NFL Nation: Pat McAfee

Way back in 1996, when Adam Vinatieri entered the NFL, a practice session for kickers was a relative breeze. It included an attempt or two in the 20-yard range, a few in the 30's and 40's and -- if the coach was feeling frisky -- a moonshot from beyond 50 yards.

This summer, on a day I visited with Vinatieri at the Indianapolis Colts' training camp, things were a bit different.

"If I were to go back and look at all of my camp distances," Vinatieri said, "I bet I'd find only a couple that were in the 30's. Right away, we jump back to 40-plus and work back. If I have seven kicks, three of them will be from beyond 50. We'll have one from 50, one from 55 and yesterday I hit one from 60. It was 50, 55 and 60 versus the days of hitting 30-yarders. You have to be able to hit that long ball to play in this league now."

Football has transformed during Vinatieri's 18-year career, and not just in the explosive rise of passing offense. There has also been a dramatic rise in kicking accuracy, especially from long distances. As recently as five years ago, 50-plus yard attempts were a 50-50 proposition. In 2013, NFL place-kickers converted 67.1 percent of them, and the rate has risen to nearly 72 percent during the first quarter of 2014.

In other words, place-kickers are converting 50-yard attempts at a higher rate than quarterbacks are completing passes.

"Even 10 years ago, a 50-yarder was a very big deal," Cincinnati Bengals place-kicker Mike Nugent said. "A guy would hit a 50-yarder and it was like, 'Oh my gosh, that's a big thing.' ... But now, you just expect it. The 50-yarder isn't, 'I hope it goes in.' It's more expected now."

Go back to 1996, when Vinatieri was beginning his career with the New England Patriots. That season, the 30-team NFL attempted a combined 58 field goals from 50 yards or beyond. This season, the league's 32 teams have set a pace to nearly triple that figure; through four weeks, they have already attempted 32 from at least 50 yards.

OK, so we know the situation. Place-kickers are far more accurate, and coaches much more confident, from distances once considered bleak. Now, let's start the process of understanding why.

As part of my summer camp tour, I quizzed kickers about how their profession got so good so fast. Why is the NFL scrambling for ways to make it more difficult, via longer extra points? And why did a Super Bowl-winning coach get rewarded for playing for a 61-yard game-winning field goal last season? (See Harbaugh, John, Week 15 of the Baltimore Ravens' 2013 season.)

Theories revolved around three areas: Youth emphasis, honed techniques and physical growth. We're not going to author the definitive study on this evolution today, but let's at least take a quick sample of each idea:
  • Colts punter/kicker Pat McAfee: "A big thing now is that you get a chance to go to the kicking camps that happen across the globe. Parents are sending their kids to them because there's less danger [kicking rather than playing another position] and there's a chance of getting a scholarship. So you have people trying to get into these positions. Whenever you have kids starting earlier, working harder, younger, you're going to get better."
  • Crosby
    Green Bay Packers place-kicker Mason Crosby: "It comes down to specialized training. When I first started kicking, it was just kind of line up, get in a spot you feel comfortable in, maybe watch what some of the guys did in the NFL or college. But now it's like golf. Everyone is a little bit different and you have to kind of own that, but guys are realizing that they need to repeat the same thing every time. Take your steps back, your steps over and be in a position that is repeatable every time. Every time you get in your set up, you must feel comfortable that you're going to execute my kick."
  • Nugent: "It's funny. I could attribute it to the same thing we talk about with other positions. What's a nose tackle today compared to a nose tackle in, say, the '80s? He's bigger and stronger. That's across the board."

Where will this take the game? Can the 60-plus-yard kick, attempted four times last season and eight in 2012, become the new 50? Rules returning the ball to opponents at the spot of a kick following a miss might discourage coaches, but accuracy over time could shift convention.

"Everything is moving back," McAfee said. "It used to be that a 40-yarder was a long one. Now, if you're missing 40-yarders, you're not even in the Arena League. So with more practice and more technique perfection, it could happen."

At this rate, of course, we'll be asking in a few years if 70 could be the new 60.
Examining the Indianapolis Colts' roster:

This is the safest position on the roster for the Colts. They plan to always keep a veteran backup if Luck ever goes down with an injury.


The Colts will have a solid running combination if -- and we’re saying if until proven wrong -- Richardson can bounce back from a poor first season in Indianapolis and Bradshaw and Ballard can stay injury-free. Havili, a fullback, gets the edge over Mario Harvey, who switched from linebacker to fullback during offseason workouts.


