Colts players eagerly awaiting Pagano's return

MICHAEL MAROT AP Sports Writer Published:

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Bruce Arians stood at the podium Friday, answering questions and doing the same thing he's done since Oct. 1.

It may have been his last weekday appearance as Indianapolis' interim coach.

With doctors giving head coach Chuck Pagano clearance to return to his job, Arians sounded cautiously optimistic that Pagano would be running the team Monday for the first time since he was diagnosed with leukemia.

"It's still up in the air, but he feels pretty solid that he's ready to go," Arians said, reiterating the point he's made all week -- he's eager to give the reins back to his longtime friend.

Pagano hasn't coached a game since a Sept. 23 loss to Jacksonville. Three days later, he was admitted to an Indianapolis hospital to begin the first of three rounds of chemotherapy.

But Arians wasn't told about the diagnosis until Sept. 30, and players and the other assistants didn't find out until a team meeting Oct. 1, the day the Colts returned from their bye.

Indy has gone 8-3 since Pagano left and has moved within one win -- or one Steelers loss -- of clinching an improbable playoff spot in what has been a historic turnaround from last season's 2-14 debacle. Arians needs one more win to tie the NFL record for most wins following a midseason coaching change (nine), and if the Colts win Sunday at Kansas City, they would join the short list of NFL's teams to win two or fewer games one season and 10 or more the next.

If Pagano is back Monday, it won't be the first time the Colts (9-5) have seen or heard from their recovering head coach. He has communicated with players and coaches through phone calls and text message, watched tape of practices and games on his computer and has given pregame and postgame speeches following home games.

But Indy is about to embark on an almost unprecedented coaching transition -- just as the playoffs are about to begin -- though the players and coaches are eager to make it work.

"It will be real special. He's our leader, he's our general," Pro Bowl receiver Reggie Wayne said. "To get him back for the playoffs would be picture perfect. He's been through some tough times, he's fought through it and he's taught us how to fight."

Wayne and Pagano have been friends since they worked together at the University of Miami. Defensive end Cory Redding, defensive tackle Brandon McKinney and safety Tom Zbikowski all followed Pagano from Baltimore to Indy. Arians and Pagano have had a close relationship for years, which was one of the reasons Pagano made Arians his first hire.

Most believe Monday morning's team meeting will be emotional.

"I'm sure there will be a bunch of excitement, a lot of joy," rookie tight end Dwayne Allen said when asked about Pagano leading that meeting. "I'm sure he'll talk about what he's gone through and as we sit and listen to a man we all admire tell his story, I'm sure it will mean a lot to us.

Later, Allen added: "I remember when he came into the locker room and told us that 'we cannot allow circumstances to dictate who we are going to be' and he sure didn't let circumstances dictate who he was going to be, either."

The big question is how much Pagano can or will do.

His physician, Dr. Larry Crape, said there are no restrictions, though he has advised Pagano, like his other patients, to scale back the workload if it becomes too overwhelming. Those who know Pagano think he will follow the doctor's orders.

"I believe he'll be smart enough to do that," Redding said. "I know he wants to get back, but he still has to listen to his body. I believe he trusts the coaching staff and us to do what we've been doing."

Winning.

"It's fantastic news," Arians said Friday. "Hopefully, he's strong enough and can hit the road Monday. Like we've always said that's the best Christmas present we could have hoped for."

Notes: Arians said Zbikowski would travel with the team for Sunday's game against the Chiefs. Backup running back Delone Carter, inside linebacker Kavell Conner and center Samson Satele have already been ruled out. Everyone else, including backup center A.Q Shipley, will be game-time decisions. ... If Shipley cannot play, Arians said right guard Mike McGlynn will start at center and backup Jeff Linkenbach will replace McGlynn at guard.

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