The firing of Frank Reich as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and the choice of Jeff Saturday as interim head coach by team owner Jim Irsay on Monday left me with mixed emotions.
Frank, Jeff and Jim are among those closest to me in my professional life. I helped bring Frank to Buffalo to play quarterback in 1985 and did the same with Jeff to play center in Indianapolis in 1999. I have known Jim for well over a quarter of a century and worked for him for 14 incredible years with the Colts. I count all three as dear friends who have had a great positive impact on my life.
I’m sad that Frank lost his job. I’m happy to see Jeff get an opportunity. Friends and good people like Jim and general manager Chris Ballard are having a rough season, which hurts me.
What to do? The answer: Act like a pro. Put intellect ahead of emotion. Deal only in facts. Follow the dictums of another treasured friend and colleague with the Colts, Tony Dungy. Replace perception with reality. Ultimately, only that approach helps those for whom you care.
Here’s the reality of pro football life, as spelled out by Hall of Fame executive Jim Finks, a hero and mentor to many in my NFL generation. He famously said, “Players play, coaches coach, scouts scout, GMs manage, and owners own!” The message is clear: Stay in your lane. Recognize that the owner owns both the car and the highway.
By the terms of our NFL employment contracts, we may be removed from our jobs for any reason the owner deems appropriate so long as he or she honors that contract. Those are the facts, and we all recognize and accept them.
Within an hour of being named general manager of the Buffalo Bills in 1986, I received a call from Jim Finks, then president of the New Orleans Saints. He said, “Congratulations! You’re one day closer to being fired!” That’s the reality in the NFL.
As Frank Reich leaves the Colts, let’s look at the reality of his tenure. In four-and-a-half seasons at the helm, Frank’s record is 40-33-1, a winning percentage of .561, ironically the same as that of our revered Hall of Fame mentor Marv Levy. He made the playoffs twice in four seasons and had winning records in three of his four full seasons. This year’s record, at the time of the quarterback switch from Matt Ryan to Sam Ehlinger, was 3-3-1.
In his debut against Washington, Ehlinger played reasonably well for a quarterback making his first start. The running game was virtually non-existent, even with the return from injury of All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor. The culprit was an offensive line that has been subpar all season. Washington won the game at the buzzer, set up by a magical one-on-one play on a Hail Mary pass from quarterback Taylor Heinicke to wide receiver Terry McLaurin.
It was a stinging loss, made worse by a controversial call by Frank to punt on fourth-and-one inside two minutes. Washington had no timeouts left, and a Colts’ first down would have ended the game. I don’t know what the analytics said, but to me, it was 51 percent punt, 49 percent go for it. The Colts’ O-line had not blocked well all day. Taylor was gimpy, having aggravated an ankle injury earlier in the game, and the Colts defense had bottled up the Commanders’ offense all day. Frank chose to trust his defense, and it failed.
Naturally, the call was widely criticized, and many – including, I believe, Jim Irsay – were clearly upset by it.
The ensuing loss in Foxborough, Mass., last Sunday was predictable. The combination of a raw, untested quarterback, an underperforming O-line and the distraction caused by the midweek firing of offensive coordinator Marcus Brady was duck soup for Bill Belichick. He unleashed blitzes, stunts and disguised coverages that befuddled Ehlinger, caused a pick-six that broke open a tight game and registered an almost unbelievable nine sacks. A loss to anyone in that manner would be difficult but coming at the hands of one of the Colts’ biggest rivals was devastating.
In truth, I believe the downturn for Frank began with the loss to Jacksonville in the 17th game of the 2021 season. It knocked the Colts out of the playoffs. Carson Wentz played poorly, which caused Jim Irsay to lose faith in him and sow seeds of doubt about the future.
That brings us, once again, to perception and reality. There’s the perception that Frank Reich mismanaged the quarterback position from the start. That is untrue. In 2018, he inherited an injured Andrew Luck, revamped the offense, protected Andrew well and made the playoffs. Following that season, Andrew rehabbed assiduously and worked with biomechanics expert Tom House to improve his delivery efficiency. Everyone associated with the Colts looked forward to many more All-Pro and playoff years with Luck at the controls.
That summer, I was visiting training camp along with some other Colt alums, including Peyton Manning and Jeff Saturday. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more upbeat. Only days later, Andrew shocked the football world by retiring. At that point, Frank did what he does best. He steadied the ship, took the helm and guided backup Jacoby Brissett to an acceptable performance. However, if forced to play a full season, backups rarely lead you to the playoffs. That was the case in 2019.
In 2020, the organization decided to move to Philip Rivers with great success. He went from a four-win season in San Diego to the playoffs in Indianapolis. The club expected that Rivers would play another year, but like Andrew Luck, he, too, decided to call it a career. It was another terrible and unanticipated blow to the Colts that had nothing to do with Frank Reich.