The final receiver spot will come down to Rogers and Griff Whalen. If the Colts want to play it safe, Whalen is the guy because he’s familiar with Luck and offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, but Rogers has the size and speed the team likes. There’s also the possibility of the Colts keeping six receivers.


Allen, who missed all but one game in 2013, and Fleener have the potential to be one of the top tight end duos in the league. Doyle and Saunders are both familiar with the system after backing up Fleener in Allen’s absence last season.


There are plenty of questions surrounding the offensive line outside of tackles Castonzo and Cherilus. The one thing general manager Ryan Grigson wanted with this group is depth. The Colts have plenty of it.


Like the offensive line, the Colts want depth on the defensive line so they can constantly rotate in players, so come the fourth quarter they still have fresh legs to get after the opponent. Jones was the key offseason acquisition for the Colts. Chapman showed flashes last season; now he needs to do it every snap that he’s on the field.


All eyes will be on outside linebacker as the Colts look to find a replacement for Mathis, who is suspended for the first four games of the season. Werner gets the first crack at starting in Mathis’ spot. McNary is a player for whom Grigson has high expectations. It’ll be up to defensive coordinator Greg Manusky on how he uses McNary.


It’s anybody’s guess how the secondary will perform. It’s anybody’s guess who will start alongside Landry at safety. It looked like it would be Howell for most of the offseason, but the Colts signed the veteran Adams in June. Can Toler finally remain healthy? Can Davis live up to his contract? So many questions with no answers at the moment.


This only changes if an injury occurs.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Ryan Grigson didn't have time to spare five minutes on the phone to do an interview. He was too busy talking and wearing his thumbs out texting agents as he prepared for the start of free agency.

The questions, just three of them I might add, were sent via email to the Indianapolis Colts general manager.

"In the middle of free agency, I felt like I had a homework assignment due," Grigson jokingly wrote after answering the questions.

[+] EnlargeRyan Grigson
AP Photo/Johnny VyRyan Grigson and the Colts have set the expectations high, and nothing short of the Super Bowl will suffice for the general manager.
If you know Grigson, you know he's always working, never settling for what happened in the past. He's that nonstop workaholic who is always believing another move should be made to improve the team.

That mindset was a necessity for Grigson when he took over for the fired Bill Polian in 2012. The Colts were coming off a 2-14 season after which they not only dismissed Polian, but also said their final goodbyes to quarterback Peyton Manning after 14 years, 11 playoff games and two Super Bowl appearances.

So the rebuilding process couldn't take long for Grigson, the first-time general manager. Not with holdovers like Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea used to winning.

Grigson is headed into Year 3 of not rebuilding the Colts, but building off the success the franchise has had in the past two years.

They're 22-10 and made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, while dealing with the loss of coach Chuck Pagano for 12 games while battling leukemia in 2012 and the loss of five offensive starters last season.

"The element of surprise kind of goes away when you have such high expectations," Grigson said. "This is a winning organization and the bar is set high. I think that kind of environment is a healthy one for everyone involved. I'd hate to be somewhere that your expectation was anything less than being Super Bowl champs every year."

Grigson and Pagano walked into the perfect situation.

Andrew Luck, the best quarterback taken No. 1 overall since, well, Manning in 1998, led an impressive Colts 2012 draft class that also included receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.

Grigson's obsessive, always-needing-to-be-working mindset is in high gear because the Colts are in position to take another step in the AFC next season. Manning and New England's Tom Brady are a year older and moving another step toward the Hall of the Fame.

Now it's up to Grigson to add the proper pieces around Luck. This is the perfect time for the general manager to redeem himself after his 2013 offseason moves didn't live up to expectations.

"No matter the circumstances, the last two years we expected to be in the Super Bowl and believed in that goal until the last tick came off the clock," Grigson said. "Year 3 will be no different; we just have to find a way to see it all the way through."

Indianapolis went into free agency on Tuesday with the fifth-most salary cap space.

Just like in Green Bay, players want to play in Indianapolis despite the small-market mentality some have about the city.

Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, who the Colts signed to a four-year deal on March 6, was attracted to the franchise's history of success. That's understandable after he spent his first eight years in Cleveland, where that organization appears to be just spinning in circles.

Pagano is more than a coach to the players. He's the person who will ask a player about his off-the-field life nearly as much as he talks about offensive and defensive schemes.

