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Frank Reich’s offense: The NFL years

How Jim Kelly and the K-Gun offense had a major influence on Frank Reich

Frank Reich

Over the next few days I’m going to give you more intricate details on what I expect the 2018 Frank Reich led Indianapolis Colts offense to look like. I have arrived at this conclusion based on his history as a player and a coach. I will say, that while this is an educated theory (I subjected myself to all 16 San Diego Chargers contests of the 2014 season for this series, you’re welcome) it is at best a theory. We don’t know, beyond a shadow of a doubt what his offense is going to look like, but I feel I can get pretty close considering his influences and what the man himself has said.

Tomorrow morning we will cover Frank Reich’s time as an assistant coach and progress as the week goes on, culminating in what I expect The 2018 Indianapolis Colts offense to look like. I hope you enjoy reading about the Colts new head coach as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing this piece.

The NFL Years

Frank Reich

Frank Reich was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the 3rd round of the 1985 NFL draft. Reich essentially redshirted his rookie year in the league and sat behind Bruce Mathison and Vince Ferragamo. Going into his sophomore season, Reich had to feel good about his chances to earn a starting gig, as neither Mathison or Ferragamo were on the ‘86 Bills roster — and even if they had been, the two men combined to throw 9 TD’s to 31 INT’s.

Reich was in a very good place. At least on paper.

Three years before, the Buffalo Bills drafted Jim Kelly with their second 1st round pick. Little did they know Kelly had no interest in playing for the Bills and decided to sign with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL. The Bills still owned his rights and by all accounts the organization was hopeful Kelly would change his mind. With that said, Kelly seemed content in Houston and even went so far as to say that he would like to play for the Raiders in California if the NFL were to become a possibility.

Jim Kelly really hated cold weather and in case you have a really short memory here’s a picture of the last time the Indianapolis Colts played in Buffalo:

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills
Looks cold to me
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

1986 rolled around and the USFL began to fold. Kelly’s Houston Gamblers had merged with the New Jersey Generals. I am about to type the most insane sentence containing historical fact about the current Colts head coach that can be written: In 1986 Bills General Manager, Bill Polian, received written permission from Donald Trump, owner of the Generals, to negotiate a contract with Jim Kelly. A few days later, Jim Kelly became the NFL’s highest paid player, earning $1.5 million per year over 5 years, eclipsing Joe Montana’s contract of $1.3 million per.

In a weird way, Jim Kelly, Bill Polian and Donald Trump all came together and forever changed the course of Frank Reich’s professional football career. Sad.

Once Kelly got to town, it was Jim’s show and Frank was smart enough to realize what his role was. Reich served as the #2 QB in Buffalo for the next 8 seasons making an average of 1 start per year in that time.

Despite all of that, the 1986 season brought about one change that impacted Frank Reich and the Buffalo Bills franchise more than anyone could have known. When Reich was drafted, legendary defensive innovator Hank Bullough was in the middle of an unsuccessful stint as a head coach. Bullough is credited, along with Chuck Fairbanks, as the creator of the 3-4 defense. Innovative as he may have been, he was a better coordinator than head coach and after a 2-7 start, Hank Bullough was relieved of his duties and Marv Levy was hired.

The K-Gun

The Buffalo Bills record improved for the next two years, finishing 12-4 in 1988, complete with a 21-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC Championship game. 1989 came and with it saw the retirement of long time offensive coordinator Jim Ringo, his replacement should sound familiar to Colts fans: Ted Marchibroda. Both Marchibroda and Levy were smart enough to realize they had something special in Jim Kelly. They also knew they had been beaten by the Bengals who were using a no huddle offense with great success. With those two realizations the now famous K-Gun offense was born. The offense got its name, not from Jim Kelly but rather Keith “Killer” McKeller, a tall pass catching tight end who had a penchant for coming up with big plays while in the hurry up offense.

There were two things that stood out about the K-Gun, one was the tempo. It’s been said that when the Kelly led Bills were clicking, they could run a play every 16 seconds. Not 16 game seconds, but 16 actual seconds. The second thing that stood out is the fact that Marchibroda and Levy largely handed over play calling duties to Jim Kelly. As a result Kelly was calling plays in the no huddle going as fast as he could down the field and the Buffalo Bills offense was deadly.

