The 2013 NFL season has turned into a reunion tour, of sorts, for the Indianapolis Colts.
First it was second-year quarterback Andrew Luck’s road trip to San Francisco to face the team led by his former college coach, San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh also is a former Colts player, leading the team to the AFC title game in 1995.
Then it was Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano’s meeting with his brother’s team, the San Diego Chargers. John Pagano is the Chargers’ defensive coordinator.
A week later, former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning made his return to the city that he called home for 13 seasons when Denver visited Lucas Oil Stadium.
The tour heads west Sunday (4:05 p.m., CBS Sports) as Indianapolis travels to University of Phoenix Stadium to face the Arizona Cardinals. Arizona’s head coach is former Colts offensive coordinator/interim head coach Bruce Arians.
Also on the Cardinals’ coaching staff is former Indianapolis offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who is Arizona’s assistant head coach; offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin, the Colts’ offensive line coach last season; and outside linebackers coach James Bettcher, Indianapolis’ special defensive assistant in 2012.
And then there’s former Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers, now with Arizona, and ex-Cardinals cornerback Greg Toler, who is returning from a groin injury and is expected to start for Indianapolis on Sunday.
The Pagano-Arians connection, though, will attract the most attention.
Arizona’s first-year head coach earned NFL Coach of the Year honors last season as he filled in for Pagano, who was undergoing treatment for leukemia. The Colts’ head coach missed most of the year and Arians led the team to a 9-3 record (Indianapolis was 11-5 overall) and a wild-card spot in the AFC playoffs.
It was largely due to the fact that Arians had done such a good job leading the Colts that he wound up as head coach in Arizona. He was a veteran NFL assistant who had come out of a forced retirement after being released by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For both head coaches, Sunday’s game in the desert can’t come soon enough.
“I think our guys are excited to play the Cardinals,” Pagano stressed. “It’s the next game. [But] it’s going to be a tough one. [Arians has] got a really good football team, solid in all three phases and well coached. It will be challenge for our team.”
Playing a team with a head coach who knows the Colts so well does have its disadvantages. It also might give the Indianapolis coaches a better feel for the Cardinals.
“I think it probably goes both ways. There’s probably some things from a communication standpoint more than anything else. Again, system change, new coordinator, things like that,” Pagano explained. “I don’t know how much intel there is. We’ve got ours, they’ve got theirs. We got to play the game on the field.”
The Indianapolis coach and Arians go way back as friends. They were assistants together in Cleveland and Pagano was quick to bring the Cardinals head coach to Indianapolis prior to last season.
Pagano knows what Arians wants to do offensively.
“Run it and throw it down the field as far as you can and complete a lot of them,” he said. “He’s been doing it a long time. He’s a great playcaller. We all know that. You see a lot of similarities in there and he’s utilizing their talent very well.
“We try to go into [this game] saying [Arizona will] throw it down the field. It’s just as much an opportunity for us [defensively] as it is them.”
The game has playoff implications for Arizona, which is in a tight field for a possible NFC wild-card berth. But Pagano also views Sunday’s matchup as having an effect on the Colts’ postseason chances.
“It’s them and the same thing for us,” he said. “So [for] our guys, it’s all playoff football right now.”
Arians, for his part, agrees.
“I don’t think for [Pagano] and I, I think it’s for everybody else, because it is such an important game. He and I don’t get to play. It’s all about the players and it should always be about the players,” he said during a Wednesday teleconference.
“This is a playoff game for us. We’re in a situation where we’re tied for that last wild-card spot and every week’s a playoff game. We can’t get behind with Carolina winning again [on Monday night]. We’ve got to be chasing them and sitting on their heels, so that hopefully they’ll stumble and we’ll catch them and we’ll get that tiebreaker and make those last two games of the season really meaningful for us. Every week, we’re in a playoff mode. If we lose, we’re out.”
• • •
• Roster moves — The Colts waived wide receiver Griff Whalen from the active roster and signed former Pittsburgh Steelers running back/kick returner Chris Rainey.
Rainey, who worked out for Indianapolis coaches Tuesday, has had a history of off-field legal issues during his 2012 rookie season in Pittsburgh and at the University of Florida. He had been a fifth-round draft pick by the Steelers.
“We have signed Chris Rainey. Chris’ history is well-documented. We did our due diligence on Chris. We brought Chris in [Tuesday]. We worked him out. We sat him down, spent a lot of time with him, obviously. He understands what the expectations are,” Pagano said.
No decision has been made yet as to whether Rainey will play Sunday against the Cardinals or if he will be used as a kickoff returner if he does play.
“Obviously he’s done it in the past, both kickoff return and punt return, so certainly we know he’s more than capable,” the Colts’ coach said.
“We feel like he’s learned from his mistakes and they’re behind him. Again, he understands the opportunity that’s been given to him. He understands what it means to wear the horseshoe and we fully expect Chris to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Indianapolis also elevated rookie tight end Justice Cunningham from the practice squad to the active roster. Outside linebacker Erik Walden, meanwhile, has been suspended for the Arizona game by the NFL after an altercation with Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker last week.
Walden tore Walker’s helmet off and then head-butted the Titans player. While he was flagged for a personal foul, Walden was not ejected from the game. The suspension was appealed but not upheld.
“As you know, Erik Walden’s appeal was denied by the league. He’ll miss Sunday’s game, obviously. That’s between Erik and the league and for me to comment further on that would be inappropriate at this time,” Pagano said, adding that time will tell if Rainey will remain with the team after Walden returns from his suspension.
With Walden out, rookie Bjoern Werner will make his first NFL start at outside linebacker.
• Injury list — Sitting out Wednesday's workout were fullback Stanley Havili (concussion), running back Dan Herron (ankle), safety LaRon Landry (toe) and cornerback Greg Toler (groin). Landry was wearing a walking boot in the locker room.
Cornerback Josh Gordy (groin) saw limited work. Wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey (ankle) and safety Delano Howell (neck) fully participated in the workout.
“Stanley Havili had some concussion symptoms following the game, came in Monday, started running around and so he’s going to be day-to-day. He’ll go through the [league's concussion] protocol,” the Colts’ coach said.
“Greg Toler, Josh Gordy, Landry, Boom Herron are all day-to-day progressing with their injuries. We know what Toler and Gordy had. Landry’s got a toe that’s aggravated. We’ll rest him and he’ll be day-to-day and Boom’s got an ankle and DHB [Heyward-Bey] is fine.”