"Having a sitdown dinner with him, I knew right away he was a good guy," Jackson said. "We barely talked football. Any time you can do that, you know you're dealing with a good guy. He's been through a lot in his life, obviously. The guy is high on life and I want to be around people like that."

Luck's arm, legs, smarts and mental toughness are the main reasons why the transition from the Manning era hasn't been too turbulent. It's also why Indianapolis is an organization that will remain a destination for free agents as long as the kid from Stanford is taking the snaps from center.

Former New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks has already publicly talked about wanting to catch passes from Luck.

"First of all, winning makes you an attractive team," punter Pat McAfee said. "But I think the chance to hitch your wagon to an up-and-coming, hopefully Hall of Fame quarterback, which [Luck] should be, I think that's a big deal for a lot of the older guys that are looking for a ring, or maybe for the younger guys that are trying to jump-start their career. I think Indianapolis is becoming a very, very promising-looking destination for a lot people who want to win and hitch their wagon to a player who's going to be great for a very long time."

INDIANAPOLIS -- Re-signing kicker Adam Vinatieri to a two-year deal was not only the right thing, but the only thing to do for the Indianapolis Colts.

Vinatieri isn’t showing any signs of slowing down with his young 41-year-old kicking leg. He’s coming off one of the best seasons in his 18-year career, making 35 of 40 field goal attempts and going a perfect 34-of-34 on extra points.

"I'm pumped that Adam and the Colts were able to come to an agreement,” punter Pat McAfee said. “It's been an absolute honor working with a future Hall of Famer for the past five years, and two more years of that will be wonderful. Adam is a stud, with a lot left in the tank. I'm excited to help him reach a couple more folks on that all-time scoring list, and most importantly, win a lot more games together for the best franchise in the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts.”

Vinatieri’s professionalism and leadership is huge inside the Colts' locker room, as they continue to climb up the ladder in the AFC.

Re-signing Vinatieri also allows McAfee, who agreed to a five-year deal last week, to learn from one of the best and a possible Hall of Famer. McAfee, who handles kickoff duties, said he would eventually like to kick field goals, too.

“However long he wants to play, I just wanted to know whenever that guy is done, whenever that Hall of Fame career is over, that I just want a fair shake in kicking as well,” McAfee said last week.

Free-agency primer: Colts

March, 7, 2014
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Key free agents: CB Vontae Davis, S Antoine Bethea, K Adam Vinatieri, RB Donald Brown

Where they stand: The Colts have the fourth-most salary-cap space ($41 million) in the league. They solved one of their issues when they signed inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson on Thursday to start alongside Jerrell Freeman, Erik Walden and Robert Mathis. Davis is the most important player to re-sign with having to acquire a new starting center next in line after Samson Satele was released on March 6. The Colts re-signed punter Pat McAfee to a five-year deal Friday. The 41-year-old Vinatieri believes he can kick for several more seasons. Expect the Colts to look to add depth at receiver to give quarterback Andrew Luck another target to go with receivers T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.

What to expect: The Colts should be able to work out a deal with Davis, who was inconsistent last season but has the talent to be one of the top cornerbacks in the league. Don't expect the Colts to go with a rookie or second-year player as their starting center. The position is too valuable for them to go that direction with their franchise player, Luck, taking the snaps. New Orleans' Brian De La Puente and Green Bay's Evan Dietrich-Smith are both free agents. Denver receiver Eric Decker is an ideal receiver to go with Hilton and Wayne. The Colts and Decker have mutual interest, but he may be out of their price range if he wants to be paid like a No. 1 receiver. Hakeem Nicks and James Jones are also free agents the Colts could pursue. Acquiring a veteran guard is a better option than drafting one, because Indianapolis has the talent to take another step in the AFC next season. Decker's teammate in Denver, guard Zane Beadles, is a free agent.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Former Indianapolis Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian has grades for each player scheduled to hit the free agent market on March 11.

Here’s are the grades Polian gave for each of the Colts’ key free agents:

Antoine Bethea: A

Donald Brown: B+

Pat McAfee: B

Vontae Davis: B-

Adam Vinatieri: C

Here's a breakdown of what each letter grade is worth financially.

A: $6+ million AAV (annual average value), 3+ years guaranteed money

B: $2-6 million AAV, 2 years or fewer guaranteed money

C: $2 million or less AAV, 2 years or fewer guaranteed money

D: Minimum salary, 1 year contract

I was a little surprised Polian had Bethea graded higher than Davis, and I was surprised Davis was also graded lower than McAfee and Brown.

