The wife of one of Frank Reich's close friends posed the following question to him one day: "What's the biggest challenge of being a head coach?"
The man who guided the Indianapolis Colts to a shocking 10-6 finish and postseason appearance in his first season as an NFL head coach last year didn't hesitate with this answer: "I have to wake up every day and tell myself, 'You're not a big deal, you're not a big deal.' Because to a lot of people, it is a big deal. but this is a team game. The success that we had last year, it's about the locker room, it's about the players taking ownership. And anybody can be replaced. I just think you've got to stay humble."
That has never been much of a problem for Reich, whose ability to maintain a low profile on a roster loaded with massive egos and personalities made him arguably the most likable member of the Buffalo Bills' Super Bowl teams of the mid-1990s. He was comfortable in the shadow as the backup quarterback behind the iconic Jim Kelly, emerging occasionally to help deliver critical wins such as the historic comeback playoff victory he led against the Houston Oilers after the 1992 season.
Reich's strong Christian faith also was and remains a major part of his persona. He still hosts the annual Victory Beyond Competition breakfast in Buffalo, which was recently held at the Hyatt Regency, despite a schedule that places more demands than any he had as a player for 14 seasons with the Bills, Carolina Panthers, New York Jets and Detroit Lions, or an assistant coach with the Colts, Arizona Cardinals, San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles.
"The opportunity for an impact and to give back to the community and the event, for 18 years, hasn't lost any momentum," Reich, 57, said in a recent conversation with The Buffalo News. "I mean, every year it sells out, every year it seems equally as good, if not better, than the previous every year. We walk out and say, 'Alright, well, how are we going to do this again?' And then it gets to the next year and it just happens. It's a credit to the community in Buffalo, the support for the event, and it's obviously a big credit to Fred Raines and his (Athletes in Action) staff for how they run it."
In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, Reich talked about his playing days with the Bills, his coaching education (which received a major boost when he got to work with Peyton Manning), finally getting a Super Bowl ring and his experiences since the unexpected chance to take over the Colts after Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' sudden decision to leave the job soon after taking it.
Buffalo News: What was your biggest takeaway from your first year as a head coach?
Frank Reich: My biggest takeaway was that the things that I learned from the likes of Marv Levy and Tony Dungy are true: It's about the people and it's about the process. It's easy to get caught up in all of the hype and all of the glitz and glamour and the thrill of, "Let's win a Lombardi Trophy," kind of deal. So it's almost counterintuitive to say, "No, that's not what we're going to focus on. We're going to focus on people and we're going to focus on the process and focus on getting better every day." You go in and you think, "Hey, if I ever have a chance to be a head coach, this is going to be it. This is the mantra."
Then you get to 1-5. And you're like, "Alright, do you really believe this? Because we're not talking about winning. We're just talking about getting better." Marv used to say, "Winning's not our goal. Excellence in preparation is our goal. Winning will result." Now, of course, winning was a goal, but in context, it's the matter of emphasis. So what I learned was, "Yeah, it's really true. And that's what we're sticking to."
BN: As you played for and worked with those Pro Football Hall of Famers, did you recognize the incredible education you were getting to do what you're doing now?
FR: I really did. My dad (Frank Sr.) was a coach. I really figured, one day I was going to be a coach. Bill Polian helped give me a lot of the vision for that, because he was the one that told me my rookie year, "You need to be a coach." I already knew that deep down in my soul. But when you get that confirmation from someone like that, it just helps it.
BN: How old were you when the idea of becoming a coach first crossed your mind?
FR: My dad was the head coach at Lebanon (Pa.) High School, and I used to go to his training camps and hang out with him and his players. I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. This was when I was 9, 10 years old. And then as I started to grow, my dad and I would sit in the kitchen and draw up plays. When I got to high school and knew a little bit about football, we'd sit in there and have these skull sessions. He'd be drawing up plays and I'd say, "Well, here's how I would stop that." And then he'd say, "You can't stop that." And then he would start talking about his players. He would say, "Yeah, well, my Tom Payne and Joe Alwein are better than your guys." At this point, he had retired so that he didn't have to coach against me, because I was actually going to a rival high school, Cedar Crest. So we'd go back and forth and I'd always say, "How come every time we get in these discussions, your guys are always better than my guys?"
