Indianapolis Colts: Is this the Final Season of the Frank Reich Era in Indy?

Aug 27, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 27, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports /

The Indianapolis Colts have stumbled out the gate yet again. Could another slow start be the final nail in the coffin for Frank Reich in Indy? Here’s a timeline consisting of how we got to the point… and thoughts on where it goes from here.

Colts Hire GM Chris Ballard to Start Build

General manager Chris Ballard inherited a roster in 2017 that featured superstar quarterback Andrew Luck and very little else to be excited about. He assumed the task of building a suitable squad around his Hall of Fame talent at quarterback, something that his predecessor Ryan Grigson failed to do.

Ballard stuck with incumbent head coach Chuck Pagano for the 2017 season, but when the team lost Luck to a season-ending injury and limped their way to four wins on the year, the writing was on the wall for a coaching change.

Chris Ballard Tabs Frank Reich as Next HC

In came Frank Reich, fresh off of a Super Bowl victory as the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles. Reich, thanks to an overhauled roster with young talent and a healthy Andrew Luck, led the team to 10 wins and a playoff victory in year one.

The early returns from both Chris Ballard and Frank Reich had the Colts fandom reliving the glory days of the 2000s when Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy were mainstays atop the AFC. Unfortunately, the 2018 season was the last time anyone would see Andrew Luck on the gridiron.

Andrew Luck Retires; Colts Forced to Pivot

Luck suffered another setback during the offseason leading up to the 2019 season. He made the impossible decision to give up his lifelong dream to ensure that he lives a happy life with his family. It’s not talked about enough how much of a mental toll it takes on a person when they have to constantly rehab.

The Colts franchise said all the right things following Luck’s surprise retirement weeks before the season, but to say they were blindsided by it would be an understatement. Regrettably, the news leaked during the team’s preseason game vs. Chicago, leading to an onslaught of boos barreling down on Luck.

When the smoke cleared, the front office made a shrewd move to trade for Patriots backup quarterback, Jacoby Brissett. To Brissett’s credit, he played as well as possible given the circumstances.

The Colts got off to their hottest start in years with a 5-2 record through the first seven games, but they’d drop seven of the final nine to end the campaign at 7-9.

Colts Sign Philip Rivers for 2020 Season

Entering year four of the Ballard tenure, and year three under Frank Reich, Indianapolis went shopping on the free agent market. To their luck, no pun intended, they found another Hall of Fame talent at quarterback, albeit at a much later stage in his career.

Philip Rivers, after 16 seasons in the Chargers organization, signed on for a one-year, $25 million deal. Reich was the quarterback coach and offensive coordinator in San Diego from the 2013-2015 seasons, which marked the best three-year stretch of River’s career when it comes to completion percentage.

In 2020, no one expected Rivers to look like his old self, and although he played very well and led the team to a postseason berth, his increased age and lack of arm strength was something that became noticeable the longer the season drew on.

The Indianapolis Colts came just shy of beating the Buffalo Bills in New York, dropping a 27-24 game behind a bevy of unforced errors and unfortunate bounces. Rumors were heavy that Rivers would return for a second year with the Horseshoe, but ultimately he decided that it was time to pursue other endeavors.

Rivers Retires; Reich Campaigns for Wentz

Following the retirement of Rivers, Chris Ballard found himself in a position that he was all too familiar with — owning a strong roster with no quarterback. Rather than trying to move up for a quarterback in the NFL Draft, the Colts traded a first- and third-round pick for former Eagles signal-caller, Carson Wentz.

Wentz became the second quarterback in as many years that head coach Frank Reich pounded the table for. He helped Wentz achieve superstar status during Philadelphia’s incredible 2017 season. Unfortunately, Wentz suffered a season-ending injury late in the regular season, leaving him on the shelf for the Eagle’s title run.

The two being reunited in Indianapolis caused a stir around the state. A majority of folks saw the glass as half full, thinking that Reich could breathe new life back into Wentz’s career in the NFL. A select few, myself included, wondered aloud, “if he’s truly a franchise quarterback, why would his franchise ever trade him”?

Reich swore up and down to anyone that would listen that Wentz was the final piece necessary to get where the team wanted to be. He crafted a playbook for Wentz that tried to cut out a large percentage of the bone-headed plays that he’s been known for. This led to some strong numbers on paper, but the eye test told an entirely different story.

Things got off to a horrid start for the Colts, as they stumbled to a 1-4 record to open the 2021 season, which included an embarrassing collapse on Monday Night Football against the Baltimore Ravens. Things turned around a bit following this, with the Colts winning eight of their next 10 games.

Even during the 8-2 run, those two losses were solely attributed to blown leads against both the Tennessee Titans and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was easier to look past this after seeing the success of the past couple of months, but they were a sign of things to come for the final two weeks.

Carson Wentz put together two of the worst quarterback games I’ve ever personally watched. He missed his receivers in stride, overthrew them entirely, or held the ball far too long while still in the pocket. His week 18 performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars ended any playoff hopes for Indy and stamped the season as a resounding failure.

