I’d like to describe for you a 2023 NFL head coaching candidate. He’s been a head coach in the league before, which gives him a résumé with pro experience. When he was last a head coach, he won 55 percent of his games, made two playoff appearances in five seasons, and went 1-2 in the playoffs. He’s got an offensive background—which the vast majority of NFL head coaches do—and in the four full seasons he coached the team, they finished 10th, 19th, 12th, and 13th by offensive DVOA. Most notably, he did that with four different starting quarterbacks.
He’s Frank Reich. He was fired by the Indianapolis Colts on Monday.
Usually, head coaches are fired because they’re not good at their jobs. That wasn’t the case with Reich. Reich may not have been among the upper echelon of NFL coaches, but he was certainly not a member of the bottom tier of lame ducks, archaic thinkers, and active detriments.
Good coaches adjust their strategy to the roster they’re given. For Reich, this strength was evident in the carousel of quarterbacks he rode. From 2018 to 2021, the Colts’ leading passer changed in each season: Andrew Luck to Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz. The few teams that endured this level of quarterbacking instability suffered far worse offensive performances than Reich’s Colts. The Commanders had three different leading passers in the same four years, and were a bottom-five offense by DVOA in three of those four years. The Broncos had five different leading passers in five seasons, from 2017 to 2021, and never made the playoffs, never had a winning record, and produced three seasons of bottom-eight offenses. The Panthers have also primarily featured six different QBs in the last five years if you include this season, for which we can safely say they will once again have a below-average offense—as they have in the last three years.
All of these teams that rode quarterback carousels fired their head coaches. Matt Rhule replaced Ron Rivera in Carolina; Rivera replaced the deposed Jay Gruden in Washington; Vic Fangio replaced Vance Joseph in Denver. That’s because instability at quarterback predicts instability elsewhere: instability in offensive performance, instability in job security for coaches and coordinators. Quarterback changes are the foreshocks of coaching changes and front office changes.
But in Indianapolis, not only was Reich retained—his offensive coaching staff was pilfered! Reich sustained transitions at quarterback so well it made the team-building strategy almost seem viable. The Colts went from Brissett’s poor downfield focus to Philip Rivers’s lightning-quick running back dump-offs to Carson Wentz’s RPO reliance and cement feet without a hiccup. They didn’t reload the entire offensive roster each season—they just plugged in a new centerpiece and ran a new system. Other coaches can’t do that. Reich can.
Good coaches also maximize their winning chances with in-game decisions. Here, Reich’s performance is less consistent. The Colts struggled to retain fourth-quarter leads last season despite sporting the league’s most productive running back in Jonathan Taylor. Reich’s commitment to fourth-down aggressiveness, especially in the red zone, opened him up to the same criticism coaches like John Harbaugh and Brandon Staley have received for decisions that eventually went sideways. This season, everything fell apart for the Colts in high-leverage situations. Their 22.2 percent conversion rate on fourth down is tied for second worst in the league; only three teams score less frequently on red zone drives, continuing a downward trend from last season. But it’s unfair to call Reich a poor coach for making quality, model-based decisions when the ball didn’t break his way a few times, and to hold this 2022 abomination of a Colts offense too strongly against him after the work he did in the four seasons previous.
From what I’ve seen of the Colts’ on-field product, Reich is a good coach. But the on-field product is only a piece of the puzzle. Coaches also do a lot behind the scenes—managing assistants, establishing a culture, dealing with locker room drama. But we’ve hardly heard of any culture issues under Reich in Indianapolis. I have no reason to believe that Reich’s handling of the more interpersonal, human resources parts of the job was in any way insufficient, and accordingly, I still have no reason to believe that Reich is a bad coach.
So why does a good coach get fired? Because his boss is making a mistake.
In fact, his boss has made a lot of mistakes. Jim Irsay, the rambunctious owner of the Indianapolis Colts, has been on tilt—that is, letting his emotions affect his decision-making—for the last several months. It’s tough to find the exact tipping point, but I’d wager it was somewhere around January 9, 2022. That’s the day the Colts lost a win-and-in-to-the-playoffs game against the 2-14 division rival Jacksonville Jaguars. That day, Jags fans showed up to the game wearing clown masks to mock their own team, only to watch their squad beat Irsay’s Colts for the seventh consecutive season. I know this game put Irsay on tilt because he was still talking about it 10 weeks later, calling the Jaguars the worst team in the league, detailing how the loss spurred him to action.
That action? Trading Wentz, one year after using a first-round pick to acquire him. This buttoned an earlier, less embarrassing, but still critical mistake of Irsay’s: committing to Wentz in the first place. Reporting surrounding the Wentz acquisition identified Reich, not general manager Chris Ballard, as Wentz’s chief advocate in Indianapolis—so much so that Reich reportedly apologized to Irsay for his confidence in Wentz’s potential under his tutelage.
It is not bad to have collaboration between the front office and coaching staff. It is, however, the responsibility of the general manager to find the team’s franchise quarterback—not the head coach’s. After recovering from the sudden Luck retirement with one Brissett bridge year, the Colts grabbed two veteran quarterbacks each with connections to Reich—first Rivers, whom he coached in San Diego, and then Wentz. All the while, Ballard made it clear that he had no interest in drafting a rookie quarterback, predicting that “the second a [young quarterback] doesn’t play well? I’m gonna be the first one run out of the building.” While the collaboration of ownership, head coach, and general manager might appear as a positive sign of organizational health and thereby produce warm and fuzzy feelings, all it’s really doing is muddying responsibilities.
