Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s ‘magic’ impact on fighting cancer

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A different column today, taking a breath entering the post-draft lull in the NFL calendar. 

On Thursday, the Chicago Bears will hold an off-season practice in Lake Forest, Ill. Then, around 1:30 p.m., team chairman George McCaskey, coach Matt Nagy and other Bears coaches and officials will board a van for a 3.5-hour ride south. On the van will be the guest of honor for a fundraiser Thursday night that’s unlike any charity event connected to the NFL these days.

It’s a cancer fundraiser, with Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano the man of the evening. It’s the seventh annual Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala. The first six have raised more than $5.5 million for cancer research. But this year’s is different.

Pagano, whose very public conquest of leukemia in 2012 was one of the great feel-good stories of recent NFL seasons, was fired by the Colts 16 months ago. Coaches who get fired go away quietly and stay away. They don’t say what they really feel most often—that they were wronged, that they weren’t the problem. The firing team moves on, and rarely mentions the vanquished coach.

The Colts are different. Pagano is different. Indianapolis is different. And now the Chicago Bears are in the Pagano web.

“I’m not bitter,” Pagano said from Illinois the other day. “I’m better. [Colts owner] Jim Irsay and I have a relationship for life. I love Jim Irsay. I love the organization. At some point coaches have to say goodbye to teams, and teams have to say goodbye to coaches. If you win, you keep your job, and if not, they move in a different direction. I never took it personal. And now I get to coach with one of the great franchises in sports, the Chicago Bears. I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

Those who fight cancer in Indiana, and football fans in Chicagoland, are glad that’s just a figure of speech. The Bears will have a table at the Tailgate Gala inside the Colts’ practice facility northwest of the city. The Bears and Colts might be rivals for the NFL fan in northern Indiana, but on this night, the Chicago head coach and chairman will attend this gala on the Colts practice field. The organization will write a check to support their defensive coordinator’s cause, and that coordinator will mingle with the people who fired him, and rub shoulders with those in Indiana who can make great things happen by writing checks of their own.

“Chuck brings magic to so many people,” Irsay told me. “I believe it. I’ve seen it. The impact he continues to have on fighting cancer, it’s just magic.”

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The question I had for Pagano was a tough one. Cruel, really. But in many ways, he’s George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the banker who found out how much he meant to people in his town when it was almost too late to save the town.

Imagine, I asked Pagano, if you never got leukemia in 2012. Imagine if you hadn’t been cured, then gone on to raise almost $6 million for the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center. Imagine if the funds you raised to recruit to the Simon Cancer Center specialists in leukemia, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, cancer genetics, and, most recently, funding to endow a Chuck and Tina (his wife) Pagano Scholar hire each year, guaranteeing an annual hire for cancer research in one specialty area. Imagine, as Simon Cancer Center director of development Amber Kleopfer Senseny said, “Two hundred years from now, we’ll hire another Chuck and Tina Pagano Scholar, to research another form of cancer.” That’s George Bailey stuff.

“Do you sometimes wonder about all the lives that never would have been helped if you didn’t get leukemia, and you didn’t start this cause?”

Pagano paused. “That is a story that will never be told,” he said. “The Lord had a plan for me, I know that. Coming to the Simon Cancer Center saved my life. Really, research saved my life. Because somebody donated money for research into my form of leukemia 30 years ago, they came up with a cure for it. Thirty years ago, I’d have had a 50-percent chance to make it. When I was diagnosed, it was over 90 percent. That’s why I’m so passionate about research. All the money we’ve been raised through this Chuckstrong thing, it’s really the kindness of thousands.”

Now it extends to the Bears, who named Pagano defensive coordinator after Vic Fangio got the Denver head-coaching job in January. “When we hired Chuck,” coach Matt Nagy said over the weekend, “he said to me, ‘Hey, I want to get out front on this. I’ve got this event in Indianapolis, and the date was set prior to me taking the job. It’s for this cause I really believe in.’ I said this is great stuff. We wanted to figure out how to get involved. We got some coaches, we got Mr. McCaskey, we got some other people, and we figured a way to back Chuck and be a part of this event. We really feel fortunate to be involved. You talk about turning adversity into a positive. This is on a whole other level. It’s neat. It’s just a good thing.”

Pagano is in complete remission, and his prognosis to live a long life is good. There’s much of Indianapolis in Chicago with him—Pagano has pictures in his office of the cancer patients he got to know and help (and who helped him) over the past few years. “Not to get too trippy,” Irsay said, “but I have seen Chuck give his time, lots of it, to total strangers. He inspires them. Inspiration is rocket fuel, and he has given that over and over to the frightening world of people whose lives are on the edge. That’s not going to change because he works somewhere else.”

More information about the Chuckstrong Tailgate Gala.