 Colts, Carson Wentz Marriage Ends Quickly

It can’t all be laid at the feet of Carson Wentz. Frank Reich did, in fact, vouch for the former North Dakota State Bison standout. He made the bed, but rather than making him lie in it, Reich seemingly got a pass from most national media members, with the ire being pointed directly at Wentz.

Owner Jim Irsay showed visible disgust throughout the 2021 season, but never more so than directly after the heartbreaking loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Irsay reportedly never saw eye-to-eye with Wentz, but with Reich’s standing in the organization, he trusted the head coach’s discretion.

Things became irreconcilable when Irsay’s quotes came out, scolding not only his quarterback but the roster and coaching staff too. There was never talk of Ballard or Reich losing their jobs, but it was clear listening to the Colts owner speak that changes were on the horizon.

Chris Ballard, after being pushed by Irsay, began exploring avenues for a Carson Wentz trade to recoup some value lost when he sent the Eagles multiple picks the prior offseason. In a stroke of good fortune, Ballard was able to squeeze a third-round pick, and a conditional second-round pick, out of the Washington Commanders.

The Commanders got the quarterback they so desperately entered the offseason searching for, and the Colts brought back more value than anyone could have dreamed of given the circumstances. I mean, Wentz was all but a guarantee to be cut if a trade did not occur.

GM Chris Ballard Reshapes the Roster

After Washington bailed the Colts out from their poor decision, Ballard went on to have an incredible NFL Draft and free agency period. He drafted, signed, and traded for guys that would immediately boost the already stout roster in Indianapolis.

The biggest trade came when the Colts traded for long-time Falcons legend, Matt Ryan. Ryan, while not the most exciting passer in the NFL, was thought to be more in the ilk of Philip Rivers than Carson Wentz. As we remember, Rivers is the only quarterback to take Indy to the playoffs since Andrew Luck.

Ballard traded for Yannick Ngakoue, signed Stephon Gilmore, and locked up a few of his own players to lucrative extensions. Unlike the previous offseason, the issues don’t come from what Ballard did do, they come from what he didn’t do.

On paper, the roster improved. It now features another future Hall of Fame quarterback, a better pass rusher and cornerback than they had all of 2021, and even a new defensive scheme after former coordinator Matt Eberflus fled to the Windy City to assume the head coaching role with the Chicago Bears.

By all accounts, the head coach, general manager, and owner looked excited and eager heading into the new football year. Irsay continued speaking of multiple Super Bowls, Ballard talked up the moves he made to improve the roster, and Frank Reich kept up his “motivational speaker” tendencies when discussing his squad.

Assessing the Roster Heading into 2022

So, if all three guys got what they wanted out of the offseason… why are things off to such a horrible start in 2022? Well, the first answer is a boring one but it needs to be said. Injuries.

The Colts defense has been without their best defensive player, Shaq Leonard, in both games thus far. Isaiah Rodgers Sr. has yet to start opposite Stephon Gilmore at cornerback, it’s still to be seen how much of that is injury vs. scheme related.

Michael Pittman Jr. suffered a quad injury and missed the week two contest in Jacksonville. Julian Blackmon is banged up currently and free agent addition Armani Watts was lost for the season before it even began.

Injuries have been a constant for nearly a decade in Indianapolis, and this year is no different. The second issue ties directly to this one. The team failed to bring in depth at premium positions.

To enter the 2022 season with the wide receiver room looking the way it does is malpractice. Furthermore, even after suffering from inconsistent play at left tackle in 2021, Chris Ballard decided that Matt Pryor could effectively protect the blindside of a 37-year-old quarterback.

Add in the fact that the tight end room is arguably the worst in the league and you begin to see why the Colts are not living up to their own expectations. Part of building a roster is having insurance at key positions in the event of a major injury, that’s what Ballard’s conservative salary cap approach should help achieve.

This leads us to the third factor: nearly every big contract on the Colts salary cap is at a non-premium position.

This is not to say that Leonard, Nelson, Kelly, Buckner, and Moore don’t deserve to be paid, because they do. But strictly looking from a roster construction standpoint, it’s unfortunate that none of them play quarterback or left tackle or wide receiver or outside cornerback.

It’s only going to become more apparent when the Colts ink running back Jonathan Taylor to a monster contract extension next offseason. Due to how he structures contracts, Ballard will always have the ability to clear space when necessary, but he is going to be way more handcuffed than he was at the beginning of the tenure.

Holding GM Chris Ballard Accountable

Finally, we arrive at the point of the article where we have to talk about accountability. Chris Ballard is someone that I’ve questioned very little during his time as the general manager, but I feel it’s time to start pointing out his missteps in certain aspects.

This is not to say Ballard should be fired, I would never do that. If the Colts were to let Ballard go today, he would have at least 15 job offers tomorrow. You do not get rid of the guy that’s right 90% of the time just because he misses every once in a while. That being said, he deserves as much blame as anyone for how the 2022 season opened.

Ballard decided that he didn’t need to add a better left tackle, but to be fair there weren’t exactly great options out there. He also decided to stick with Pittman Jr. and virtually no one else at wide receiver, which is harder to understand considering there were talented, albeit older, pass catchers on the market.

