INDIANAPOLIS — It is the defining moment of the Frank Reich era so far.
Facing fourth-and-4 at his own 43-yard line with 27 seconds remaining in overtime against the Houston Texans, Reich decided to go for it.
Then Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck’s pass was incomplete, and the Texans drove into position for a field goal that gave them a stunning 37-34 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Reich was questioned intensely after the game, but he stuck to his guns. Not only did he believe he made the correct decision, he said he would do it again.
And he has.
That moment resulted in a loss on the field, but it told the players, fans and media all they needed to know about the first-year head coach.
Reich is a man of his convictions, and he’s going to make the call he believes in no matter the outside expectations.
As the Texans (4-2) prepare to return to Indianapolis for a key early AFC South showdown Sunday, Reich still is rolling the dice. And the Colts are delivering.
Through the season’s first five games, Indianapolis (3-2) is a perfect 7-for-7 on fourth-down conversions.
“It’s players executing plays,” Reich said, deflecting any praise sent his way. “I mean, it really is. They are doing a great job. Guys have really, I think, had a good sense of urgency on those plays. There has been good execution. We don’t take any one of those plays for granted.
“Some of them have been well-executed plays. Some of them have been great individual effort — maybe a great run by Marlon (Mack) or an offensive lineman making an impossible block or something. But the guys have done a good job.”
It’s what they’ve been prepared to do.
The Colts don’t go for it on fourth down on a whim. Significant time is devoted each week to fourth-down options. When should the team go for it? When should it punt? And what plays are most likely to work against each particular defense?
Analytics assistants George Li and John Park are consulted, of course. And the menu of plays in the fourth-down package goes through heavy and intense scrutiny.
“It goes through more filters,” Reich said of the fourth-down menu. “(Offensive coordinator) Nick (Sirianni) and I will talk — Nick and I talk a lot about these fourth-down calls. We will push each other and I will say, ‘Are we really going to be comfortable with this with the game on the line? I mean, is this really what we want to call when the game is on the line?’ Vice versa, he will ask me those same kind of questions, and we will just go back and forth.
“You have your fourth-down calls where they could be run or pass, and then you have your fourth-down calls that are going to be all pass given the situation. So you basically have those two categories, and we try to put a pretty strong filter on those calls and vet them. I mean, everything is vetted a lot, but those calls are vetted even more so.”
Reich hasn’t always been the gambling sort.
In fact, a 57-year-old former pastor is far from the most likely option to be on the cutting edge of fourth-down strategy.
But Reich is, first and foremost, a student of the game.
He was a part of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl championship run following the 2017 season, and he saw how head coach Doug Pederson’s aggressive approach kept opponents off balance and charged up his own team.
“They were aggressive, and they were successful,” Sirianni said. “I know, obviously, that stuck with him, and you see where we are now as far as the aggressiveness that we have at times in fourth down. He’s not being extreme with it, either.
“When it’s time to punt, it’s time to punt. When he feels like we should go for it based off of things that he has studied and our guys upstairs are telling him, he does.”
Reich insists the majority of his fourth-down decisions are simple.
He draws up a chart each with week with probabilities and predictions based on the down-and-distance, field position and score of the game. Then he uses that info to make the call in real time.
What might look reckless – or at least spur of the moment – from the outside is actually the fruit of hours upon hours of labor.
That’s what gives Reich the confidence he needs when the game is on the line.
The key is knowing when to pull the trigger.
“It really goes back to a thought that we had earlier in the year when you guys were pressing me on the question about being aggressive, and I think I used the phrase, ‘Prudently aggressive,’” Reich said. “That’s really what we are trying to do, and we want to be aggressive, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of, ‘OK, well, we are doing well on fourth down, so let’s just go for it at will.’ That would be foolish so (we are) trying to find that balance.”
So far in 2019, so good.