Tribune Star Correspondent
Back and ready to go.
That's the attitude Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano is taking during the National Football Scouting Combine, which completed its second day of operations Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium. During a wide-ranging press conference at the combine, Pagano confirmed that he is back to a full work regimen after missing 12 games last fall as he battled a rare form of leukemia.
After undergoing cancer treatments that featured heavy doses of chemotherapy, the second-year head coach was able to return to the sidelines for Indianapolis' final regular-season home game against Houston and for the team's AFC wild-card matchup with eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore.
"Hair's coming back in. It's a little gnarly. I haven't found a gel yet that will quite calm it down. We're still looking for one. My wife is trying to help me out. But I feel great and I'm obviously very fortunate to be back here and be doing this combine deal," the second-year head coach voiced.
A relatively young Colts squad used Pagano's forced absence as a rallying point as the team turned a 2-14 record in 2011 into an 11-5 mark last season. Now, with their coach appearing to be back on the road to a full recovery, what can Indianapolis do for an encore?
"You know what? We set our expectations high a year ago when we got here. We knew where everybody basically had us [previewing the upcoming season] based on all the turnover. Front office, coaching staff, players, etc.," Pagano recalled.
"We know what the expectations are now. The players have set high expectations for themselves. The bar is really high. And so we're just going to keep working the process, continue to build the monster, and move forward. I fully expect to back up last year with another great season."
Moving ahead -- After going through a life-altering experience such as the one he experienced last fall, Pagano admits that he doesn't know if he'll ever get back to feeling the way he did prior to the leukemia diagnosis.
"I don't know if it will ever be the same, to be honest with you. I feel pretty normal now as far as going through the normal stuff that a football coach goes through in a day-in, day-out basis," he said. "But whether it will ever be exactly the same, I don't think it will ever be that way. Like I said, I feel good. Most of that is behind me. I feel good where I am at right now."
Pagano said that he was under no restrictions on what he can or can't do in terms of his normal coaching regimen. Well, almost no restrictions.
"Very little media. There won't be any more Wednesday pressers or on Monday. Dr. [Larry] Cripe, you'll have to talk to him," the Colts coach joked. "But, no, really there's no restrictions. Like anybody else who has dealt with some form of cancer or blood disease, leukemia, whatever it is, you've still got a process to go through.
" I've got a couple of years still of medication that I'll take for a couple of weeks every three months. Then you'll go in for a few years, every six months for three years after that. If you're still in remission after five years, then you'll get a certificate and a badge and then send you a something that says you're healthy, that you're free of any more doctors visits."
Looking at the draft -- Indianapolis came away from last year's draft with four starters (quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, and running back Vick Ballard) and one key backup (wide receiver T.Y. Hilton).
Can the Colts come close to duplicating that type of success this year? Pagano certainly hopes so. Like general manager Ryan Grigson had stressed day earlier, there are no overriding preconceived areas of need in the first round.
Most observers expect Indianapolis to be in the market for help along the offensive and defensive lines, at outside linebacker and in the defensive secondary. A big-play receiver with some size might also be on the team's shopping list.
"You know what? We're going to look at everything. Obviously a ton of players here to look at. We've analyzed ourselves pretty good as far as self-scout," the Colts coach said. "There's some areas there I think we all know that need to be addressed. Other than one or two areas, we're going to take a look at everybody here and then plug in a few pieces to help us."
Free agents -- Before the Colts can go shopping for veteran free agents from other teams, decisions must be made as to which of their own free agents they will want to keep.
Indianapolis has 14 unrestricted free agents and four restricted free agents. The Colts' unrestricted players include wide receiver Donnie Avery, cornerback Darius Butler, linebacker Moise Fokou, offensive guard Tony Hills, nose tackle Antonio Johnson, offensive tackle Winston Justice, punter Pat McAfee, defensive end Fili Moala, running back Mewelde Moore, cornerback Jerraud Powers, quarterback Drew Stanton and linebacker Jamaal Westerman.
Linebacker A.J. Edds, offensive guard/tackle Jeff Linkenbach, offensive guard Seth Olsen and cornerback Cassius Vaughn are the team's restricted free agents.
It would appear as if McAfee, Powers and Moala are the most probable of the UFAs to be re-signed.
"[McAfee] is huge. He is a major priority in free agency. Obviously, we've reached out and we're working to get [him] re-signed. You saw what he did for us. He's a great weapon. Not just on kickoffs and touchbacks and those types of things, kicking out of the end zone," Pagano said.
"I sat in a hospital bed and at home [last season] for 12 weeks just watching him pin guys inside the 20 and inside the 10 over and over. To have a weapon like him is a tremendous asset."
Powers has also impressed the Colts coach with his attitude both on and off the field.
"He's a heck of a football player and we'd love to re-sign him and have him back," he said, adding that he preferred to describe Powers as unlucky rather than injury prone. The cornerback has missed most of the last two seasons due to injuries, including last season's turf toe problem.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed [on bringing back Powers]. If he's not [back], he's going to be playing for somebody and playing good football."