BALTIMORE – There was nothing unexpected about their reactions as they walked towards the tunnel at M&T Bank Stadium.
Disappointment hung on their faces just minutes removed from the end of their season following a 24-9 loss to the Ravens Sunday afternoon. No solace could be found in their improbably run to the playoffs, only regret at the opportunity just past.
“Walking out of a playoff losses is one of the hardest things you can do,” said owner Jim Irsay, who saw many of these players dealing with just that in the locker room. “It hurts like hell.”
But the charismatic owner was quick to offer a more global reflection on the 2012 season. It’s a team that won 11 games, but it’s not that total that made it unique.
There was the end of the Manning era and the beginning of the Luck regime. There was leadership and roster turnover in the spirit of rebuilding. There was a coach who was diagnosed, fought and returned to coaching after Leukemia kept him off the sidelines for 12 games.
“This year was incredible. It was special and unique in so many ways,” said Irsay. “It was one of the most special seasons in the Colts history and probably NFL history. I couldn’t have imagined how this season would have played out.
“We had a coach fighting for his life, we re-organized, won 11 games and went to the playoffs.”
Chuck Pagano’s Leukemia battle and recovery had a lot to do with the added significance of the season. Immediate shock and sadness was immediately followed by the “ChuckStrong” movement and an emotional win over the Packers. He got back to the Colts complex for some meetings in November and began to attend home games at Lucas Oil Stadium. An emotion Christmas Eve news conference welcomed his return to full-time work and his sideline appearance in the Texans’ win cemented his comeback.
“Coach is an inspiration to us and the people in Indianapolis,” said quarterback Andrew Luck of Pagano’s journey. “The courage that he has shown this season has been an example for us all. His situation put a lot of perspective on football and life.
“We just love him to death.”
Feelings of a rookie were shared by defensive end Dwight Freeney, an 11-year veteran of the franchise who saw a new twist to his tenth playoff season.
“It really was bigger than football,” said Freeney of 2012. “Seeing that adversity that happened to Chuck and for him to fight back and get back out there doing the things that he loves and for us to rise together to bring an extra oomph just because we know he’s watching and make him proud.
“It was a special year.”
Pagano returned similar praise to his team in the moments following the defeat on Sunday. Despite losing their coach the Colts became just the second team to lose 14 games the season before and make the playoffs in the following season. Its going through these “circumstances” as Pagano likes to say that points to strong potential for the coming years.
“The foundation is set. We said we were going to build one on rock and not on sand, because you can weather storms like this and you can learn from times like this,” said Pagano of the season and Sunday’s playoff defeat. “The disappointment and the feelings that they all have right now, that’s what is going to propel us to 2013. That’s what’s going to motivate us to come back and work even harder.
“We’ve got a young group, as you know, and we’ve got a bright future.”
Though they’ll enjoy to take a quick look back at a unique season every now and again.