Indy's marriage to Frank Reich got off to a less than auspicious start.
Forever chasing New England in more ways than one, Jim Irsay had ignored the fact that Josh McDaniels is an awful head coach and come to an agreement with the Patriots' then-offensive coordinator -- an agreement that famously fell through when McDaniels had a change of heart about leaving the warm confines of Bill Belichick's reputation.
Irsay was left to pick up the pieces -- and went with the perfect bridesmaid, Frank Reich. Fresh off a Super Bowl victory over those same Patriots (sensing a pattern here? Or perhaps an obsession?), Reich at the time was somewhat alluring... and, confession time, my preferred pick for the job even before McDaniels interviewed. He had the reputation of a quarterback whisperer, capable of lifting a Nick Foles-caliber signal caller to the next level. What great heights could he reach with an Andrew Luck? And who didn't want a wholesome character in the KC role after rubbing palms with the slime of McDaniels?
Partway into Reich's sixth season in Indy, however, and his tenure can be best described as unfulfilled. No division titles. Just two playoff berths, and one playoff win that came way back in his first season. Through no fault of his own, he only got that one season with Luck. Since then, however, the quarterback whisperer has become the conductor of a quarterback carousel -- never starting a season with the same quarterback under center as the prior year. The offense, supposedly Reich's calling card, has dropped to dead last in the league in scoring. The play calling, another trump card, has been predictable and unable to scheme either to Indy's strengths or away from its weaknesses. And slow starts to the season, a sad reality of the Reich regime, have become a punchline that's doomed the 2022 campaign almost before it began. It's time for a change.
Why Fire Frank?
*Slow starts: At this point, Indy losing their first game of the season is the safest bet you can make in Vegas. Doesn't matter how lowly the opponent, the Colts will come out not ready to play and find a way to lose. It's been true for nine straight seasons now, almost a decade of predictable mediocrity. And it's a malaise that hangs over not just the first game, but the first month-plus of the season. Here's Frank's first four games of every season he's been in Indy: 1-3, 2-2, 3-1, 1-3, 1-2-1. He is 1-5-1 against divisional opponents in those first-month stretches.
Sure, everyone knows the nugget about how Frank started 1-5 in 2018 and still made the playoffs... but he did it with Andrew Luck, and it's absolutely an outlier. Teams historically don't make the playoffs when they start the season slow -- Indy was just the third team since the merger to do so. On other words, slow starts aren't a sustainable, long-term strategy -- especially not when many of those early games are divisional contests. Games in September and October matter, and by disregarding them and not having the team ready to play, Reich digs himself a big hole that is really, really hard to get out of.
*Poor division record: Speaking of the division: Frank is 14-12-1 in the AFC South, the definition of mid in what has been one of the weaker divisions in football for the majority of his tenure. He's never won a division title, and continues to lose games at Jacksonville no matter how bad the glitter kitties happen to be in a given year. Anyone remember when the Colts were Jacksonville's ONLY win of the season, and Indy lost the divisional title on a tiebreaker because of it? I do!
Reich has also struggled to beat Tennessee in recent years, leaving Indy as an AFC South also-ran for what looks to be a fifth straight season. In fact, Reich's signature AFC South moment didn't come in the regular season at all -- it was a fortuitous matchup with Houston in the 2018 postseason that resulted in the Colts' only playoff win under Reich. I still occasionally stop and mentally thank Bill O'Brien for that win. But back to the point -- the most effective way to get to the playoffs is to take care of business in your own division. Despite the talent disparity and general weakness of the South, the Colts under Reich have not -- often embarrassingly so.
*Poor in-game management: Many people wiser than me can get into the Xs and Os of this more successfully than I can in a fan post, but the fact is Frank is the worst kind of gambler -- he's not afraid to roll the dice, which is fine and honestly laudable, but he absolutely REFUSES to make the right kind of wager (i.e. play call) when he does. Sometimes, Frank, it's OK to be *predicable* on fourth and short, OK to have trust in your best players, OK to believe that talent and execution can overcome opposition better than trickery. It feels like the in-game decisions are getting worse, too -- not kicking the FG against Houston, trying a long FG late against Tennessee while down a touchdown, the early fourth-down decision against KC.
Secondly, not being able to make in-game adjustments... or even adjustments on short notice. I don't think I've ever been angrier at Frank than when he admitted during a press conference that Indy didn't utilize Hines more in the passing game against Jacksonville a few weeks ago because... Frank couldn't figure out how to pencil him more looks in the 48 HOURS after Pierce was ruled out and the 24 hours after Pittman, who struggled to practice Thursday and Friday, ultimately got ruled out. That's inexcusable, and speaks to a larger issue of Frank not understanding how to set his best players up for success. If you go back and chart JT's carries per game last season, you can find a direct correlation between Indy's losses and JT having less than 15 touches. There's the moment that will forever be burned into my brain of Big Q begging Frank to run the football against Tampa Bay, and then when Frank finally did, JT gashed the Bucs for big gains on the way for a touchdown. Back to Hines -- despite a major pay increase, he's received just 25 touches in the first four games of this season (6.25 per game) and Frank seems to only want to use him on 4th down plunges up the gut. MMMMkay, Frank.
