Colts' Frank Reich makes worst decision of NFL season

·NFL columnist

In the NFL, the bottom line of the coaching ledger is simple: Win games. Go to the postseason. Make every opportunity count for something.

Regardless of how you want to chop it up today, Frank Reich failed in that effort.

The Indianapolis Colts coach did it with guts and bravado, just like his previous employer – the Philadelphia Eagles – taught him to do. But that’s not going to help Reich’s Colts, who essentially gave away a tie when Reich inconceivably called for a fourth-and-4 shotgun pass from his own 43-yard line with 27 seconds left in overtime against the Houston Texans. The rest is history: The Colts failed to convert. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson connected on a 19-yard pass and Houston made a 37-yard field goal to win the game in overtime.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Texans actually missed the game-winning field goal attempt initially, only to have that mistake nullified by a timeout called by Reich.

It was the worst play call of this young season. And maybe the worst the NFL has seen since Reich’s Colts predecessor – Chuck Pagano – called arguably the single-worst trick play in league history in 2015. You don’t have to remind Indianapolis fans about that one, either. That fake punt by Pagano has been nothing less than a comically sour low point in team history, aging like a carton of milk sitting on the counter for the past three years.

Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn (7) boots the game-winning field goal against the Colts. (AP)
Texans kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn (7) boots the game-winning field goal against the Colts. (AP)

Not that Reich or the Colts are concerned, mind you. If they could do it again, they’d do it again. So there’s that, I guess.

“I’ll just address it now: I’m not playing to tie,” Reich said in his postgame news conference. “I’ll do that 10 times out of 10. That’s just the way it’s got to roll.”

To which Andrew Luck added: “Love it. Everybody in that locker room liked that – no, loved that. We can get behind that. … I think that’s who we’re going to be as a team. Aggressive. That’s what we want our players [to think], that’s a mindset we have with our players. It’s the only way to win in this league.”

If I have learned anything in the NFL, it’s that if the franchise quarterback endorses something – even if it’s something dumb – a sizable portion of the fan base will get behind it. So I’m absolutely certain some of the same Colts fans who initially went bonkers over the decision will decide that they actually like it. If Luck likes it, we should all like it. Right?

That’s fine. It’s great that Reich has the backing of his guys because there’s nothing more imperative for a new head coach than getting the locker room behind him. But let’s be clear here: In the mathematical analysis of this season, Luck’s support and Reich’s chest-puffing don’t change the numbers. And the cold, cruel percentage points all say that a tie is worth half a win in the standings. Which, if getting to the postseason and winning a Super Bowl is the ultimate goal, makes Reich’s decision a poor one.

Oddly, that may not be the popular opinion in Indianapolis. Probably because this is a fan base that wants a new attitude more than almost anything right now. The years-long malaise of Pagano and former general manager Ryan Grigson tend to do that. And nobody in the NFL likes ties anyway. In the NFL’s hyper-competitive equation, there is almost nothing gratifying about a draw. Better to go down swinging and lose than lie down and get a few percentage points for participation.

I get all of that sentiment. But it’s also September. The team is 1-3 and building, and it’s easy to look at a decision and say “Good for them. The Colts grew some chest hair.” It’s far different to feel that way in December, when this team might be fighting for a bottom-rung playoff bid. The kind of thing where having walked away with half a win in September could be the difference between making it or breaking it. And don’t kid yourself, there is nothing that helps a team more on a growth curve than a taste of the postseason. Weighed against some goofball decision on fourth-and-4 in September, a postseason opportunity gives a team far more swagger.

Maybe I’d feel differently if Luck was 26 instead of 29. Or if he had played more than 22 games in the prior three seasons. But he hasn’t. And that should be instructive for the franchise, if not team owner Jim Irsay. This is another year of Luck’s prime burning away. The goal at this stage should always be maximizing every single opportunity. Sometimes playing it safe has to be a part of that – kind of like substituting Jacoby Brissett for a Hail Mary pass in Week 3. Did Luck want to yield to Brissett? Of course not. But it was the right decision to protect the bigger picture.

What happened Sunday was no different. Whether a tie is palatable or not, it’s a better percentage play than a loss. In the long term effort, it’s better for Luck, better for the locker room and better for a franchise that stands more to gain from a playoff berth than an “aggressive” loss.

A tie was half a win. And half a win is better than nothing in the standings. If that’s not clear now, it could be in December – when September bravado amounts to nothing.

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