HOUSTON — There’s a series of rotating images on the TV screens in the Indianapolis Colts‘ locker room, and one of them is a picture of a mountain. The point, coach Frank Reich tells his team, is to visualize a mountaintop and the perpetual effort to reach the figurative one.
“It was pretty hard to see the mountaintop from the hole we were in at 1-5,” Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo said this week.
So Reich instructed them not to look for it. Back in October, when the Colts were 1-5 and looking every bit like the rebuilding team they were predicted to be, Reich’s calm message stayed the same. “Let’s go 1-0 this week.” Corny coachspeak, perhaps, but it caught on. The players liked it. And more important, they did it. Over and over again.
The Colts have gone 1-0 every week but one since that 1-5 start. They went 1-0 on Saturday against the Texans, smothering their division rival on both sides of the ball in the first NFL playoff game of the year. They have won five consecutive games, 10 of their past 11, and they’re headed to Kansas City for a divisional-round showdown next Saturday with the top-seeded Chiefs.
“Just an incredible feeling,” Colts center Ryan Kelly said, straight-faced, “to keep going 1-0.”
Captaining this improbably seaworthy ship of effective cliches is a mild-mannered 57-year-old former pastor with a magnificent gray beard who couldn’t get an interview a year ago when seven teams were scrambling to hire head coaches.
Think about that. Amid the backdrop of eight teams looking for head coaches this year, think about Reich. At this time last year, he was the offensive coordinator for the 13-3 Philadelphia Eagles, who were the top seed in the NFC and a month away from winning the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback. And he wasn’t on interview lists. The cycle came and went, the Colts came to an agreement with Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to be their head coach, and it wasn’t until McDaniels backed out of that deal two days after the Super Bowl that the Colts looked at Reich.
“We love Frank,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said after Saturday’s game. “He’s our man, and like I said when we hired him, how could we be so stupid? He should have been our first choice to begin with.”
It is not completely ridiculous to say the Colts lucked into a coach who turned around their franchise. McDaniels is a fine, smart coach who might be an excellent head coach for someone else someday. But there’s no guarantee he’d have had the equanimity of temperament needed to manage Andrew Luck‘s recovery from shoulder surgery through training camp and September, or to keep the team even-keeled and focused when it was 1-5. The Colts were a rebuilding team that rebuilt itself in the span of two months and now looks as dangerous as any in the league. Somebody asked Reich if he could believe it.
Andrew Luck throws two touchdown passes and the Texans’ offense struggles as the Colts cruise past Houston 21-7 in their AFC wild-card game.
“I really can believe it,” Reich insisted. “That’s what happens when you believe in each other and you work hard every day and you just get a little better, 1 percent better every day. That’s what we talk about. With the players that we have, I believe we’re right where we should be.”
So do those players, which means Reich has done his job. You watch the Colts play and you can tell Reich knows how to design and coach an offense. He’s creative, instinctive and smart about his X’s and O’s, which is great. It’s an important part of coaching. But the lesson for teams on the hunt for head coaches these next few weeks is that that’s not the MOST important part of coaching. The most important part is establishing a consistent vision and getting your players to buy into it. It doesn’t matter if it’s corny stuff like “Let’s go 1-0 this week” or “Get 1 percent better every day” or a picture of a mountaintop on a TV screen in a locker room. If the guys you’re preaching to are buying it, that stuff can work.
“He played the game, and he has a way of communicating with players that lets you know he cares about you,” wide receiver T.Y. Hilton said after Saturday’s win. “So everything’s about the players, and when he talks about everybody coming together for each other, it’s easy to all rally around that.”
It’s hard to say from here how far these Colts can go. The road for a sixth seed is a tough one. All road games, the second against a team coming off a bye, etc. But things have been going their way for a while now. They drafted an All-Pro rookie guard (Quenton Nelson) in the first round and an All-Pro rookie linebacker (Darius Leonard) in the second. They got Luck back from a full season missed because of injury, kept him better protected than they ever had before (he was sacked only 18 times in the regular season) and he had a monster season. They found a jigsaw running back in Marlon Mack, who just ran for a team playoff-record 148 yards on the road against a team that gave up only 87 rush yards a game for the season. Reich inherited the defensive coordinator, Matt Eberflus, that McDaniels hired, and Eberflus’ unit has been so good that the Browns want to talk to him about a head-coaching job.
You could argue that things started going the Colts’ way when McDaniels bailed out on them, leaving them to turn to Reich, the coach they didn’t think of when they started last year’s search but who turned out to be exactly the leader they needed. The eight teams currently looking to hire new head coaches are going to turn over every leaf and be as careful as possible. But they should all be hoping they get so lucky.