since replacing his father as team owner in 1997, first hiring Jim Mora and then Tony Dungy as Mora’s replacement in 2002.
“I like it,” Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis wrote on Twitter.
The Colts are hoping the change produces better results after Indy went 2-14 last season, its worst record in two decades. But there are questions about how this decision will impact the future of Manning and his teammates.
The 51-year-old Pagano had been a career assistant until Wednesday. He had coached previously in the NFL at Oakland and Cleveland and also worked extensively in college with stops at Miami and North Carolina.
He’s the fourth Ravens defensive coordinator to get a head coaching job in less than a decade. The others were Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Jets coach Rex Ryan and former 49ers coach Mike Nolan.
Those who have worked closely with Pagano believe he’s ready for the promotion.
“Chuck has a leadership quality about him. He’s humble but he also knows when to take the reins and take charge,” Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger said. “He doesn’t try to dominate you in every meeting. He’s just a coach that knows exactly how players are and what direction they need.”
But Pagano is taking over a team in transition.
Irsay’s dizzying array of moves this month has essentially cleaned house.
It began with the firings of the father-son front office tandem of Bill and Chris Polian on Jan. 2, the day after the season. The next week, Irsay hired 39-year-old Ryan Grigson as the new general manager.
Last week, coach Jim Caldwell was fired after his third season because he won only two games while Manning sat out with a neck injury and now, eight days later, Indy has his replacement — with more changes to come.
Quarterbacks coach Ron Turner, receivers coach Frank Reich and offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars all have been let go, too. That leaves offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen, running backs coach David Walker and tight ends coach Ricky Thomas among those with fates yet to be determined. Back in 2002, when Mora was fired, Irsay hired Dungy but kept most of the offensive staff intact.
The offseason moves are taking a toll on the team’s morale. In an interview published Tuesday by The Indianapolis Star, Manning called the complex not a “very good environment” for healing.
Irsay must pay Manning a $28 million bonus by March 8 or the four-time league MVP, who turns 36 in March, could become an unrestricted free agent after having three neck surgeries in 19 months. The Colts have the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, which most expect to be used on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.
Either way, Pagano should have a solid foundation on offense.
And with his defensive pedigree, the Colts are hoping for a big jump from a unit that ranked near the bottom of the league.
“What makes him good? He relates to the players a whole lot,” Baltimore defensive end Cory Redding said. “He’s almost like a player in a D-coordinator’s position. The guy has so much fun with us. He treats you like more than a player. It’s like we’re his sons. He wants us to do well. He keeps it fresh. He knows everybody’s strengths and puts them in position to make plays.”
Pagano spent three years as the Ravens’ secondary coach before replacing Bryan Mattison as Baltimore’s defensive coordinator a year ago. The Ravens ranked third in total defense and allowed the third-fewest points in the NFL last season.
The Wyoming graduate and former strong safety for the Cowboys began his coaching career in 1984 as a graduate assistant at Southern California and spent time at in the college ranks at Boise State, UNLV, East Carolina and Miami before joining Cleveland to coach the secondary. In 2005-06, he was defensive backs job at Oakland, then served as defensive coordinator at North Carolina before joining the Ravens when John Harbaugh became head coach four years ago.
“Chuck is unorthodox,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “He’s like The Joker. You never really expect what he’s going to do, and everything has a motive.”