Some of the most intriguing news out of NFL training camps last week came from Indianapolis, but it wasn’t the good news about Carson Wentz’s rapidly healing foot. It was that Colts head coach Frank Reich received a contract extension through 2026.
Up in Chicago, fired Eagles coach Doug Pederson spit out his Häagan-Dazs.
Over in Philadelphia, you had to wonder if Jeffrey Lurie wasn’t eating crow. After all, Reich could have been his. Couldn’t he?
After Lurie hired Pederson as head coach in 2016, Pederson’s first hire was Reich, as his offensive coordinator. Two years later, after the Eagles won Super Bowl LII, Reich left for the Colts, who never want to let him go.
Pederson happened to be visiting his buddy, Bears coach Matt Nagy, when the news about Reich broke Wednesday. By Friday, incredibly, Pederson was on Reich’s sideline, grinning with his former assistant — and, oddly, with Wentz, the new Colts quarterback whose disastrous 2020 and whose petulance in its aftermath helped get Pederson fired and get himself catastrophically traded.
The composition of the photo tweeted by the Colts’ account made you think: Did the Eagles hire the wrong guy in 2016? What if they’d hired Frank Reich as their head coach instead of Doug Pederson?
Reich, an ordained minister, exhibits a calmness and character seldom seen from NFL coaches. Perhaps that’s part of his allure — because it’s not like he’s crushing his competition. In three seasons, Reich is 1-2 in the playoffs and 28-20 overall. Respectable but not remarkable.
Reich also is a first-time head coach who missed the playoffs in 2019 and has not won the NFC South. He’s also 59. The NFL is a win-now industry whose sexiest coaching candidates lately have been 30-somethings who act like they have Red Bull addictions — the anti-Reich, as it were. It seemed more likely that Reich would be on a hot seat than getting a preseason contract extension, but, God bless him, he now has the sort of long-term job security most NFL coaches only dream of.
After all, Pederson got canned in January after he’d made the playoffs in his second, third, and fourth seasons, won a Super Bowl in his first playoff trip, and won a playoff game in his second. One bad year with one bad quarterback and, like that, he was gone.
Colts owner Robert Irsay, meanwhile, gave Reich a large window in which to develop a team around Wentz — who, we should must remember, he’s only entering his sixth season, is just 28. Sure, he gets hurt like he’s 88 (most recently he needed surgery to repair a broken foot, but he might be back in time for the start of the season), but maybe he’ll grow out of it. Irsay thinks he will, and he thinks Wentz will be great again, and he’s convinced that Reich will help.
“I truly believe this football team is on the doorstep of great things,” Irsay said in a statement last week, when the team announced the parallel extensions of Reich and general manager Chris Ballard.
In March, Irsay said that the decade of the 2020s would be a “golden era” for the Colts.
This, of course, is the sort of “gold standard” phrase that haunts another NFL front office. Just ask Lurie, if he’s not pulling out the last of his hair. If Irsay is right — if Reich resurrects Ginger Jesus (Wentz’s nickname in his early years) and does, in fact, lead the Colts into a golden era — then it’s fair to wonder whether Lurie hired the wrong guy in 2016.
What if ...
Reich was considerably more qualified to be a head coach than Pederson, but that was a pretty low bar, and besides, Reich had just been fired in San Diego. Still ...
Would Reich have won the Super Bowl? Or was the chemistry perfect between Reich and Pederson? Reich arrived in Philadelphia as an accomplished quarterbacks coach whose two seasons as the Chargers’ offensive coordinator stamped him as a clever, versatile game-planner and play-caller. In fact, the Bills interviewed Reich for their head-coaching job both after his 2014 season in San Diego and his 2016 season in Philadelphia. No other team ever interviewed Pederson; he landed with the Eagles as their third choice, shunted off by Andy Reid, his NFL godfather and the only coach he’d ever worked for.
As Pederson bumbled through the 2016 season, Reich developed Wentz, for whom the Eagles had traded a king’s ransom to draft No. 2 overall — largely on Reich’s advice.
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Does that mean Reich would have won without Pederson? Maybe. Maybe not. The chemistry was perfect between them: Pederson, a likable administrator who was eager to call plays on Sunday and to let Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo handle the hands-on coaching during the week. Reich saw an unmatched offensive line, tailored plays first to Wentz’s strengths, then to the lesser strengths of Super Bowl hero Nick Foles, and happily let Pederson act as the voice of the franchise.
But I’ve watched Reich handle himself in Indianapolis for three years. I’ve covered Colts games. I’ve talked with Colts players and staff.
So yes; as head coach, Reich would have succeeded to whatever level Pederson succeeded in Philadelphia.
In 20 weeks, these questions might sound silly. Reich might have failed in Indianapolis again. Wentz might be the same bust in 2021 that he was in 2020 and Irsay could look like a fool. But Reich has a job. Pederson, who just bought a huge boat, looks like he’s fishing for a job opportunity.
When Reich left the franchise, he took all of its humility with him. General manager Howie Roseman preened in the Super Bowl locker room. Pederson boasted that Super Bowl expectations were the “new norm,” then wrote a book, and lost his edge. Lurie took a two-year victory lap. Meanwhile, Rome burned around them. Wentz regressed. They wasted the prime years of defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, offensive linemen Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson, and tight end Zach Ertz — the main reasons they won Super Bowl LII.
And, it pains me to admit it, Pederson & Co. might have wasted the potential of Wentz, despite their best efforts. Wentz is wretchedly flawed, but they handled him poorly, failed to reach him, and failed to grow him.
Reich certainly wouldn’t have done that.
Irsay is betting that Reich will fix Wentz and, eventually, win the Colts a third Super Bowl.
It’s hard not to think about how Reich might instead be in Philadelphia, helping the Eagles win a second.