One other noted free agent is offensive lineman Mike McGlynn. Polian gave McGlynn a D. He lost his starting job at guard momentarily but was still a better center than Samson Satele. This should help you put into perspective how low McGlynn graded out, receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey was given a C. Yes, Heyward-Bey, who went from starting the season as the Colts’ No. 2 receiver to ending the season on special teams, graded out higher than McGlynn.

Click here for an explanation of the grading system.

Colts will not use franchise tag

March, 3, 2014
To no one's surprise, the Indianapolis Colts will not use the franchise tag this year. Teams have until 4 p.m. Monday to use the tag.

Cornerback Vontae Davis was the top candidate for the Colts to use the tag on, but it would have been an expensive one if they had decided to go that route. The franchise tag for a cornerback is $11.8 million.

Davis has potential to be one of the top cornerbacks in the league, but he needs to be consistent. He played well enough at times to look like he was on his way to earning a huge payday last season. But he countered the strong play by having some stretches where he wasn’t focused and he struggled.

The Colts can still work out a long-term contract with Davis and their free agents before their contracts expire March 11.

Davis, safety Antoine Bethea, punter Pat McAfee, kicker Adam Vinatieri and running back Donald Brown are the top players heading into free agency for the Colts.

The Colts used the franchise tag on McAfee last year.
INDIANAPOLIS -- The question around this time of year when the NFL scouting combine is going on is: Who are the Indianapolis Colts looking at drafting?

That question is often challenging for the team with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

Will the Houston Texans go with one of the quarterbacks or South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney?

The Colts don't have a first-round pick, so trying to predict who they'll select at No. 59 is almost impossible.

Indianapolis has needs on the offensive line, receiver and linebacker. What the Colts do in free agency will also impact which direction they go in the draft. They could end up needing help at cornerback, safety and punter depending on what happens with Vontae Davis, Antoine Bethea and fan-favorite Pat McAfee, who are all free agents.

"We're optimistic about the process and our game plan, but it is the NFL," Colts general manager Grigson said. "You want to lock everybody up and have everybody here, but it’s still the NFL and you can’t have everything. We're going to try like heck to get that process worked through and see it through how we like."

As far as free agency goes, Grigson will likely take a methodical approach with things and allow the market to get set before doing anything so that he avoids overpaying to re-sign one of his own players.

ESPN’s John Clayton reported over the weekend that the salary cap will be $132 million, which means the Colts will have about $39 million in cap space.

“Just like the draft, free agency kind of mirrors the draft, in sense going to have weaker position groups and stronger position groups every year at different spots,” Grigson said. “So what we do, we have our pro scouts and guys just digging and I get a list during the season, I start knocking those guys out. Because you have to chip away every day, because you can’t do everybody the day before March 11, and then have your draft in place as well. It’s a process and something you have to chip away every day just to have that overall picture in your mind to see if it meshes with what you, your head coach and all your staff kind of sees as our vision moving forward. So we’re just diligent making sure we unearth everybody.”

Colts punter McAfee supports Michael Sam

February, 9, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- Pat McAfee used to be one of those close-minded people. He had his own opinions and was very judgmental about gay people.

Then the Indianapolis Colts punter met several gay people and his thoughts completely changed.

“(I) just realized how stupid I was being,” McAfee said in a text to on Sunday night. “They are just like me. Just happen to be attracted to people of the same sex. Love is love to me. As long as folks are happy, I'm happy. There are a lot of bigger issues in the world, and happiness and love are things we shouldn't be restricting.”

That's why it's not surprising that McAfee, a strong believer in gay rights, went to Twitter to support Michael Sam, the All-American defensive lineman from Missouri, who said he is gay in an interview on ESPN's “Outside the Lines” on Sunday.
I’m sure you all have read, watched or heard about Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's key play and postgame comments after they beat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game to advance to the Super Bowl. You don’t have the Internet, a TV or radio if this is the first you’ve heard about Sherman’s antics.

He’s made Peyton Manning’s third Super Bowl appearance a footnote so far.

Several Indianapolis Colts took to Twitter to give their opinion on Sherman’s key play and postgame interview.


NFLN survey/franchise player: Colts

January, 16, 2014
Quarterback Andrew Luck's NFL career consists of a total of 35 games when you add in the three playoff games he’s appeared in. It’s only taken those 35 games for Luck to earn the respect of his peers around the league.