The problem with Ballard is also the main thing that makes him so great: he’s so confident in his ability to roster build and in the guys that he brings into the fold. This quality is why the roster is as well-rounded as it is, but it is also why the Colts are lacking at some of the most pivotal positions in football.

Holding HC Frank Reich Accountable

This also brings us back to Frank Reich. I’m not sure there’s a person on this planet that believes in Reich more than Chris Ballard does, but I’m unconvinced that the same can be said when it comes to Jim Irsay. Last offseason certainly strained the relationship, and if the Colts do not right the ship, there’s a good chance that Reich becomes the fall guy.

Frank Reich is a great person, no one has ever claimed otherwise, and he seems like a coach that players can rally around. He is one of the better offensive minds (for the most part), and the way the NFL has been trending, he’s going to be a hot commodity as a coordinator if fired.

Despite all of these redeeming qualities, he has shortcomings that are getting difficult to look past. The team gets off to extremely slow starts under Reich, having both 1-4 and 1-5 starts in his four seasons. If it wasn’t a trend, we could chalk it up more on the players, but when something happens multiple times, it’s tough to not point the finger at the man in charge.

As far as game-wise, Reich is the most inconsistent head coach. He can go from looking like a top 10 coach to looking like a bottom five coach, all in the same game! He’s never shown an ability or willingness to deviate from his game plan. This is good when it’s working, but it’s mind-numbing when it’s not and he continues doing it anyway.

For example, Frank Reich gets billed as an aggressive play caller, but I’d argue that he’s much more conservative than people think. He becomes one-dimensional frequently, either leaning too heavily on the run game or forcing his quarterback to drop back more than they should. He gets too stuck in his ways because like Ballard, Reich believes in his ability and players too much at times.

Reich’s seat has never been hotter than it is today. The Colts entered the fourth quarter of their opening week contest down 20-3 against the Houston Texans before salvaging a tie. Multiple times, it looked as though Reich was content with a tie.

I get the logic, divisional games and AFC games are vital to the standings, but again, this comes back to expectations that they set. If the Colts are truly a contender to win the division, to go to a Super Bowl, to be one of the best rosters in the NFL led by an aggressive play caller… then you cannot accept a tie against a team that picked in the top three of the 2022 NFL Draft.

Coming off the tie, the Colts fandom still held some hope entering week two after coming back from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit. Any positivity that existed in the Hoosier State quickly dissipated when the team took a shellacking from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Jaguars, like the Texans, have young talent and are expected to be contenders in the future, but a team with the expectations that the Colts entered 2022 with should be able to take care of opponents of this stature.

Even with a new quarterback, the Colts suffered an even more shameful loss than they did in week 18 of last season. Matt Ryan and Co. were blanked 24-0 by new Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson, the same guy that hired Reich to be the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia years ago.

“Matty Ice” was ice cold, and not in a good way. He completed only 16 of 30 pass attempts, failing to reach 200 yards and having three passes picked off by the Jaguars. Ryan got sacked five times.

This stat line shows exactly what we highlighted earlier, the Colts simply are not as good of a roster as they claimed to be, especially when injured.

Time for a Fresh Voice in the Locker Room?

I am tired of being told how awesome the Colts are going to be, how much better the roster is this year, and how much the organization is being “slept on”. I know I am not the only one.

I admire Jim Irsay’s dedication to hyping up the Shoe, but to claim the franchise is “all in” and then send out Matt Pryor to start at left tackle doesn’t line up. Same with having a wide receiver room that is devastated by one injury.

Maybe Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, and Matt Ryan aren’t the problem? If it is true that the roster is much better today than it was when the team made the playoffs in 2018 and 2020, then who deserves the blame for the lackluster start in 2022?

Chris Ballard deserves a lot of it. He is an elite general manager in the NFL, but this doesn’t absolve him of the blame that comes with a roster lacking in so many key areas. If we can prop him up and praise him for the good things, we must also be able to hold him accountable for the mistakes made.

Frank Reich is the one main constant during the past five years of Colts football. He has not grown as a play caller, he constantly gets too “big-brained”, and his coach-speak schtick may work for the players, but I can assure you that the fans are growing tired of hearing it.

Maybe I am jumping the gun, maybe I am pointing fingers in the wrong direction. Maybe the expectations that surrounded the Colts throughout the 2000s and early 2010s have spoiled me into thinking that every Colts team should aspire to win a Super Bowl.

Maybe the Colts do what they’ve always done under Frank Reich and they go on a run after the abysmal start to the season. Maybe they beat the Chiefs this weekend?

Even if they do, is that really enough? How long will the fandom be subjected to watching the team shoot itself in the foot the first month of each season? Will another 9-8 season result in Frank Reich sticking around? Should it?

The feelings around the franchise are stale. It’s not going to be an easy decision for Chris Ballard to make, but part of being a general manager is making these tough calls. If you thought Jim Irsay was mad last season, it’s going to be infinitely worse this time around if the script isn’t flipped.