For 15 years, the Indianapolis Colts were coached by men who had a conservative approach to offensive decision-making. Tony Dungy, Jim Caldwell, and Chuck Pagano all preferred to “play it safe” in difficult offensive situations almost as a rule. For Colts fans, it was infuriating.
With one of the more dominant offenses in the league, led by two of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL for most of those years, the coaches would often take the game out of the offense’s hands and ask an outmatched and often bad defense to step up and give the offense another chance. By the way, this happened in nearly every game, against nearly every opponent, in almost every circumstance fans could dream up.
In fact, conservative play-calling by Jim Caldwell at the end of the first half against the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV turned the momentum of the game. This conservative play-calling not only came in the Super Bowl, before half time, with the one of the league’s best quarterbacks in the two minute offense at his disposal, it came at a time where the Saints had just run their own 7 minute offensive drive that stalled on a 4th-and-1 run call.
An offensive score to close out the first half would pushed the Colts to a 10 or 14 point lead. It would have punished New Orleans for failing to convert on fourth down. It would be devastating to the Saints heading into the locker room down 10 or 14 points, only to kick the ball off to Indianapolis in the second half.
It didn’t happen. Three straight runs, two by backup running back Mike Hart, forced the Colts to punt the ball away after using only 1:03 of the game clock. Drew Brees and the Saints offense had good field position, remained aggressive and closed out the first half with a field goal, cutting the lead to 4. This momentum emboldened the Saints to start the second half with an onside kick that will be burned into the memories of Colts forever.
It didn’t take hindsight to know that three straight run calls in the Super Bowl, against the Saints and its high powered offense, with Peyton Manning and the Colts high powered offense in a two minute situation was a catastrophic coaching failure. It was a conservative decision. Run the ball, force the Saints to use timeouts, try to pickup the first down on the ground, and end halftime with a 7 point lead. It was deferring the option to go for the jugular or otherwise try to cripple the Saints heading into the half. The rest is history.
Colts fans have witnessed bad aggressive decisions as well. The 4th-and-2 decision by the New England Patriots in Indianapolis, in their own territory in the fourth quarter, with the lead, was stupid. He allowed his fear of Peyton Manning to cloud an otherwise brilliant coaching mind. He should have punted the ball away and forced Manning to march the distance of the field for a late-game score. He had a 6 point lead, only a touchdown would beat him and he gave the Colts phenomenal field position.
It doesn’t take hindsight to know that it was an epic failure as a coaching decision. In real-time watching the game I felt like it was a gift the moment the Patriots snapped that ball. I was stunned Belichick would do something like that. It was like living in an alternate universe. It was awesome.
This season, Frank Reich has made a series of bad aggressive calls. It was an absolutely wrong decision to go for it on 4th-and-4 in Colts territory in overtime. The chances to convert were against him and the likelihood for the Texans to win the game sky-rocketed if he failed — which he was considerably more likely to do. Unsurprisingly, the attempt failed and Houston exploited the Colts’ zone defense to use one play to get into field goal range to win the game.
To this day, the Texans point to the Colts victory in Week 4 as the turning point of the season. They earned their first win of the season on the road, against a divisional opponent, and it took a comeback to get it done. It emboldened them as a team and helped to kick start a winning streak that has them one game away from clinching the division.
Good coaches don’t make that decision. The consequences of wins and losses, particularly in the division, are drastic every season. Haphazardly throwing away that game wasn’t inspirational to a young team, it was a loss that inspired a divisional opponent. It very well could have been a loss that cost them a chance to make the playoffs or win the division.
It has been discussed at length that in another divisional game, Reich had a profoundly negative impact on the outcome. On the road, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, in a must-win game the Colts were shut out. Not because they were actually never in a position to score, they were in position to score at least three times during the game but aggressive play calls early in the game forced them into a go-for-broke late that failed.
Without any hindsight, when the Colts had the ball at the one yard line early in the second quarter I felt like the right decision, clearly, was to kick the field goal. One offensive drive resulted in an interception, the second was a punt, the third stalled at the 11-yard line and forced a field goal. Adam Vinatieri hit that field goal to take a three point lead but a penalty on the Jaguars gave Indianapolis a new set of downs.
In three straight plays the Colts managed to get only four yards. They could take the 3 points they just earned by kicking an easy field goal or gamble on the goal line to score a touchdown. The smart decision, the right decision, against this opponent and in this situation was to take the points. The Jaguars offense had a backup starting quarterback, was without its biggest backfield weapon, and even at full strength is not very good. Points would be devastating to Jacksonville.
The decision to go for it failed. For those who think it was clearly the right decision statistically or because of analytics, Troy Russell completed a bit of research for me leading up to this story. Jacksonville’s red zone defense is one of the best in the NFL, 9th overall. Their defense with 1 yard to gain on third and fourth downs is the best in the NFL.
This was not a no-brainer call. I don’t know what sheet Reich had as a reference but if it had the details it should have told him that it was a very risky call against this defense. Knowing everything else he knew about the game, the team he was facing, the environment, and the importance of the outcome — he needs to make the right decision. He should have taken the early lead, put pressure on the Jaguars to respond, taken early momentum, and could have easily been in a position to tie or win with another field goal later in the game.
Either way, Colts fans are learning something that is rather interesting. After years of loathing horribly conservative play-calling a fan base has been desperate for an aggressive leader. Now that they have one, the fan base has found itself wishing less for aggressive or conservative and more for intelligent decision-making.
Frank Reich is a first year head coach. He is a former backup quarterback who led the biggest comeback in NFL history. Reich is built to be aggressive. As a coach, he’ll need to be something else. He will need to be smart if the Colts are going to be put in the best position to win football games and make it to the playoffs.