I actually think those times were very informative for me. My dad really, literally thought he had the best players in the world and he talked about them like that. And that's the way I feel. Last year, when I got to Indianapolis, everybody was talking about, "This is going to be a rebuilding project, the roster's really depleted." And (GM) Chris Ballard and I would sit down and look at the roster. The more I got to know the players, the more I would say to Chris, "Hey, this isn't a building project. We've got good players, we're going to win this year." And you really believe that. I think, as a coach, your players sense that and you can't fake that when it's really genuine and authentic. That's certainly one of the things I learned from my dad.
BN: As Jim Kelly's backup, your role was to be ready to go in at quarterback at a moment's notice. One snap away. But an equally large responsibility was also serving as that coach in shoulder pads for Jim. How conscious were you of that designation?
FR: I was very conscious of that. Hey, I knew Jim Kelly was the leader of that team and Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas, all those guys. It was, quote-unquote, their team. I had no misgivings about that. But back in the "Bickering Bills" days, I really felt like I, at times, was a little bit of a mediator. I was a guy behind the scenes that, if Andre (Reed) went a game or two without getting the ball and he was getting hot, I would say, "Hey, let me go calm him down." Or, we threw the ball a lot for a couple games, Thurman wasn't getting his carries, or whatever, just try to be a stabilizing voice just to keep bringing everybody together behind the scenes.
I'm not trying to overstate that at all. But, as a backup quarterback and because of the role that I played there, yeah, I really felt like that was part of my job, to help communicate. Not just be a mediator at times, but really help communicate the game plan and keep everybody involved, keep everybody into it. "Hey, you're going to get the ball a lot this week, be ready ... Hey, I sit all day with Jim in meetings, he's coming to you on this play ... Hey, here's what we think they're going to do; we really think there's two coverages they'd play in this situation." So there were all these little impromptu meetings throughout the week, throughout the season. And that's not unique. I think a lot of backup quarterbacks do that, but I was certainly just doing my role.
Again, I wouldn't want to overstate this, because Jim is Jim, he's one of a kind, but part of it was, whatever the 10 percent of coaching that I was doing to Jim, that was him and I together, along with (offensive coordinator) Ted (Marchibroda), kind of talking through those things. And a lot of it was Ted presenting stuff in meetings and then Jim and I, we're in the locker room afterwards and we're talking through and we're watching film together.
BN: How did you and Jim arrive at that place where you had so much trust and your relationship went beyond simply being fellow quarterbacks and teammates?
FR: I think we got there a couple different ways. One is, I just think we saw the game very similarly in the pass game. Our mindset about how to attack a defense and the things that we would see on game day, even though he had a lot more ability than I had, I think we saw it the same way. You know how when you can finish each other's sentences, especially when you're talking about something like that? We can be watching film and you just know you're both seeing it the same way. He'd say something and I'd say, "Yeah, that's exactly how I feel," or vice versa. But I think the other thing that helped the trust factor was, even though you're two totally different people in many respects – he's the flamboyant superstar – one of the things that connected us was family. We're both very rooted in family, both came from very, very close families. So whatever flamboyance Jim had to him, he was rooted in family. And I think that really connected us because I was the same way.
BN: It always seemed that one of the bigger turning points for you was when, after suffering a knee injury against the Giants late in the first Super Bowl season, he told you to not let the coaches stop running the no-huddle and keep everything the same with the offense. And you kept everything on track then and also through other games and the playoff starts you made later in the run.