*Team isn't ready to play: I've saved the worst for last. Going back to last season, Indy hasn't gotten off the bus in the first half (and sometimes for the entire four quarters) for six straight games -- no, getting the ball on the KC 4-yard line after a fumbled kick by a Chiefs rookie doesn't count. The team has looked listless, made horrible mental mistakes, not fought, not shown intensity and just generally looked unprepared and unready to play. That's a coaching issue, and speaks to what could be a very worrying development in what was supposed to be Ballard's stronghold -- the locker room.
Has the team quit on Frank? I've made a compelling case for that elsewhere. Suffice it to say, it's the head coach's job to make sure his team is ready to play on Sundays... and the Colts have looked anything but since, well, the COVID outbreak last year. *X-Files music plays in the background* It's kind of unforgivable, and I believe is clouding the ability of Indy front office personnel and fans alike to diagnosis what exactly is wrong with this team. Are they really just this bad? Are they poorly prepared? Have they quit? We'll dig more into this further down.
Why Make a Mid-Season Move?
*See who you have on staff: Obviously, firing a coach in the middle of the season isn't always a great idea. For one, there's the stigma of looking like you're quitting or giving up on the year... and don't think that doesn't weigh on Irsay. For another, you have to wait for the season's end to do things like interview staff on other teams anyway, so why not just play out the side. However, there are exceptions to that rule, and I think Indy might be one of those exceptions.
I really think there's the potential for a good, if nontraditional, choice right here in house: Bubba Ventrone. He's proved himself to be a master motivator and tactician, and ensures that special teams is ready to play each and every game. By slapping him with an interim head coach tag and letting Marcus Brady call the plays on offense for the rest of the year, I think Indy has a real chance to take a long look at their current staff and see if they have the next head coach already residing right here in Indianapolis. Why not kick the tires on Bubba, and give Brady a chance to prove himself as a true OC without Reich? There's no experience like on-the-job experience, and their familiarity with the team sets them up for success. Worst case, you confirm that you need to bring in someone in the offseason to be HC. Best case, you find a hidden gem and salvage what's left of the locker room (more on that below).
*Wake-up call/Accountability: Frank is not a fire and brimstone coach, and I actually respect that about him. There's a lot of different ways to win in this league, and they don't all have to start with a meathead coach yelling in people's faces. Frank's more reserved, relies more on relationships, and looks a lot like my dad when he's sitting all passive on the sideline doing his owl routine.
However. It's clear this team needs a jolt, and Frank doesn't appear capable of delivering it. Not only that, I think a line has to be drawn in the sand: mediocrity will not be acceptable in Indy, ever. Something is clearly wrong, and Frank had all offseason to figure it out. Sure, there's plenty of blame to go around -- it's never just one person, as was made very obvious when Indy didn't magically transform into a Super Bowl contender after the Wentz departure -- but accountability has to start somewhere, and Frank is the logical first step for all the reasons I've mentioned... and a couple more biggies I'm about to get to.
*Is the locker room salvageable? Again, to me this is the biggest current issue -- not knowing if the team has quit on Frank or not, and the complete lack of heart on display in these games. If the team HAS quit on him, firing him actually gives Indy an (unlikely) chance to save the season, rather than write it off. Installing a fresh voice as interim HC could motivate the players, and at the very least, Irsay and Ballard would get 13 regular-season games to start weeding through the roster, ID-ing guys that have become locker room cancers and preparing a list of players to move on from in the offseason.
Effort is the key. As mentioned above, we just haven't really been seeing any. Firing Frank in season is probably the easiest way to diagnose that problem. And it puts whole roster on notice -- we're not going to tolerate these slow starts and lackadaisical performances. If you want to have a home in Indy next season under a new regime, it's time to shake things up.
*Establish yourself as a blue-chip job: Finally, perhaps the most obvious reason to make a midseason move. Coaching matters, as we're seeing first hand in Jacksonville this season, and that means prioritizing WHO you're recruiting and establishing your team as a worthy destination are both critical. Firing a coach midseason clearly states intention to job candidates around the league and allows the evaluation process to begin in earnest. End up with a Doug Pederson, not an Urban Meyer. Irsay needs to gear up -- this is a vital decision to get right if he wants his two Lombardis in the next nine years.
In short, firing Frank Reich has become necessary. The sooner Irsay realizes that, the sooner he has a chance to both salvage this team as currently constructed and start building toward a new beginning next season.