LAKE FOREST – When a lifelong coach doesn’t have the opportunity to practice his craft for an entire year, it leaves quite a bit of downtime.
Chuck Pagano simply wasn’t used to that.
He’s been a coach at either the college or pro level of football every year since 1984. But when the Colts parted way with him at the end of the 2017 season, he had nothing but time on his hands, and he tried to use it well.
“Checked the boxes, some of those bucket list things. Went to The Masters, worked out a lot, but it was like you could only work out so many times a day,” said Pagano of his year away from coaching. “I’d take my laundry in. I was taking in clean shirts just to find something to do. They still had the tag on them. They take them back and say ‘Coach, this is already clean and I’d say ‘Just clean it again. I need something to do.'”
Be careful what you wish for, it might happen. Two weeks ago, it did.
When Vic Fangio took his first ever head coaching job with the Broncos, the former leader of the Colts was tabbed to take over arguably the best defense in the National Football League for the 2019 season. Pagano becomes a defensive coordinator for the first time in eight years, gets back into coaching, and joins a team that is championship ready on that side of the ball.
Pagano even went a step further, saying that this Bears’ defense could end up being historic.
“Our vision for this defense is to be the best. Can we be the best in the history of the game? The pieces are there, and they’ll continue to add pieces. Can we be better than last year? Absolutely,” said Pagano. “It will be very, very difficult and be a huge challenge but one that we’re all up for.”
He won’t have a shortage of help to do it. He’s got four Pro Bowl selections and three AP first-team All-Pro selections. The unit was first in points allowed and third in yardage this past season and led the league in takeaways.
Nearly all of them are guaranteed to be back for 2019, so the table is set for Pagano. The key is putting all the pieces in the right place, something that the coach did in Baltimore when he took over a stacked Ravens defense in 2011.
That unit was third in the league in points and yardage and helped the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game as Pagano had an easy transition from secondary coach to a coordinator. Of course, this is a different team, but the philosophy doesn’t change for the coach.
“Wreak Havoc and be calculated about it. Want to be aggressive. Want to dictate the tempo,” said Pagano. “Put a premium on fundamentals and technique. Put a premium on the ball like we talked about before, taking the thing away. Nobody did it better than the Bears last year with 36 takeaways and 27 interceptions, affecting the quarterback, stopping the run, getting them in third-and-long so we can be creative and we can be aggressive.
“At the end of the day and the bottom line is having fun. The guys want to do that. The philosophy is a ‘K.I.L.L’ philosophy. Keep It Likeable and Learnable. So that’s an acronym for not…you know what I’m talking about..Keep it Likeable and Learnable. So it will be complex for you, simple for us.”
Pagano hopes the same for how he’s going to mix his defensive schemes in with those of Fangio to keep the momentum going. In fact, it might be the difference between another dominant year for the defense or a missed opportunity with a unique group.
“We’re not going to try to jam square pegs into round holes. There is a ton of talent here. They’ve built one heckuva roster. They’ve built one heckuva roster on defense,” said Pagano of the defense. “There are impact players on all three levels. So we’ll always, like everybody, do the best that we can to put them in the best possible position.”
The same could be said about Pagano, who takes the reigns of one of the NFL’s best defenses in 2019. It certainly beats a workout or a couple of trips to the cleaners.