NFL Week 13 awards: Nick Bosa, defenses steal show

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Offensive Players of the Week

Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. What a show of cool-under-pressure excellence by Burrow. He was unshakeable, hitting 25 of 31 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His most impressive moment came with less than two minutes left, as the Bengals had third-and-11 at the Kansas City 28 with a three-point lead, hoping to hang onto the ball and run out the clock rather than kick a field goal and give Mahomes an entire minute to drive for six points. Burrow was in the pocket for about two seconds when Chiefs DE Mike Danna broke through the line on the strong side. When Danna hesitated for a half-second (appearing to make sure Burrow still had the ball), Burrow took advantage to thread a perfect ball to a closely-covered Tee Higgins, hitting him in stride for a first down to ice the game. Burrow moves to 3-0 against Mahomes – all in this calendar year. Honorable mentions to Jonah Williams, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins on the offensive line who, less than a year after Burrow endured 20 sacks in the postseason, have held two of his tormenters (Tennessee and Kansas City) to one sack each in consecutive weeks.

A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Philadelphia. This was the game Brown had circled on his mental calendar—the Titans coming to Philadelphia seven months after the Titans traded Brown to Philadelphia—and the drama did not disappoint. Brown’s 40-yard TD pass from good friend Jalen Hurts in the second quarter put the Eagles ahead for good, 14-7, and Brown’s well-covered 29-yard TD catch in third quarter gave the Eagles all the insurance they’d need. For the game, Brown caught eight balls for 119 yards and those two scores as the Eagles routed the AFC South leaders.

 

Defensive Players of the Week

Bobby Wagner, linebacker, L.A. Rams. Ahead of this game Wagner, who spent the first 10 seasons of his career with Seattle, downplayed the significance of facing his former team for the first time, calling it “just another game,” in classic unruffled veteran speak. But Wagner’s performance Sunday was fit for a revenge game, including two sacks, two QB hits, three tackles for loss and a gritty, momentum-shifting interception in the third quarter when he muscled the ball out of the grip of Seattle’s Tony Jones. The Seahawks came away with the win, but Wagner was everywhere Sunday, reminding his former team of the impact player he can be.

Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco. The definition of a valuable player is one who’s at his best when moments are the biggest. Bosa sacked Tua Tagovailoa twice when the game was in the balance, and when times were desperate at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, Bosa strip-sacked Tagovailoa, and the fumble was returned for a rub-it-in late TD. When Bosa is in form, the Niners can win games with their D. They did Sunday.

Chandler Jones, defensive end, Las Vegas. It was a breakout night for Jones, one that will go at least part of the way to quieting critics of the mismatch between his $51 million contract signed this offseason and his impact on the field so far in 2022. Jones entered the day with just a half-sack on the season but brought down Justin Herbert three times, part of relentless pressure that also yielded him five QB hits and a pass defended in the Raiders’ 27-20 win over the Chargers.

Jalen Pitre, strong safety, Houston. The second-round rookie from Baylor, who has been a bright spot in a terrible season for the Texans, saved his best for the Deshaun Watson return to Houston Sunday. Pitre had an NFL-best 16 tackles in Week 13, and he added an interception that, at the time, was crucial—he picked off Watson three yards deep in the end zone on a bad decision by the quarterback. The Texans have a lot of holes to fill for 2023, but strong safety isn’t one of them.

 

Special teams players of the week

Donovan Peoples-Jones, receiver/returner, Cleveland. While Deshaun Watson struggled mightily in his first game back, Peoples-Jones saved the Browns from eternal first-half damnation. Down 5-0 with four minutes left in the second quarter, Peoples-Jones took a punt at the Cleveland 24-yard line, got hit by three Texans, weaved to the right sideline and won a footrace for a 76-yard TD. Boy, did the Browns need that.

Greg Zuerlein, kicker, N.Y. Jets. Scored 12 straight points between late in the second quarter and midway through the fourth, almost enough to lift the Jets to an upset of the Vikings in Minnesota. His five field goals—from 48, 60, 36, 30 and 26 yards—in five tries made this day reminiscent of some of the biggest Greg the Leg games.

 

Coach of the Week

Lou Anarumo, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. This was a huge win for the Bengals, their fourth straight, against a powerhouse Chiefs squad. Today, the “Big Play Bengals” moniker was a perfect fit for Anarumo’s defense, including two key plays in the final quarter. It’s rare we see Travis Kelce lose the ball – in fact, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt was responsible for Kelce’s first lost fumble of the season, halting the Chiefs’ first drive of the quarter and keeping the game within reach. Then, with Cincy up 27-24 in the final five minutes, Joseph Ossai sacked Patrick Mahomes on third and three to force a 55-yard Harrison Butker field goal attempt that sailed wide right, and just like that, the Bengals are 8-4. Anarumo interviewed for the Giants vacancy last season, and he’s rumored to be a head-coach candidate again this year. Neutralizing Kelce and helping the Bengals keep pace with the Ravens in the North can’t hurt his chances for a big job.