FR: Everyone thought it was all going to change. I get that, but we'd been living this for a couple years, whatever, at that point. With Ted and (offensive line coach/running game coordinator) Tom Bresnahan, we really had put it together. So there was no need to change anything. Jim felt strongly about it, I felt strongly about it. The only thing that was going to change was I was going to call few more runs than he would, which is why Thurman always liked when I came in the game. With Jim in the game, he might have 100 yards. If I was playing, he was going to have 150.
BN: Who, besides your father, were the biggest coaching influences during your formative years?
FR: My high school coach at Cedar Crest was a guy by the name of Dennis Tulli, and what I appreciated about him was his belief and confidence. I just think he instilled a lot of belief and confidence in me. And then, when I got to Maryland, Joe Krivak was my quarterback coach for my last couple years, and he was a real guru on fundamentals and technique. Much of what I learned, as far as quarterback play and fundamentals and technique, started with him. He was very systematic and disciplined in his approach, with the drill work, and a stickler on all those things, and I really think he got me grounded the right way. Bobby Ross was the head coach, of course. His work ethic, just as his tireless work ethic, you knew that he was as prepared as anybody.
And then, getting into the NFL, it's really Ted and Tom Bresnahan. With fundamentals and technique, Ted was second to none as far as quarterback play. He used to show us these Roman Gabriel films from when they were with the Los Angeles Rams, these black-and-white Roman Gabriel tapes of him doing drills and finishing his throws by bringing his right hand all the way around to his left pocket on his follow-through. A lot of guys don't finish like that today. That's like one of my main coaching points. That has never left me. To me, it's critical. People don't emphasize it enough. It's just like in golf, everybody talks about swing plane. Well, there's a throwing plane. You watch Jim Kelly, Roman Gabriel, you watch most of the great quarterbacks, the throwing plane is more of an arching, circular motion versus coming across your chest. I mean, even to this day, when I go to the combine and I watch those quarterbacks, I'm watching their throwing plane, I'm watching their finish. Are they putting their right hand in their left pocket?
He also was a real stickler on drops. Every day in practice, he'd have a stopwatch out there, and he'd be timing our three- and our five- and seven-step drop. For instance, if you're doing a five-step drop, your first step to get there had to be in 1.3 seconds. Just getting the consistency of your drop is very important. And Ted was the most positive guy. Some coaches are going to coach you hard. They're going to yell and scream at you. I never heard Ted say one negative thing to Jim Kelly or myself, not one. And he just had a way of instilling confidence and belief.
Here's the other thing about Ted: I don't think we could have done the K-Gun with anybody else, because when that whole thing happened, we were so good at the two-minute drill. And then we're going into the Eagles game (on Dec. 2, 1990) and Ted's, like, "Let's start out in two-minute." And we do and we score three touchdowns right away (on the way to a 30-23 victory). And then it was like, "Well, let's keep doing that. And, Jim, you can keep calling the plays." There's not many coaches that are going to give up that control. Because now, all of a sudden, it becomes less about you and more about the player. And the thing I really appreciated about Ted was he had no ego. I mean, I'm sure he did, but we never saw it.
Tom was the run-game coordinator. And so, because we were calling the plays as the quarterback, it was absolutely instrumental that we fully understood the run game and what the problems were, what the solutions were. When we started running the K-Gun, it was for Jim. It was (mainly) high-percentage pass, but after that first year that we did it, that offseason, Ted, Tom and I sat down and said, "Listen, if we're going to do this, if this is going to be sustainable, we need to run the football more." We had a way to call our pass game and the no huddle very simply. But we didn't really have a good way to call our run game. It's the offseason, so Jim's out doing his thing. So I go in there with Bresnahan and Marchibroda, and we developed, systematically, how we were going to call our run game in code words and shorthand, just like we did in the pass game. The way we were calling our runs at the time, it wasn't incredibly wordy, but it was too wordy.
