Any coach that takes a wretched 2-14 Indianapolis Colts team from 2011 to an 11-5 playoff bound team in 2012 is going to find his name in the NFL's Coach of the Year hat. Bruce Arians filled in for Chuck Pagano, helping lead the Colts to the playoffs, and it was enough to earn him the award.
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Add in what the Colts coaching staff had to go through this year with head coach Chuck Pagano's announcement that he was battling leukemia and was taking an indefinite leave of absence after just three games in the season. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was forced to take the reins. He did so masterfully, going 10-3 over the rest of the season and almost making everyone forget that life post-Peyton Manning isn't so bad.
2012 was by all accounts a rebuilding year for the Colts. Sure, they added the top overall pick in quarterback Andrew Luck, but the rest of the offense at the beginning of the year wasn't the most sexy squad. They were an improving squad that was still a ways from anyone thinking they would make the playoffs.
Starting running back Donald Brown was about as dynamic of a rusher as a tortoise and his backup was a rookie in Vick Ballard. Although wide receiver Reggie Wayne is a stand up guy, T.Y. Hilton and Donnie Avery aren't exactly household names. Austin Collie sustained a concussion early and then blew out his right knee for good measure. Tight end Dwanye Allen was also a rookie. This motley crew was supposed to be an improvement off of a team that was ranked 22nd in the rush and 27th in the pass last year.
That improved across the board in 2012. The Colts ranked 17th in rushing and 21st in passing according to Football Outsiders. But that still doesn't seem like a big enough jump to make sense of a nine-win swing.
What is most impressive about the Colts win-loss record is how they got it. On paper, the Colts don't look like an 11-5 team. They gave up 387 points over the season while only scoring 357. The Colts just shouldn't be an 11-5 team.
If anything can be called coaching, it is leading a rookie quarterback to a win in nine out of the ten games when the score is decided by a touchdown or less. Five of those nine wins came in the fourth quarter.
The Colts manufactured game winning drives in the final minutes against of a 30-27 win over the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 7.
Luck picked up his first overtime win over the Tennessee Titans on Oct. 28 after coming back from a seven point deficit in the fourth quarter.
The Colts trailed by 12 points with eight minutes remaining against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 2 and won the game 35-33. The magic continued the following week when they pulled past the Titans in the fourth quarter 27-23. Luck engineered his final winning touchdown drive of the year with four minutes left against the Chiefs on Dec. 23.
The fact that Pagano and Arians were able to instill confidence in the rookie quarterback is quite amazing considering the unexpected turnover from Pagano's health woes.
The two coaches had all this success with a team that was near the bottom of the barrel in most defensive efficiency metrics. Football Outsiders ranked the 2012 Colt as the 27th worst team against the pass and the very worst team in the NFL against the rush.
As a team they gave up 236.8 yards through the air and 137.5 yards on the ground. The Colts gave up 387 points during the regular season, good for 21st in the league. On a more consistent basis, the defense wasn't as bad as it looked at times. The Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots dropped a combined 100 points on the Colts. Excluding those two games, opponents averaged just a shade less than 18 points against the Colts.
On its face, the Colts success this year is a feel-good story for the NFL. The fact that Pagano's leukemia went into remission in time for him to come back for the playoffs is something that sports dreams are made of. But the impact the Pagano and Arians made on the field for the young Colts team cannot go unstated.