The Colts hired Frank Reich as their head coach to give their struggling team a jolt. And that means staying true to the aggressive, forward-thinking philosophy he has quickly given Indianapolis — even when it doesn’t work.
Reich’s decision to have the Colts go for a fourth-and-4 from their own 43 with 27 seconds left in overtime probably would not have been second-guessed by anyone had they converted and continued to work toward a game-winning field goal attempt. But one Andrew Luck short incompletion, one Deshaun Watson long completion and one medium Ka’imi Fairbarin kick later, Reich’s Colts lost 37-34, fell to 1-3 and suddenly made everyone question whether they made the right coaching hire.
What the critics are missing is the big-picture culture transformation in Indianapolis. Despite what the record indicates, Reich has already made overachievers out the Colts. He and his staff have been taking it to opponents the right way with the personnel they have and by compensating for what they lack.
Backing down and punting with the game on the line would not be genuine to the mentality and confidence the coach is installing in his players.
After the game, Reich was just as aggressive in taking full accountability for the move, addressing it in his post-game presser without being asked.
“We’re not playing to tie,” Reich told reporters. “We’re going for it 10 times out of 10.”
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Hot-take artists wasted no time in ripping Reich’s decision, as if one failed play off a gutsy call is the be all-end all of his coaching intelligence. At the same time, what Titans coach Mike Vrabel decided to do in OT in victory against the Eagles will be hailed as a show of guts.
When Tennessee was down 23-20 to Philadelphia with only 1:17 remaining in OT and facing a fourth down, Vrabel did not send out the reliable Ryan Succop for a 49-yard field goal attempt. He put the win-or-lose outcome on one play, and his gamble worked. A few plays later, Marcus Mariota threw the game-winning TD pass.
Vrabel’s Titans are 3-1 not because of one call, but because he has made the team more mentally tough and able to handle make-or-break situations. Yes, the Colts’ situation Sunday was different. Had they chosen to punt, Watson would have had a longer field to get his team into field-goal range with 24 seconds left and no timeouts; he instead need only one 24-yard strike to DeAndre Hopkins. The numbers say Reich’s call increased the Texans’ win probability, but the feel of the game suggested it was a worthy shot.
Unlike Vrabel, Reich already had the tie in his team’s back pocket. He took a calculated risk that Luck, after leading the Colts back from a 28-17, fourth-quarter hole with an exceptional performance, had a few more short pass plays left in him. Luck just missed the connection with wide receiver Chester Rogers.
If Reich goes 10-for-10 in trying that in future games, the Colts likely convert at least 70 percent of the time.
Meanwhile, Reich’s now 1-3 counterpart, the Texans’ Bill O’Brien, saw his team blow the lead while being a little conservative in trying to protect it … despite how well Watson was throwing downfield. In the Texans’ one-possession losses to the Patriots, Giants and Titans, O’Brien was outcoached wire-to-wire.
Reich inherited a roster short on ideal talent, and it’s been further hampered by injuries. Luck produced Sunday while under constant heat from J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney as starting Colts tackles Anthony Castonzo and Joe Haeg were out, as was top inline tight end Jack Doyle. Against the Texans, Luck lost go-to guy T.Y. Hilton to a bad hamstring in the fourth quarter.
Luck has turned into a more efficient passer coming off his bad shoulder injury. The offensive design that has adjusted to his current strengths is all Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni. The Colts also have simplified things with a new, 4-3 defense with coordinator Matt Eberflus, and it has helped give rise to much-needed defensive playmakers.
When a team goes a listless 4-12 while breaking in so much newness, it’s a process. No one was looking at the Colts as a contender of any kind going into the season. They first had to look for an identity and a smoother operation. Reich won’t lose any respect from players who have bought into his relentless mindset — his unapologetic tone is bound to have them buy into it more, if anything.
“Love it,” Luck said of Reich’s decision on that fourth down. “Everybody in that locker room freaking likes that — loves that. I love that. Now, we gotta execute, I’ve got to throw a better ball … but that attitude? We can get behind that.”
Reich missed on one call in one game. So what? He’s a coach a player would want over O’Brien and a lot of others. And everything else points to him being a hit over the long haul in Indianapolis.