Down, but never out: Why Colts’ Frank Reich is king of comebacks


INDIANAPOLIS — It was the only type of reaction you’d expect from Frank Reich.

Andrew Luck, the franchise quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, had just delivered the biggest blow to the organization in a decade when, during a private meeting at the team complex on Aug. 20, 2019, he told his head coach, owner Jim Irsay and general manager Chris Ballard that he planned to retire.

A decision like that, especially coming two weeks before the start of the regular season, caused panic and a lot of uneasiness in the quarterback-driven NFL.

Some fans inside Lucas Oil Stadium the night of Luck’s retirement on Aug. 24, 2019, snapped pictures of the quarterback one final time as he stood on the sideline in Colts shorts and T-shirt after ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke the news. Others, clearly angry over his decision, booed as he walked off the field.

But Reich?

He did what he often does best: He didn’t flinch.

“He’s always been that guy that has gotten his team through it,” said Boomer Esiason, a teammate of Reich’s at the University of Maryland. “Buffalo, Maryland. Everywhere he’s been, he’s been in big situations where he’s had to be the guy himself. He knows that feeling of having to overcome things on the field and off of it.”

Reich isn’t one who wavers. He talks with the same conviction and walks with the same confidence that he has carried no matter what he has encountered along the way.

To not being able to ever really become a full-time starting quarterback in college or the NFL. To stepping in as a backup quarterback and leading teams at the University of Maryland and Buffalo Bills to the largest comebacks in college football and NFL history. To putting a promising coaching career on hold to pursue a career as a minister. To not being the first choice as head coach of the Colts and overcoming a 1-5 start and leading them to the playoffs in 2018.

To losing Luck.

There should be a picture of Reich’s face next to the word “comeback” when you look it up.

“Can you believe everything he’s had to deal with?” said former Bills coach Marv Levy, who turned 95 this month. “I’m not surprised one bit how he’s handled it with the best of them. He’s unique, high character, self-demanding of himself. He’s not a guy who is panicking and slamming the tables. He’s studying, he’s preparing. He’s not being phony about anything. He never tried to be somebody he wasn’t in doing it.”

Reich’s biggest challenge is now taking place. He has the responsibility of preparing a team — like the other 31 in the league — that didn’t have any field work during the offseason session because of the coronavirus. Reich and his staff have been cramming what would typically be months of work into six weeks.

That’s fine with Reich. He doesn’t get worked up about it. He’s embracing the moment and going with it.

“My dad modeled it. I saw him model it,” Reich said. “Not just as a coach, but that was his demeanor and his poise in all situations. In life. When our house was ravaged by a flood and we lost everything, how he handled that. He was a leader, not with our home, but in the neighborhood helping other people.

“Both of my parents were school teachers. I’d hear all the stories about the classroom experiences. From a leadership standpoint, a competition standpoint, really, my parents modeled it for me.”

The good boy

The laugh was the same, even though they were nearly 600 miles apart talking about Reich at two different times.

Brian Baker was a teammate at the University of Maryland and now is the Colts’ defensive line coach. He was thinking the same thing as Esiason, a former quarterback at Maryland before becoming an All-Pro with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Reich was a football nerd in college. He studied the game, preparing to be called upon at any moment, and became an incredible teammate.

“Frank and I ran in different circles. I was doing crazy stuff back then and Frank wasn’t. He was being responsible,” Baker said. “But we always had a friendship. It was strange because there was no reason why we should have been friends. The thing that’s exactly the same about Frank back then and still today is that he’s genuine and consistent. That’s all you can ask from a person.”

Reich didn’t get a lot of playing time at Maryland. He appeared in a total of 18 games and threw for barely 1,700 yards. His claim to fame was coming off the bench to replace Stan Gelbaugh and leading the Terrapins from a 31-0 halftime deficit to beat the University of Miami 42-40 in 1984. It was the largest comeback in NCAA history at the time.

The majority of Reich’s time at Maryland was spent on the sideline and in the meeting room, thinking and analyzing the game as if he were a coach.

“Frank was the studious one, without question, when we lived together,” said Esiason, who started at Maryland for three years with Reich as a backup. “If you asked our coaches how to describe the two of us, they would say I was the rebellious one. He was the one that was easy to get along with. I was probably a little more distracted, if you know what I mean.”