During the season, Jim and I would have our meetings; Jim and I and Ted would have our meetings, and then I would always have my meetings with Bresnahan. Because I was going to convey the run game to Jim. And to Ted and to Tom's credit, they just knew how close we were, they knew how I was wired and I could speak his language as well as anybody. I knew what was going to connect with him, so I'd go up and get all the little nuances of the run game. Tom would do his run-game thing up in front of the team and he'd make his points. But all the nuanced stuff, we'd get in meetings and then a lot of that was me passing that on to Jim. In those days, it was still pretty simple running game, but you still had to know the answers to the test. And Bresnahan was the one that really taught me everything about the run game. What's the best look for inside zone? What's the best look for outside zone? What gives inside zone problems? What gives outside zone problems? What gives our strong-side gap plays problems? When do we want to run those? When don't we want to run those? When do we want to run our weak-side counter play? When don't we want to run that? When do we want to run the draw? When don't we want to run the draw?
BN: After your playing career, you went into the ministry before pursuing a coaching opportunity. Was that always the plan?
FR: No, I thought I was going to go into coaching right away. I had been playing for 14 years, the girls were young, and I had gotten close to a couple coaches, in particular, in Detroit since that was the last team I played for. I told Jack Henry, who was the offensive line coach, I wanted to go into coaching. Ironically, his son is a scout for the Colts now. Jack said, "Frank, you need to take some time off. Your kids are young, you played 14 years. This business is crazy, you're going to spend so many hours, you're never going to see your kids. If you've done anything right with your money at all and can do it, you should take some time and be with your family." So, it was for those reasons, to spend time with my family, to do ministry. And doing full-time ministry gave me the luxury of making my own schedule.
I was based in Charlotte, but what I was doing was traveling around the country, speaking at church events and men's breakfasts, father-son breakfasts or sports banquets. Ninety percent of it was ministry, 10 percent of it was corporate, speaking on leadership and whatever. My brother, Joe, was head coach at Wingate University (in Charlotte), so I was helping him out a little bit. I was doing football camps, also.
BN: You got back into football in 2006, at age 46, during an internship with the Colts, when Bill Polian was the GM and Tony Dungy was the head coach. How did it feel to be a 46-year-old intern?
FR: I felt comfortable that I had invested that time in my family. When I eventually got in full time, I was like, I can't wait any longer or otherwise they're going to say the game has passed me by. I did a four-month internship where I told them that they didn't have to pay me, I'll work for free. Just give me a chance to earn the respect of the staff. They put me up in a hotel, so they paid for my housing, and I just worked for free.
BN: What were your impressions of Tony Dungy?
FR: I've just never seen anybody as unflappable as Tony. Nothing fazed him. He was the same guy all the time and nothing was going to get him off his core beliefs of fundamentals and technique and get a little bit better every day. If you talk to Tony for 30 seconds, you're going to find out that Chuck Noll was his biggest influence from playing for him and coaching for him with the Steelers. Just the discipline, the belief in "just stick to the basics." Don't outsmart yourself. Just do the simple things in an extraordinary way, that kind of stuff.
BN: And, of course, you were around Peyton Manning. What was that like?
FR: There were many things that were great about Peyton, but here I am, a 46-year-old intern, and Peyton treated me the right way. I mean, I still had to earn it, but because I played for 14 years, I think that that opened the door. I think there was some instant credibility. Still, I had been away from the game for a few years and now I'm with the smartest player to ever play the game. You better not walk into a meeting and not know the answers. It was like, as they say, drinking water from a fire hose with him. He had his way of testing me and challenging me and vetting me, especially after I was hired full time (in 2008) as a quality control/assistant quarterback coach (before being promoted to QBs coach under Jim Caldwell in 2009).
Peyton would always test you on projects. "Hey, do me a favor, go back and look in 2007, when we played against this coordinator, or in 2004, when I played against this coordinator twice. I remember running these three plays against them that I thought were good. So can you go back and look at those and see what coverages they were playing? I think they were playing these three coverages, but just go back and look and see what you think." Or, "Hey, go look at every screen pass that I throw and tell me if there's anything I can do better on my screen-pass technique?"