According to Frank Reich (from that last link) some games the Bills would run the same 20 to 25 plays over and over again. That tells us the Bills weren’t necessarily trying to trick anyone, they were instead executing at a very high level.

So what did the K-Gun look like? What was the aim of the system? If we want to take what is a very complex system (as most in football are) and simplify it as much as possible I would tell you the entire point of the K-Gun is to give the quarterback and receivers a numbers advantage. It’s a fancy way to make sure you have at least one more receiver than they have defenders in any one part of the field.

So that doesn’t tell you much while also telling you everything. The K-Gun is another system used to spread and stress a defense. Its goal is to make an out numbered secondary make a choice and to exploit the choice so that no matter what, the offense is in a favorable position.

It all sounds simple, it’s a story as old as time; I have 4 guys, you have 3 guys, I have the advantage. The issue, isn’t the system, it’s having a leader that can read and recognize where the advantage is going to be and then being able to deliver an accurate pass. Jim Kelly was a guy that could do just that.

If I were to look into the K-Gun a little deeper I could tell you that it was based off of the old June Jones, Run and Shoot offenses (that was based off of an old Ohio high school offense) that relied exclusively on 4 receiver sets and what would become option routes that would require the wide receivers and quarterback to both read the defense in real time and adjust their routes accordingly. In theory, this means someone should be open on every play, regardless of the called defense.

Let’s look at a K-Gun/Run and Shoot staple:

The 4 Verts Concept

There has been a lot written about “4 Verts” especially since it’s the concept that won Alabama their most recent national championship. There’s nothing new about it and the concept is designed to provide the QB with a numerical advantage deep down field.

The receivers (or mix of backs, tight ends and receivers) do exactly what you would expect them to do with a concept called 4 verts, there are 4 guys who run vertically. Also, just a note, this concept could have one of a million names based on all sorts of things, there isn’t a single NFL offense where a QB would call “4 verts” in the huddle and everyone would just know what to do, but for those of us without a specific offensive system or formation we’re going to focus on 4 verts as an idea that can be run from almost any formation.

The idea is to put stress on the DB’s, wait for them to make a decision and exploit whatever decision they make. Depending on the defensive look, the QB is going to have either a single high safety or a two safety look. The play is slightly different based on the number of high safeties, obviously a single high safety is advantageous for the offense.

One (or more) of the vertical routes (a receiver in the slot or a TE) is going to change slightly based on the number of deep safeties in an effort to further stress the decision making of the safety on that side of the field.

In the video below I breakdown Alabama’s now famous overtime winner:

The most important aspects the K-Gun offense are tempo and decision making. As you might expect from an offense whose plays were being called by the quarterback multiple variations of a shotgun formation were often used. It was an offense built on speed and execution, ideas that might sound familiar to Colts fans old enough to remember what a Peyton Manning led offense truly looked like.

This is a small portion of what Frank Reich watched during his time in Buffalo. Reich went on to play for the Panthers in 1995, following Bill Polian (you’ll soon see a trend) to the upstart team from Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers. In 1996 Reich had a rather awful season with the New York Jets who went 1-15, but he did spend that season under offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, who was one half of the creators of the famed Erhard-Perkins offensive system. Reich left after a single season and joined up with none other than Bobby Ross, his old college coach. Perhaps you remember his “revolutionary” offense at Maryland, it just so happens that Barry Sanders had his best season statistically under Ross, hardly shocking given what we know.

Frank Reich called it a career after two seasons in Detroit at the age of 37. Though he ended his playing career after making a few stops in other cities, none of them could have possibly had the impact on his football ideology that those explosive years in Buffalo did.

Frank Reich’s offense: An introduction

Frank Reich’s offense: The Maryland years

Frank Reich’s offense: The assistant coaching years, part 1

Frank Reich’s offense: The assistant coaching years, part 2

Frank Reich’s offense: The 2018 Indianapolis Colts, part 1

Frank Reich’s offense: The 2018 Indianapolis Colts, part 2