Just knew it

The Bills of the late 1980s and early 1990s, led by Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, put a heavy emphasis on running the no-huddle offense, which kept defenses off balance and played a part in them reaching the Super Bowl for four consecutive years — all losses — from 1991-94.

Reich was right there in the preparation of the offense that gave defenses fits. He and Kelly would meet almost daily by themselves well before the rest of the offensive coaching staff arrived, going over plays they believed would work in the game plan. Reich often would tell Kelly that if he didn’t believe in a play, don’t run it because he’d need to believe in it to have a chance for it to be successful.

Did Kelly always listen to Reich on what plays to run?

Of course not. But he listened more times than not during their eight seasons as teammates with the Bills.

“When people talk about giving their two cents, that wasn’t Frank,” Kelly said. “When Frank spoke it was dollars, it was paper money. It wasn’t pennies. It was something you take to heart and I always did. Every time Frank spoke, I always took it to heart. I listened to what he had to say and it always helped.”

The biggest moment of Reich’s NFL career came on Jan. 3, 1993, when Reich, playing for the injured Kelly, led Buffalo back from a 32-point third-quarter deficit to beat the Houston Oilers 41-38 in overtime in an AFC wild-card game. It remains the largest comeback victory in NFL history.

“When Frank was doing that comeback, I knew to stay away. He had that mindset; I knew not to say much,” Kelly said. “Frank was always that way. He was a coach in meetings and we spoke a lot. I owe him a lot for the success I had. I don’t think I would have been as good of a quarterback if Frank was not a part of my life on the field and off the field.”

Former Colts general manager Bill Polian was general manager of the Bills when they dominated the AFC, and he knew Reich had the intangibles to be a coach. That’s why Polian, who was in Indianapolis at the time, reached out to Reich to be the team quarterbacks coach shortly after the Colts selected Peyton Manning as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1998 draft.

Reich had just retired after a 14-year playing career with the Bills, Panthers, Jets and Lions.

“He has an outstanding and broad understanding of the game, which translates to vision,” Polian said. “He can look at a team, a player, a system and say it’ll work in this situation. Not everybody can do that. He’s a great communicator, so he gets the message across and the players respect him and listen and learn.

“When he was a player, he was exactly that way and so how did I know he had a chance to be a successful head coach? I guess you just know. When you’ve been around the game long enough, you were able to say, ‘Look at this guy. I think he’ll make a terrific coach. He has all the attributes.’ You can see that as a player.”

As flattering as it was for Polian to reach out and trust him enough to work with a No. 1 overall pick, Reich declined, choosing instead to get involved in the seminary and become a pastor.

Being a minister, in a different kind of way, helped Reich prepare to be a coach because he never knew what would be thrown his way on a daily basis.

“There are a lot of similarities but the one that comes to mind most of all is a growth mindset, right? You want to grow. You want to help people grow,” he said. “So, whether it was as a minister or as a coach, you’re trying to encourage, push people to grow in important matters in their life that they are interested in — that they want to grow in.”

Reich couldn’t stay away from the game, however. He became a volunteer assistant coach on his younger brother Joe’s staff at Wingate (N.C.) University, a NCAA Division II program.

Reich finally took up Polian on his offer in 2006 and joined the Colts staff as a coaching intern.

“He worked closely with me when he was an intern and it didn’t take very long to see he had a great connection and understanding of the position,” said Jim Caldwell, who was the Colts quarterbacks coach in 2006. “He played the position, but not every person who played the position can coach the position. I think that’s quite evident by looking around. He’s an excellent teacher. No. 1, because he can communicate effectively. No. 2, he has empathy for the position and he speaks in a language for those guys to understand. He doesn’t make it real complicated.”

Caldwell knew what he had in Reich and that’s why he named him quarterbacks coach when Caldwell replaced Tony Dungy as coach of the team in 2009.

That meant Reich finally was going to be Manning’s position coach, 11 years after Polian approached him about the job. But it wasn’t an easy task for Reich because Manning already had won a Super Bowl, been selected to nine Pro Bowls and been named league MVP twice.

And that still wasn’t enough for Manning. He wanted to be tested, pushed and challenged to become an even better player.

“I’ll never forget this: I remember saying to Frank that he had the easiest job in football because he was coaching Peyton Manning,” Esiason said. “He goes, ‘You think it’s easy coaching Peyton Manning? This is hard. He asks more questions than anybody. I have to be more prepared for Peyton than anybody else.’