Luck finished second behind only Peyton Manning, the player he replaced at quarterback with the Indianapolis Colts, during NFL Nation’s survey question of: If you could start a team with one player, whom would it be?

Luck received more votes than Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, New England’s Tom Brady, Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.

And Manning, who has led the Denver Broncos to this weekend’s AFC Championship Game, barely beat Luck. Manning had 62 votes compared to Luck’s 56 votes.

I’m not surprised that so many players selected Luck. He simply knows how to win, he goes about his business the right way and he’ll be leading the Colts for at least the next decade. Punter Pat McAfee once told me that other cities have more to offer when it comes to nightlife or beaches, but if a free agent wants to win he’ll come to Indianapolis because of Luck.

McAfee is right.

Luck is 22-10 in the regular season, he’s already won an AFC South title and he won his first playoff game this season. Manning didn’t win a playoff game this early in his career.

Oh yeah, Luck’s only 24 years old.

There aren’t many other teams around the NFL who can say the same thing.

Indianapolis Colts season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 8
Preseason Power Ranking: 10

Biggest surprise: The questions were valid. Was linebacker Robert Mathis' production a product of having sack-machine Dwight Freeney playing on the other side? Could Mathis still be an impact player without Freeney? Mathis silenced the naysayers when he led the league in sacks with 19.5, including seven strip sacks. Mathis didn't hide the fact that he wanted to quiet the doubters. What made his season even more special is that he did it without much help elsewhere, as the Colts had only 42 sacks as a team. Mathis is one of the front-runners to be the league's defensive player of the year.

Biggest disappointment: Safety LaRon Landry was supposed to have the same kind of impact Bob Sanders had when he played for the Colts. That's why general manager Ryan Grigson signed him to four-year, $24 million contract. Landry was good when he was able to come up with the big hits or touchdown-saving tackles, but it was too often that he ended up whiffing on a play. The plays on which he missed running back Jamaal Charles on a touchdown run in the regular-season game against Kansas City and New England's LeGarrette Blount on his touchdown run last weekend are two examples that quickly come to mind. It also doesn't help that Landry missed four games because of injury this season.

Biggest need: Help on both lines -- offensive and defensive -- should be at the top of Grigson's list during the offseason. The Colts are set at offensive tackle with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus. Donald Thomas will be back to take one of the guard spots after he missed most of the season with a quad injury, but the other guard spot and center could use upgrades. The Colts need a defensive tackle who can clog the middle of the line.

Team MVP: This is a no-brainer. Quarterback Andrew Luck was mentioned as a league MVP candidate at one point in the season. The second-year quarterback overcame injuries to five key offensive starters -- including future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne -- to cut his interceptions in half, increase his completion percentage and throw the same number of touchdown passes despite 52 fewer attempts. Take Luck out of the lineup and the Colts would have won maybe six games this season.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The last thing Indianapolis Colts punter Pat McAfee wanted was to draw some unnecessary attention to the team during the playoffs.

But that’s what happened when a picture that was meant to praise kicker Adam Vinatieri was centered around the person in the background after their wild-card victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Jan. 4.

McAfee tweeted a picture of Vinatieri, who had a towel around his waist and a sweater with a collared shirt on.

What McAfee didn’t notice when he first tweeted the picture was that quarterback Andrew Luck was naked in the background.

Fortunately for McAfee, though, a Colts employee had his phone in a perfect position – blocking Luck’s butt – to avoid having the Twitter world get a view of the franchise player’s rear end.

McAfee deleted the tweet right away, but the damage had already been done.

Websites like Deadspin and Huffington Post grabbed the picture and wrote stories about it.

McAfee said he immediately called Luck’s phone like 400 times to try to catch the quarterback before he heard about it from somebody else. Luck still hadn’t turned his phone on after the game. McAfee said he was fined between one dollar and $3 million by the team.

“I still feel bad about it today,” McAfee said. “Luckily Andrew is the best and he wasn’t upset about it.”
Chuck PaganoAndy Lyons/Getty Images"Chuck [Pagano] is someone who is genuine and he's someone that can get his players to buy into his message," GM Ryan Grigson said.
INDIANAPOLIS -- An argument could be made that Chuck Pagano's head coaching record in 2012 should have an asterisk next to it. The Indianapolis Colts went 11-5 during his first year. Pagano, though, only coached four of those games (2-2) because of an unfortunate battle with leukemia.

