INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Colts players have been hearing the speculation all week and they don't like it.
In this locker room, coach Chuck Pagano is respected and revered. Some find it hard to fathom how a man who has led his team to three straight playoff appearances, back-to-back division titles and is positioned for another actually could be fighting for his job after making January's AFC championship game.
He is, and these players are ready to help.
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''My relationship with Chuck goes way back,'' said Andre Johnson, who was recruited by Pagano in high school. ''I've known him since I was 16 or 17 years old. Nobody wants to see anybody fired, so in the end, you give everything you've got for the guy.''
How did Pagano get into this predicament?
He's the front man for a team that is 3-4 after being widely considered a title contender two months ago. He is 17-17 outside the terrible AFC South. He's in the final year of his contract and hasn't always seen eye-to-eye on personnel decisions with general manager Ryan Grigson, who is hearing his own share of criticism.
And while Pagano has the most coveted puzzle piece in football, a young franchise quarterback, he was hired under the premise he could put together a balanced offense and a winning defense. But after 3 1/2 seasons in charge, the Colts' rushing offense is No. 26 and the defense has allowed a league-high 408.6 yards per game.
Numbers only tell part of the tale. In each of the past four games, there have been embarrassing, potentially game-changing moments on the field.
- Against New Orleans, Indy was fooled on a fake field goal that led to a 20-point flurry.
- Against New England, a botched fake punt led to a touchdown that gave the Patriots a two-score lead.
- Against Houston, the Colts allowed a Hail Mary touchdown pass as the first half ended but still managed to win.
- Against Jacksonville, Pagano called timeout just before kicker Jason Myers missed a 53-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Myers missed on his second chance, too, and again in overtime before the Colts won.
Fair or not, outsiders have heaped much of the blame on Pagano.
''It's bizarre to me,'' backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. ''Outside the building, I think it's been very gossipy. We're not very gossipy in here.''
The Colts' Monday night opponent, Carolina, went through a similar situation last season. The Panthers (6-0) wound up winning both the NFC South title with a 7-8-1 record and a playoff game. After keeping his job, Ron Rivera is now coaching one of the NFL's five remaining unbeaten teams.
''It's hard anytime people speculate, and, quite honestly, it's unfair because there is only one person that really knows,'' Rivera said. ''You really wish people would let that one person make his own decision, which I believe they do. I was very fortunate and we just kept working and kept working.''
That's precisely the message Pagano has sent to his team, and it has resonated among his biggest supporters.
''We have so much going on in the building, we've got to focus on what we have to do,'' linebacker D'Qwell Jackson said. ''We have to focus on what's going to allow us to be successful on Sundays and block out all the noise.''
Pagano has used his own experience with battling leukemia to keep things in perspective and the team has followed his lead.
''I don't think it affects us as a team at all,'' quarterback Andrew Luck said. ''You realize that there is going to be talk and chatter about every team, whether it is good or bad. Really the only opinions that matter are the ones in the locker room and your coaches. ''
But inside the Colts' locker room, there's no debate about Pagano's job.
''I don't think people on the outside understand how hard it is to win a game in this league, and whenever things go bad, the blames usually falls on the coach or the quarterback. That's not always fair,'' Johnson said. ''I know we've not played great as a team, but when you look at the facts, we're still on top of the division.''
Notes: Starting center Khaled Holmes (neck), receiver Phillip Dorsett (lower left leg), safety Winston Guy (shoulder) and linebacker Nate Irving (knee) all missed Wednesday's practice. ... Safety Mike Adams (hamstring) did limited work and safety Clayton Geathers (knee) returned as a full participant.