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Jerry Sullivan: Frank Reich, the perfect backup plan

Jerry Sullivan

Any seasoned Bills fan would tell you that when it comes to backup plans, you can't do better than our old friend, Frank Reich.

Reich is arguably the most famous backup quarterback in NFL history. He's best remembered, of course, for leading the Bills to a comeback win over the Oilers in the 1993 wild-card game, widely regarded as the greatest comeback in NFL history.

He brought his team from 32 points down in the second half in his first-ever playoff start. Some forget that three years earlier, in his first NFL start for injured Jim Kelly, he threw two TD passes in the fourth quarter to lead the Bills back in a Monday night win at the Rams. In December 1990, Reich led the Bills past the Dolphins at Rich Stadium in the next-to-last game of the season to clinch the AFC East title.

So this is not a bad guy to turn to when your first option doesn't work out. That's why Indianapolis fans were in an upbeat mood Sunday after learning that Reich had been hired as the Colts' new head coach, just days after being jilted by management's first choice, New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

After the humiliation of a week ago, Colts fans were embracing Reich as the best guy for the job. The heck with that snake in New England. It's human nature to rapidly shift from feeling left at the altar to convincing yourself that you're actually better off with the second choice.

Actually, Reich wasn't their second choice, or even their third. He told his old boss, Bill Polian, that he wasn't interested in chasing jobs while the Eagles were still in the playoffs. But after the Eagles' stunning victory in the Super Bowl, in which they scored 41 points against a Bill Belichick defense, Reich truly was a solid backup choice, someone Polian called "the best of the bargain."

"He certainly has all the qualities necessary to succeed," Polian said by phone Monday afternoon. "He's paid his dues in the business both as a player and a coach. He's as prepared as anybody can be, and I'm certain he'll do well."

You never know with first-time head coaches. Most of them fail. I'm not yet convinced that Sean McDermott is more than a gifted defensive coach with a bunch of catchy slogans. There's also no reason to believe Reich, a bright guy with a lot of success coaching on one side of the ball, won't do as well.

Some men are born to the job. Others find their way along. They're often victims of outside forces, like bad drafts, unhappy players and impatient fans. Lots of accomplished Patriots coaches have failed as head men. McDaniels washed out in his first shot with the Broncos.

But Reich always struck me as a guy who would be suited to coaching. Jim Kelly had a native mentality for quarterback play, an ability to think quickly under duress. But Reich was the brains behind the Hall of Famer, a dutiful backup who was a de facto coach as a player.

That's what allowed Reich to perform so well when he was thrust into big situations: He had an inquisitive football intellect, the ability to pick things up quickly and plan for games with a minimal amount of preparation.

History shows he was able to adjust during games and engineer improbable comebacks. Reich led college football's most epic comeback at Maryland. The Bills' offense looked dead in that Rams game in '89 and found itself late. The Houston defense collapsed in the comeback game, but it was partly because Frank recognized every flaw in their coverage.

Reich didn't rush into coaching when he retired in 1998. He's a deeply religious man. On the morning of the comeback game, he sat alone in his car and listened to a song called "In Christ Alone." He recited lyrics to the media in the interview room after his biggest triumph.

After his playing days, Reich became an ordained minister. He spent eight years doing seminary work before finally deciding to get into coaching as a quality control coach for the Colts, where Polian was GM.

"He was committed to doing the job for the seminary he was working for in Charlotte and felt an obligation to those people," Polian recalled. "He fulfilled it and called me up out of the blue one day and said, 'I've got the bug. I want to get into coaching and I'm willing to start at the bottom'."

Tony Dungy, then the Colts head coach, didn't hesitate. Reich proved to be a very good offensive coach, one who got results everywhere he went. Peyton Manning had arguably his best two-year run with Reich as his QB coach in Indy. Philip Rivers was third in the NFL in passing yards and second in percentage in three years with Reich as QB coach and offensive coordinator.

Doug Pederson, whose bold offensive mind was on full display in the Super Bowl, hired Reich to be his OC when he took the Eagles job in 2016. It was Reich's job to help groom the prize investment, rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. By his second year, Wentz was a top candidate for league MVP.

Then Wentz went down, leaving Reich and QB coach John DeFilippo the daunting task of getting Nick Foles ready for a playoff run. Could anyone have been more suited than Reich, who turned 56 in December, to prepare a backup quarterback for the challenge of a lifetime?

“He was a valuable member of our staff," Pederson said on Twitter, "and we have all benefited from working with him over the last two years. As good as he is as a leader and teacher, he’s an even better person."

You'll get no arguments on the latter. Reich never allowed his heroics to be an issue. He happily deferred to his friend, Kelly. He should have gotten his shot at a head job before now. The Bills could have saved themselves a lot of grief if they'd hired him instead of Rex Ryan three years ago.

Reich walks into a tough situation. The Colts were 4-12 last season and have missed the playoffs three years in a row. They do have about $85 million in cap space and the No. 3 pick in the draft (if they keep it), and looming questions about franchise quarterback Andrew Luck.

Luck missed all of 2017 after undergoing shoulder surgery. He hasn't thrown a football since October. He's working in California with a "throwing expert." I imagine he could benefit from some of the expertise that Reich has to offer.

If Indy wanted a quarterback whisperer for Luck, someone to guide him back to his previous elite level, they picked up a nice consolation prize in Reich. Running the entire show is a big jump for most coaches. But Reich had a couple of Hall of Fame role models in Marv Levy and Polian during his time in Buffalo.

So the Colts are in disarray? Reich knows what it's like to be down and counted out. He was always able to keep a confident, clear head in a crisis. At halftime of the comeback game, while Darryl Talley was firing up the troops, Reich was quietly telling the offensive guys to take it one play at a time.

Reich threw a pick six early in the third quarter, putting the Bills in a 35-3 hole. He never panicked. Neither did the team. That's what leaders do; they act as if no obstacle is insurmountable, no deficit too great. Even as a backup, Reich possessed the qualities that made people follow.

He's coming off the bench again, this time to run his own show. Next man up, as they say. A good man tries to show the world, one more time, that he's the best man for the job.

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