So a deserving question heading into this season was: Could Pagano really coach?

The Colts had everything it took to make a run in the AFC this season. Playmakers on offense to go with franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. A defense that was supposed to be better in Year 2 of Pagano's 3-4 defense.

But one by one, key offensive players went down.

Running backs Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw. Guard Donald Thomas. Tight end Dwayne Allen. Then the big hit happened, the kind of devastating blow that had Pagano choked up during the press conference. Future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne was lost for the season with a torn ACL.

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLosing Reggie Wayne for the season to a torn ACL tested the Colts' mettle.
That in itself gave the Colts every reason to start to crumble.

Not only was Pagano's coaching put to the test, but also his ability to keep his team tied together during that time because sympathy cards weren't going to start coming in the mail from their opponents.

The journey wasn't smooth. It was actually bumpy at times, as some of Pagano's coaching decisions came into question. But when it was all said and done, the “family,” as they call themselves, stuck together, had another 11-win season and are headed back to the playoffs for the second straight sesaon.

“We're talking about a guy who fought every day during his battle with cancer,” Robert Mathis said. “If he did that, we could definitely go every single day and compete. If he told me to run through a brick wall, I'd do it for him. That's the type of coach he is.”

Pagano's name isn't near the top of the list when it comes to coach of the year candidates, but the job he did this season can't be discounted after they used a league-high 73 players during the regular season.

Here they stand, AFC South champs and days away from hosting the Kansas City Chiefs in a wild-card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium while 20 other teams are on vacation.

“You don't want to let Chuck down,” defensive end Cory Redding. “That's the biggest thing that will hurt anybody in this locker room if you let Chuck down. Chuck believes in you, so you want to give him everything you've got.”

The big picture has never changed for Pagano.

It started at training camp in Anderson, Ind., when he told his team that they had one shot because nothing is guaranteed, so they needed to “pour everything we have into this season.” It remained the same as players were lost to injury and continued when the defense couldn't stop giving up big plays and you wondered why they continued to try to run the ball this season.

It boiled down to trust, loyalty and respect with Pagano. Those are the three things he constantly preached to his players through the good and bad times.

“Really from the beginning we wanted a leader of men and someone that had those qualities and weren't fake about it,” Colts general manager Ryan Grigson said. “That's the one thing that people don't realize, football players get shortchanged. They're a lot smarter than people think and they know when someone is full of baloney. Chuck is someone who is genuine and he's someone that can get his players to buy into his message.”

There's no clear definition of what a player's coach is. But do an Internet search of it and there's a good chance Pagano's picture will pop up, punter Pat McAfee said. He treats every player the same, no matter if it's Andrew Luck or the last player on the practice squad.

Redding's phone went off earlier this season. He looked down at it and noticed it was a text message from Pagano.

“It basically said get your beep out your head and start playing like you know how to,” Redding recalled the message saying.

Upset or embarrassed?

Not one bit.

Redding embraced how Pagano handled the situation. The coach didn't call him out in a team meeting or berate him on the sideline in front of everybody at practice. That's not how Pagano learned to do things from his father, a former high school football coach in Colorado.

“Trust me, he does have a temper,” Redding said. “He'll dog cuss you out in a heartbeat, but it takes a lot for him to get there. He does it in a way that's coachable, in a way that's a constructive criticism type deal. He will get on you like that, but never in a way that will degrade you as a person or a man or insult your manhood. You respect a man who respects you.”

Pagano's first playoff game as a head coach didn't go well, as they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the wild-card game last season. They used that as a learning experience.

“I think players, coaches, everybody has got a year under their belt,” Pagano said. “So you know a little bit more what to expect. Again, it's playoffs. It's one and done. We know that. We know it's a tournament type of atmosphere, all those things. We're just going to prepare like we always prepare and try to go play better than we did last week.”
Andrew Luck and Paul GeorgeGetty ImagesAndrew Luck, left, and Paul George are the biggest sports stars in Indianapolis.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis is part of the 34th-largest metropolitan area in the country. It's a small-market city in the Midwest that is considered rather vanilla. It lacks the bright lights of New York. It doesn't have the sandy beaches of Miami or Los Angeles. It's a big deal in Indianapolis when Justin Timberlake is sitting courtside at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

But located in the heart of downtown, and just a long Andrew Luck pass apart, are two venues where two of the best young players in their respective sports play. They're two players who have caused eyes from around the country to focus on Indianapolis' two professional sports teams in a way that hasn't happened since Reggie Miller was launching 3-pointers for the Indiana Pacers and Peyton Manning was picking apart defenses for the Indianapolis Colts.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesAndrew Luck has led the Colts to the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
Paul George of the Pacers and Luck of the Colts are two who represent the state well. They're both under 25 and they both have their teams in a good position for years to come.