In 2021, Carson Wentz was on the market, and the Colts were looking for a veteran quarterback. Frank had coached Wentz to his greatest success with the Philadelphia Eagles. Wentz had fallen upon hard times, but there was a strong belief Frank could straighten him out. Chris Ballard orchestrated a trade that brought Carson to Indianapolis, and things were, once again, looking up. There were some internal rubs with Wentz, to which I’m not privy, but on the field, he did well, throwing for 3,563 yards and 27 touchdowns, with seven interceptions and a QBR of 54.7.
The Colts entered the 17th game poised to beat a bedraggled Jaguars team, only to hit a snag. The most publicized offender was Wentz. He failed to do what a quarterback was expected to, which is to bail his team out on a bad day. While posting a winning record, the Colts failed to make the playoffs. Jim Irsay lost all confidence in Wentz, who was soon traded to Washington.
This past offseason, the Colts acquired Matt Ryan in a trade with Atlanta. Three things were givens with Matt. First, he was, at this stage of his career, immobile. Second, he was learning a completely new offense. Third, his leadership, toughness and competitiveness were still at the top of the charts. Many knowledgeable football commentators, this writer included, said that Matt needed to be protected well and that it would take about half a season for him to get fully comfortable with his teammates and the offense.
Before the 2021 season, left tackle Anthony Castonzo retired. Thus ended 20 consecutive years of top-flight play by former No. 1 picks Tarik Glenn and Castonzo. As of this writing, the level of play at left tackle is nowhere near what it was during the Glenn-Costanzo years. In addition, the level of efficiency by the rest of the offensive line has slipped well below the championship level. That caused Matt Ryan to fall victim to an untenable 24 sacks in seven games. The organization, led by Jim Irsay, decided to go with Sam Ehlinger in order to evaluate whether he is the quarterback of the future.
The bottom line is not that Frank Reich mismanaged the QB situation from Day One. It is that Carson Wentz did not perform at a championship level, and Matt Ryan fell victim to poor protection, which exacerbated his lack of mobility and unfamiliarity with the offense.
The final tally on Frank Reich is that he won with Andrew Luck and Philip Rivers. He held serve with Jacoby Brissett and had a decent but disappointing season with Carson Wentz. The Matt Ryan acquisition is clearly a loss. Unfortunately for Frank, the NFL is a “What have you done for me lately?” league.
The final decision on Frank rested solely with Jim Irsay. As his absolute right, he chose to make a change. Frank Reich is a good man and a good coach who will undoubtedly do well in the future.
That brings us to Jeff Saturday. It is true that he has no prior coaching experience at the pro or collegiate level. That, however, is just a small snapshot of his qualifications. The most important thing a head coach must do is gain the respect of his players. First, they will see a sensible, credentialed football expert on TV. Players watch ESPN, and they know that Jeff knows the game. Second, they’ll see a playing reputation and accomplishments NO ONE in the locker room can match. It is highlighted by five All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections, 10 playoff berths, three conference championship games, two Super Bowls, a Lombardi Trophy and his name on the Ring of Honor in Lucas Oil Stadium. Those are Hall of Fame credentials.
As an NFL Players Association rep during his playing days, Jeff collaborated with Patriots owner Robert Kraft to reach a settlement to end the 2011 lockout. To this day, the positive training regime prescribed in the collective bargaining agreement, which greatly benefits the players, came directly from our structure in Indianapolis. Jeff translated it to the labor agreement and sold it to the owners and players. That kind of leadership under great stress is rare.
Jeff has been a successful head coach at the high school level in Georgia and understands scheduling, organization, practice emphasis, roster management and, of course, the intricacies of O-line schemes, techniques and offense at every level from high school to the NFL.
Unknown to the general public and media, Frank Reich offered Jeff an offensive line coaching position early in Frank’s Indianapolis tenure. Jeff turned it down in order to have time to see his son play at North Carolina. Now that his son’s playing days are coming to an end, Jeff and his family have rethought the issue.
During this season, starting with minicamp, Jeff served as a paid consultant to the coaching staff. He broke down film, evaluated players and schemes and made game plan suggestions. He spoke to the team as a group and offered guidance to individual players. In short, he is not a stranger but a respected member of the organization.
To those inside the building, Frank Reich and myself included, Jeff’s character, intelligence, leadership skills, football acumen and work ethic tabbed him as head-coaching material as far back as his playing days. His appointment as interim head coach may have come as a shock to outsiders but not to those inside the Colts’ football operations.
Will Jeff succeed? It’s a tall order, and only time will tell. Knowing him as I do, I wouldn’t bet against him.
Will Sam Ehlinger be the quarterback of the future? We’ll know a lot more about that in January.
Jim Irsay has made the decision he feels is correct for the Colts. It’s now up to everyone who wears the horseshoe to give Jim, Jeff and the organization their very best effort.
As told to Vic Carucci
Watch More: Saturday Using Colts’ Interim Job to Gauge Coaching Interest