INDIANAPOLIS -- No matter what adversity hit the Indianapolis Colts in 2019, a feeling prevailed that they were still in good hands.
Coach Frank Reich was at his best under tough circumstances throughout his NFL playing career and as offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017.
Before this past season, Reich expressed confidence in being able to get the best out of quarterback Jacoby Brissett following Andrew Luck’s retirement. That is Reich’s personality. He is the same person who never wavered in confidence in 2018 when the Colts went from a 1-5 start to the second round of the playoffs.
But Reich met his match in the 2019 campaign. The Colts went from riding high after a 5-2 start to collapsing down the stretch, losing seven of their final nine games and missing the playoffs.
Reich, who is known for his comebacks on the field during his playing career, couldn't stop his team from spiraling out of control.
“The one thing I said to the team in there is we all take ownership of it and it’s what we do as a team -- every one of us,” he said. “Every one of us takes ownership of getting better. We take ownership of the good and the bad, and there was a mix of that. I know right now for all of us it feels like a whole lot worse.
"I just know we are very close. We are very close. That is just the way it goes. We just make a few more plays here and there. We will get a little bit better, we will coach a little bit better, we will play a little bit better -- and [but] for a handful of plays, it can be a different story.”
It's hard to tell how close the Colts really are. There won’t be a great indication of that until sometime next season. Reich is spending the first part of the offseason self-evaluating his coaching. The 2018 season featured a moment when Reich won over his players on a gutsy fourth-down call in their own territory against the Houston Texans in Week 4. There weren’t any of those moments this past season.
“Try to look for the common threads when it was good and when it was bad. Break it down from big picture; break it down from a little picture,” Reich said. “As you would expect when you are in a profession at its highest level, you have to be really critical of yourself, and we will do that. We are all year long, but you have to be critical of yourself, stay positive and stay together, as well.”
Reich shouldn't shoulder the blame for the injuries or Adam Vinatieri’s missed field goals. The more direct tie to Reich is the failures at quarterback. Brissett finished near the bottom of the NFL statistically after essentially being the starter since last spring.
Brissett, who was called a top-20 starter in the NFL at one point by Reich, had a decent start to the season but later became a weak link. Part of it stemmed from a knee injury he suffered against the Pittsburgh Steelers in early November. And there were numerous injuries that sidelined key skill-position players such as wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight end Eric Ebron.
Defenses also seemed to adjust to Brissett, who passed for 2,942 yards and completed 60.8% of his pass attempts in 2019.
General manager Chris Ballard said after the season that the jury is still out on whether Brissett is the Colts' next franchise quarterback.
“I look at the struggles we’ve had in the passing game as they were team struggles -- obviously primarily offense,” Reich said. “That starts with coaching and certainly playing, personnel and all of that. It all gets evaluated. We’ve got to hold ourselves accountable. I mean, we know our fans want championship football. We are used to around here in this area of the country of knowing how to throw the football. So we are going to throw the football, OK? We will figure it out. We didn’t do a good enough job this year. We will do better next year.”
Throughout the struggles of 2019 -- which included six losses by seven or fewer points -- Reich never changed his personality. He didn’t suddenly start yelling at his players, trying to become somebody he wasn’t.
“He knows how to talk to kids, and he knows how to talk to his players, so he’s never frustrated after those games,” Colts linebacker Darius Leonard said. “He’s played and been to the Super Bowl, been a champion, so it definitely feels good to have a guy lead that way.”
Reich and his staff are currently at the Senior Bowl in Alabama evaluating players for the April draft. He believes that with some solid additions the Colts will not be that far from being a contender.
“What I am excited about is, as hard as this is, the wins and losses don’t count," Reich said. "It’s over. So, the wins and losses won’t carry over until next year. But what does carry over into next year is the process. It’s the people. It’s the locker room. We will all start next 0-0. You will hear me say again this next year, God willing, we will all start 0-0, but we are all not starting at the same spot. We are all not starting at the same spot because some people have the right people, better locker room and a better process. I believe we have that, and that is why I think we are close.”