“It's cool that this city has two up-and-comers that are restoring what used to be here with Reggie and Peyton,” George said. “There are not many cities that can say that. The Colts have been good for a while outside of that one year, which helped them get Andrew, and we've worked way up to where we believe we're starting to get respect finally.”

USA Today ran a story Dec. 9 ranking the winningest sports cities in North America.

The city sitting on top?

Not New York or Miami.


The Pacers, a win away from reaching the NBA Finals last season, have been on a mission to knock the Miami Heat off their throne as NBA champions. They won their first nine games of the season and have the best record in the Eastern Conference at 20-4 heading into Wednesday's showdown against the Heat. Luck has led the Colts to their first AFC South title in three years.

“To have young studs at the top of their field in the NBA and NFL, it's a tribute to Indy being a true sports town,” Colts linebacker Robert Mathis said. “It started out as a basketball state, we were able to nudge them a little bit and get football on the Hoosiers' mind, and now the Pacers are back.”

A lot of people in the country will be looking at Indianapolis for a long time because we have two people in key positions in our sports franchises that the nation will be talking about.

-- Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard on Andrew Luck and Paul George
The Pacers have been looking for a franchise player since Miller gave a final wave to his 18-year Hall of Fame career more than eight years ago.

The 23-year-old George has stepped up to fill that void by becoming one of the NBA's premier all-around players and an MVP candidate. George, an All-Star last season, is averaging 23.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals while defending the opposing teams' best perimeter player each game.

Luck's task was even tougher. The 24-year-old was selected to replace Manning, the person responsible for leading the Colts to two Super Bowls and having Lucas Oil Stadium built, less than two months after the team released Manning. All Luck has done is lead the Colts to the playoffs in his first two seasons.

“They both represent Indianapolis very, very well,” Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard said. “You can't just win in Indianapolis and in Indiana, you have to win the right way otherwise it's not accepted. I'm not sure they would be as well received in the city or the state without strong character traits. A lot of people in the country will be looking at Indianapolis for a long time because we have two people in key positions in our sports franchises that the nation will be talking about.”

Don't ask George or Luck to talk about themselves, though. They'd rather praise their teammates because they wouldn't have their success without them, according to Luck.

George declined to do a one-on-one with ESPN earlier this season. He would agree to the interview only if the entire starting five took part. Luck has been beat up like a punching bag by defenses because of poor blocking by the offensive line. But he refuses to point the finger at that group. His reasoning for it is that he needs to get rid of the ball quicker or take a step up in the pocket to avoid the rush.

[+] EnlargePaul George
Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty ImagesPaul George and the Pacers currently sit atop the Eastern Conference.
“I think one, I was taught to have a respect for the game, for sports growing up,” Luck said. “Football is the ultimate team sport. It's so cool that the quarterback has to rely on a 315-pounder who has an incredibly different skill set. Any time one person does well, you know there are 10 other guys doing their job. It's such a team sport, so why not make it about everybody else?”

The path the two took to get where they are couldn't be any more different.

Luck was the can't-miss No. 1 overall pick, the best quarterback coming out of the draft since Manning in 1998. The thought that there was even a debate over whom to take between Luck and Robert Griffin III is laughable today.

George was a relatively unknown player out of Fresno State who was projected to be selected late in the first round or early in the second when he first put his name in the 2010 draft. Pacers fans had hoped that Gordon Hayward, an Indianapolis product, would be available when the team picked at No. 10. Team president Larry Bird avoided having the state upset at him when the Utah Jazz selected Hayward at No. 9, making it an easy decision to select George over North Carolina's Ed Davis.

Both teams made the right choice and both teams, along with the rest of the country, know they have a bright future.

“Paul George is emerging as a superstar, an MVP candidate, and Andrew Luck, anybody with a brain knows he'll be an MVP in the future,” Colts punter Pat McAfee said. “Winning now is awesome, but to have that certainty of winning in the future is good for both franchises and for the city. I think it'll attract people to our city.”