“He learned how to become an NFL head coach by coaching one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. The preparedness was always one of his best attributes. And what’s crazy is who knows if he would be a head coach today if Josh McDaniels didn’t change his mind.”

Being second … again

Everybody in Indianapolis knows the Josh McDaniels saga.

The Colts thought they had Chuck Pagano’s replacement as coach perfectly lined up when they believed they had plucked offensive guru Josh McDaniels out of New England to pair with Luck. They sent out a news release on Feb. 6, 2018, announcing that McDaniels had agreed to be coach and there would be a news conference the following afternoon.

Or so they thought. McDaniels called Ballard that night and told him he had decided to stay as the offensive coordinator in New England.

Reich, who was coming off a Super Bowl victory as the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, had strong backing from people such as Levy and Polian and blew away the Colts during the interview process, especially by not once asking about the health of Luck, who had missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury.

“The backup role has suited me well in my career,” Reich said during his introductory news conference.

Esiason described it was one of the greatest lines of “all time.”

As calm and as confident as Reich was when he made that comment on that cold February afternoon, he showed the same composure seven months later, when he told Luck and the offense to stay on the field when they went for it — and failed — on fourth down in their own territory in an overtime loss to Houston in Week 4 of the 2018 season. The gutsy play call didn’t work, but it won over the locker room for the first-time head coach.

It’s the same composure Reich displayed when he could have become rattled after a 1-5 start to his rookie season as coach. The Colts won nine of their final 10 games to make the playoffs.

And it’s the same composure Reich had when he sat next to Ballard and Irsay that Saturday night a year ago at Lucas Oil Stadium after what was supposed to be just another preseason game when the sports world was rocked following Luck’s retirement announcement in August 2019.

But that’s Reich. He exudes confidence. Esiason, already laughing before telling the story, recalled approaching Reich on the field a few hours before the start of Super Bowl LII against the Patriots and asked how he was feeling about the game.

“He said, ‘We feel good. We’re going to rip these guys,'” Esiason said. “He wasn’t saying it to insult the Patriots. It was more about the confidence in the game plan, the plays they had in mind. And the way they felt really good about going after the Patriots.”

The Eagles, highlighted by the Philly Special play, beat heavily favored New England 41-33.

As far as trash-talking goes, commenting that he planned to “rip” the Patriots is the extent of it for Reich … unless he’s on the golf course.

“Even when he’s taken money from me on the golf course, it’s not like he’s insulting me,” Esiason said. “Those of us who have known Frank for the longest time, it’s like when you lose to him, you just say I’m going to get you the next time. That’s the only way I can look at it. There’s no F-bombs or cursing. I have so many friends I golf with who are F-bombing me left and right that it’s like a vacation when I play with Frank.”

Reich doesn’t swear; he’s not a screamer, either. But if you listen to the way he talks, or the confidence he has when he enters a stadium wearing oversized headphones, you realize he has firm belief that he has what it takes to outcoach and outprepare an opponent.

“His demeanor is a result of his psyche and his personality, which is essentially low key, highly competitive and cerebral,” Polian said. “He’s able to weather those ups and downs because he understands where they fit in the larger scheme of things.”

Dealing with another obstacle

The Colts — on paper at least — have the best overall roster they’ve had in Reich’s three seasons as coach.

But what he’s about to endure this season is bigger than the 32-point second-half deficit he faced in Buffalo. It’ll be much more difficult because of COVID-19.

Reich and the rest of the organization have to find a way to stay healthy beyond a torn hamstring or knee injury. They have to do their best not to test positive for the virus. And if they do test positive, how well can the organization adjust?

There will be plenty of tests coming Reich’s way on and off the field. His focus is the same as it was in early March before COVID-19 took hold: Have his team mentally and physically ready for this season.

“Frank is a lot like I am,” Ballard said. “There is no panic in him and when your leader doesn’t panic, everybody else feels this sense of calm. So, that’s one. There’s never an excuse. I think both of us are good at this, but Frank especially. He never makes an excuse. ‘Whoever we got, we got. Let’s go. It’s our job to find a way to win.’ … At the end of the day, that’s what coaches are: They’re teachers.

“They are great teachers and it was great to watch each one of them really find ways to teach the material. They were all creative. That was a beautiful thing to watch. None of them flinched. I think they know being around here, ‘No bulls—ing, no complaining. Let’s find answers.’… Frank, he’s not going to flinch now no matter what.”

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