Ballard was right. He hasn’t invested an early pick on a young quarterback, which is the first and most critical job of every general manager tasked with rebuilding a roster save for Ballard, apparently—and as such, he hasn’t been run out of the building. Instead, everyone else has. Wentz was run out of the building last season, as Irsay insisted he wanted “more warriors” and didn’t “shy away from the fact that I’m in this to win.” Wentz lasted longer than his replacement, Ryan, who wasn’t so much run out of the building but shoved into a dark corner with his Week 8 benching in favor of Sam Ehlinger—a move that Irsay was behind, in yet another example of a certain responsibility being filled by the wrong person in Indianapolis. After the 2021 sixth-round pick did not solve all of the Colts’ offensive issues in his first career start, the Colts fired offensive coordinator Marcus Brady; after that didn’t work, Irsay fired Reich, in a move that just eight days ago he said he had no intention of doing.
This is how I know Irsay is on tilt. You don’t make inexplicable, unjustifiable, egregious decisions with so much to lose unless you’ve completely tilted. The frustration of losing, and losing badly, and losing unfairly and unluckily, has washed over you. You see nothing but red; you hear no voice of reason in your head. You hire Jeff Saturday as your interim head coach. Saturday, who has never coached at the NFL or even collegiate level. Saturday, most recently an ESPN analyst, who passed on a front office job when you first offered it 10 years ago. Saturday, who was on the last Colts championship team, which makes him adjacent to the next Colts championship team by some sort of weird vibe association?
Hiring Saturday as the interim head coach is not a desperation move. A desperation move is one that still clings to the potential of winning back what was lost, of overcoming the great odds. Hiring Saturday as the interim head coach is also not the waving of a white flag. Such a surrender still retains dignity, acknowledging the mistakes that led to defeat and honoring the salvageable remains of those errors. Hiring Saturday is a guess. It is a total stab in the dark. It is an admission that Irsay would not know good coaching if he stumbled across it in the hallways of Lucas Oil Stadium, which he did, for the last five seasons with Reich.
Irsay’s recent rampage raises a necessary question: What will happen next week, when the Colts face the Raiders and head coach Josh McDaniels, the ultimate One That Got Away when he left Irsay at the altar during the 2018 coaching cycle? What will happen the week after, when the Colts face Nick Sirianni, their ex–offensive coordinator and Reich disciple that currently has the Eagles undefeated and humming on all cylinders? What will happen when the Colts finish the season with something like the no. 3 pick, which would be the earliest selection they’ve had since 2018.
This is why the Saturday hire is so ridiculous. Irsay wants to see development from Ehlinger, yet has now fired the only offensive coordinator and head coach to have worked with Ehlinger as a professional. Out goes Reich, who was hired on the back of the development he coaxed from a young Wentz in Philadelphia; out goes Brady, a young Black coach pegged as a riser in the coaching ranks, who now becomes another in a long list of people of color who are not afforded the effortless upward mobility of white coaches with fewer qualifications as Saturday comes into town.
And what of Ballard’s carefully cultivated roster? His inertia at the quarterback position wasted the good years of Quenton Nelson, who hasn’t been the same since his 2021 ankle injury; of Shaquille Leonard, who has been absent with multiple injuries throughout the season. Both are now on enormous veteran contracts, taking up valuable cap space and forcing the Colts to go cheap at receiver and along the rest of the offensive line, such that they couldn’t sustain any quarterback development anyway. Michael Pittman Jr.’s contract is up after the 2023 season; so is Taylor’s. Can the Colts promise either young player a competitive roster by that time? It’s not likely, and it’s made even less likely by the consummate punting of the rest of the 2022 season signaled by the Saturday hire.
There is no next move for the Colts. The best quarterback on their roster is 37-year-old Matt Ryan, whom the team benched two weeks ago. The head coach’s only qualification for the job is that he’s Irsay’s old buddy. There is no way to recover this team until Irsay himself relaxes, forgets about the Jaguars loss, and realizes that the buck stops with him. That he messed up by not committing to a young quarterback post-Luck, by allowing Reich and Ballard to string together mediocre seasons with veteran stopgaps, and then by raging into a total blow-up of the team. Irsay is a dog chasing cars right now. You can’t really reason with him. You just have to wait for him to get tired and stop.
In the meantime, Irsay will continue to tilt. The team will tank for an early draft pick, which they’ll use on a quarterback. Ballard probably won’t make the pick. Either he’ll be employed by the team, but as a figurehead cashing a check while Irsay demands a quarterback be selected, meets with all of the rookies, figures out which one reminds him the most of Peyton Manning, and then picks that player himself; or he’ll be fired because he refuses to kowtow to a forced quarterback selection, and some other general manager will fill the role of a feeble protestor.
But the league is funny. All this time, the Colts have needed a young quarterback and failed to commit to one. When Irsay forces a commitment, maybe they’ll stumble into another Andrew Luck. Maybe the next head coach Irsay hires will end up just as good of a coach as Reich was, and the next general manager will prove willing to develop a quarterback this time—whether Ballard or someone else. Good things could still happen to the Colts. It’s the NFL. Weirder stuff happens all the time. But just because things might get better doesn’t mean the firing of Reich was a step in the right direction. It was just a step forward, a step toward some winning team that Irsay has conjured in his mind. Forget about the winning team he could have had, should have had, and often did have with Frank Reich as his head coach.