I remember one time, he told me, "I want you to go watch all my drop backs. Go back to the earliest film you have," because now he's getting a little bit older, "and I want you to see if I've slowed down at all? Is there anything that I'm doing differently in my drop back than I was doing when I was younger?" Those were ways to kind of prove your worth and like, "Hey, you can give me any project, I'll do it." I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for that. The game hadn't passed me by. The game was still the game, but I wasn't eating, sleeping and drinking football for about seven or eight years. Now, all of a sudden, you're in there with Peyton Manning and it's a crash course. And it's the highest level of quarterback play that you can have, so you'd better you better catch on pretty quick.
I was determined there was going to be nobody that was going to outwork me. I'd be the last guy to leave every night when I was the quality control guy. And I tried to improve a few things that we had been doing. For instance, we were doing all these blitz drawings and Jim Caldwell had always done them by hand. We were doing our pass drawings on PowerPoint, and anybody who knows computers knows that PowerPoint's a presentation document, it's not a drawing document. It's not the most efficient way to draw a playbook. In fact, it's a bad way to draw a playbook with PowerPoint. But that's what we were doing. I tried to take that to a new level, because Peyton was so into the protection stuff and the blitz stuff. So I tried to take that whole thing that we were doing by hand and do that electronically.
BN: After the Colts, you had that one season as receivers coach for the Arizona Cardinals. What was it like to coach Larry Fitzgerald?
FR: I don't want to say Larry Fitzgerald is the greatest pro of all time, but he's in the class, not just as a player, but as a true pro. There's a handful of guys like him and Peyton and others. And Larry's just a unique person and player. Just coaching the wide receiver position really helped me develop as an offensive coach even further. I mean, as a quarterback, you were always kind of coaching receivers in a way. But just learning the finest details of the position, I think, was helpful and just to see Larry's work ethic. I mean, his work ethic was second to none, how hard he practiced, the way he finished on every play.
BN: Your first shot to become an offensive coordinator came with the Chargers. What was that experience like?
FR: That was incredible. I didn't think there was anybody else in the football world as smart as Peyton, but Philip Rivers lives in the same ZIP code. I mean, a really, really smart player. Like, in the protection world, the things that he could do and the way he saw pass protection, I'm not saying it was better than Peyton, but it was just a different style of pass protection that we did there than what we did in Indianapolis. I didn't think anybody was on par with Peyton, when it came to pass protection, but Philip Rivers was. He's an absolute savant. I've never seen anything like it.
I don't think Philip's ever cussed in his life, but he's as fiery a competitor as there is. The other thing, it also cemented to me, for elite quarterback play, you have to have accuracy. When you're saying what do you need to be an elite quarterback in the NFL, probably the top physical thing is accuracy. And both Peyton and Philip Rivers have that. There are other guys who have it, but that just cemented it for me.
BN: After being with longtime veterans like Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, how different was it to become offensive coordinator of the Eagles and work with a rookie quarterback in Carson Wentz?
FR: Getting to work with a young quarterback, as opposed to walking in with two guys who are already the best in the world? Sure, Carson was the No. 2 pick in the draft, but can he play at an elite level? And I think he did that in his second year, and he played very well in his first year. Size, strength, play-making ability, intelligence. The other thing about Carson that I don't think people realize is this guy is incredibly, incredibly brilliant, along with freakish athletic ability for the quarterback position: 6-5, 240. And he can escape. The first guy never brings him down. It's like he can't be tackled by one guy. His ability to extend plays was second to none.
BN: What did it mean to finally win that first Super Bowl in six tries and to do it against the New England Patriots?