 

Goat of the week

Matt Patricia, assistant coach, Patriots. Not because Mac Jones yelled either at him or out of frustration Thursday night in the 24-10 loss to the Bills, or because offensive players subtly questioned Patricia’s play-calling after the game. But because the Patriots have developed zero downfield passing game, with nobody remotely threatening the secondary. Against the Bills, just seven of Mac Jones’ 36 passes went 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or farther. You could argue that Jones—who completed just one of those seven throws—didn’t play well enough to deserve the trust of Patricia to throw to intermediate and deep areas. What I would say is Jones, the previous week against Minnesota, had completions of 26, 34, 16, 14, 37 and 40 yards on throws 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. The Buffalo game was a regression of major proportions. Patricia needed to build on the Minnesota game and did not.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Joe Burrow giving Cincinnati Bengals edge in AFC

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I’m fascinated by the pennant race in the AFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati are tied for the top spot at 8-4. The Ravens have the tiebreaker with a win over the Bengals in Week Five; they have a rematch at Cincinnati Week 18. Their comparative schedules give the Ravens a slight edge, mostly because Cincinnati has a dangerous Monday night game against Buffalo at home in Week 17.

Baltimore: at Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati.

Cincinnati: Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England, Buffalo, Baltimore.

But the quarterback gives the Bengals a big edge:

Baltimore: Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for an undetermined amount of time. Tyler Huntley, a nice backup, will hold the fort.

Cincinnati: Joe Burrow’s last seven weeks: 6-1, NFL-best 118.1 rating, 74.7 percent accuracy.

In the last two weeks, Burrow has beaten Tennessee and Kansas City in one-score games, playing his best when the best was required. The throw that blew me away watching the highlights of this game was a throw that was next-to-impossible to execute, at a time when the stakes of the game were high.

The situation: Cincinnati led 27-24 with 1:59 left in the game and had third-and-11 at the KC 28-. Kansas City had no timeouts left. If the Bengals converted here, they could run out the clock with two or three kneeldowns. If they were stopped here, Evan McPherson would be called on to try a field goal to stretch the lead to six points. So this third-down snap was everything.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here are the odds Burrow faced:

Next Gen had that Chris Jones, Mike Danna and Frank Clark all crossed the line of scrimmage faster than what’s considered the league’s above-average get-off time of .75 seconds. Danna, who came across in six-tenths of a second, was bearing down on Burrow as he readied to throw in a hurry.

The receiver, Tee Higgins, running a post route, never had more than two yards of separation from Kansas City cornerback Joshua Williams. Watching the replay, Williams looked like he was velcroed to Higgins.

Burrow threw the ball a split-second before getting hit by Danna. At the time of the throw, Williams was 18 inches from Higgins. In his shirt, in other words. When the ball gets to Higgins, he is contacted immediately (and maybe a tick before the ball gets there) by Williams. Burrow got hit. Higgins caught the ball. Gain of 14. Game over.

“You know the quarterback they have over there,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal there or else [Patrick Mahomes] goes down the field and wins the game. We had to find a way to get that conversion, and Tee Higgins made a big play, just like he did in the AFC Championship.”

A few things come to mind about this Cincinnati team:

The offensive line is better. Shredded last year in the playoffs and early this year while the group was getting experience together, the five men up front are giving Burrow championship protection. In the last four games, Burrow has been sacked five times—including one each by Tennessee and KC in the last two games. Those two teams bedeviled Burrow in the playoffs last year. The leadership of free-agent center Ted Karras has been important.

They’re superb when games are tight. I attribute much of this to Burrow, who has a cool gene, the way great ones in the clutch have had. Each of their three playoff wins last January was a one-score game; Cincinnati’s last three wins have come by 7, 4 and 3 over the Steelers, Titans and Chiefs. His throw to Higgins and his clinical explanation for it illustrate why he and Mahomes might be the two quarterbacks with the best clutch play late in games right now.

The defense is not just along for the ride. In the last four weeks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has allowed an average of 318 yards with opposing passers completing just 60.1 percent. Mahomes was good Sunday (223 yards, one TD) but not dominant. Anarumo’s going to be a popular head-coach interview come the post-season for teams trying to figure how to beat Kansas City; he’s 3-0 against KC since January.

Even if the Bengals have to play road games through the playoffs, I doubt it’d bother them after winning in Nashville and Kansas City last year. That Week 18 game against the Ravens could determine everything, which is why I think it has the best chance of being game 272—the Sunday night game of the last weekend. It could have the most at stake of any final game. My money’s on Burrow if that happens.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column