FR: It was just such a great experience and reaffirms all the things that you want it to affirm – that the chemistry on the team was off the charts, the work ethic on the team was off the charts, how hard we practiced every day and the belief in one another. And you learn that the trophy is nice and important, but I think back to after the game and seeing (head coach) Doug Pederson on the field and us just kind of embracing saying, "We did it!" It's that moment that is better than the trophy, it's better than the ring, it's better than the money that you get for winning the game. You set out to do something and you did it. You're the best in the world and that was fun.
BN: Did that make up for those four Super Bowl losses with the Bills or the one you lost as an assistant coach with the Colts?
FR: I wouldn't say made up for it. I've always said if I don't ever win a Super Bowl, I'm OK, I'm at peace with that. I actually remember the day of the game, one of my daughters or my wife, Linda, somebody in our family saying, "What are you going to do if you if you guys lose this game? You'd be 0-for-6 in Super Bowls." I said, "I can't even think about that." But what's funny is after the game was over, when finally that last pass hit the ground that Tom Brady threw incomplete, there was this raw emotion that I just never felt before in a sporting event.
BN: Did you feel as if you were sharing that victory with your former Bills teammates?
FR: Absolutely, especially because before the game, I mean, literally I think every one of those guys texted me or called me. Every single one of them. After the game as well. That was really cool. To me, that just showed, even if we didn't win, and in those years in Buffalo when we didn't win, why what we had was so special. Twenty, 30 years later, these guys are almost as happy for me as they would be for themselves. That's pretty cool.
BN: After the 2014 season, you interviewed for head-coaching jobs with the Bills and the Jets, but those spots ended up going to Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles. How disappointing was it to miss out?
FR: The interviews that I had done with the Bills and with the Jets, I thought, went well. I think I definitely learned from those processes to just be yourself and know what your plan is. What are your core values? What's the foundation of the team going to be built on? How are you going to lead the team? What's unique about you as a leader? Their thing is, why should we believe that this team is going to follow you? So it was just more about being comfortable in your own skin.
BN: How were you able to wrap your head around the fact you were hired in Indy only after Josh McDaniels made the bizarre decision to suddenly quit shortly after taking the job and already hiring three assistant coaches?
FR: I still remember, it was like 10:30 at night and Linda and I were up in our bedroom in our apartment in Philadelphia, getting ready to go to sleep, and the alert comes over both of our phones at the same time that "Josh McDaniels steps down" or whatever it was. She's like, "Is that serious? Is that real?" I said, "I don't know, I guess we'll find out." She said, "Well, are you going to call your agent?" I said, "No. If it's real, if they're interested, they'll call." Then, I got a call probably a half-hour later from Chris Ballard, the GM of the Colts. He said, "We want to bring you in for an interview."
I was very confident. I was confident in my own ability, I was confident in how I'd come off. But I was just as confident that this was what was meant to be and God's providence. Somehow, it had all played out like this. People can say what they want, but it would only be fitting for me to get a job in this manner.
BN: How was it that you and Andrew Luck seemed to form such an instant connection?
FR: I mean, I think it grew. It didn't start off at a 10 out of 10. But, sure, I think there was an instant connection. And I think that part of that was, even though I had never experienced totally what he was going through, he was coming back from the same shoulder injury that I suffered in my final season, when I was in Detroit. But every one of those shoulder injuries is different, and I knew his was very, very severe. But I had been through the same surgery and my rehab process was very difficult. I was hopeful it was all going to work out OK, but I don't care who you are, whether you're Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning. As central as the quarterback position is, and it's really central, you can't live your life around one player, as important as that one player may be. So I was going to be patient.
BN: You shocked everyone by making the playoffs in your first year as a head coach. Where do you go from here?
FR: Last year, in basically every preseason poll, we're ranked 32nd. That's not going to be like that this year. Last year, we had to really stick to our core beliefs about this whole toughness thing, "relentless pursuit to get better every day and obsession to finish." Now, going into this year, with the expectations raised, the message is going to be the same thing. It's going to be, "Hey, we better not get caught up in what the expectations are and where we're ranked in the preseason polls." It's got to be about getting one percent better every day, and "obsession to finish."