Frank Reich Fired: Is It a Full Rebuild or a Quick Fix for the Indianapolis Colts?

Alex KayContributor INovember 7, 2022

Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich during an NFL football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

The Indianapolis Colts are looking for a fresh start after firing head coach Frank Reich on Monday.

The move came on the heels of the team’s embarrassing 26-3 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday.

With Reich’s dismissal, the Colts have a myriad of questions to answer about how they can get back into contention.

Indianapolis should not be sitting at 3-5-1 just past the midpoint of the campaign considering how much talent it has.

The offense already had reigning rushing champion Jonathan Taylor as its centerpiece and appeared to have at least slightly upgraded the quarterback position by swapping out a disappointing Carson Wentz for Ryan in a series of offseason trades.

The club brought in some pass-catching help to complement rising star Michael Pittman Jr., drafting Alec Pierce and Jelani Woods with their first two draft selections at Nos. 53 and 73 overall, respectively.

The defense looked solid after adding veterans Stephon Gilmore and Yannick Ngakoue to a unit that ranked in the top 10 for scoring and No. 16 in yards allowed last year.

Reich deserves plenty of blame for failing to maximize the talents of his players. It certainly didn’t help that Taylor has missed three games with a nagging ankle injury, but the offense has strayed far from the identity it forged last season by only rushing on 35.46 percent of its plays.

Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (28) breaks the tackle of Washington Commanders safety Bobby McCain (20) in the first half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)
AP Photo/AJ Mast

That is the fifth-lowest percentage in football and down significantly from the 47.43 percent of rushing plays—the league’s fifth-highest—it called last year.

Ryan failed to deliver in Indianapolis after spending the first 14 years of his career with the Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta seemed to know Ryan was past his prime, allowing the greatest quarterback in franchise history to leave in exchange for a meager third-round pick.

The Colts’ coaching staff questionably tasked the new starter with throwing 50 times in a season-opening tie against the lowly Houston Texans and largely struggled to get quality production from Ryan.

Before going down with an injury in Week 7 and his subsequent benching, the 37-year-old had been averaging a mere 6.8 yards per passing attempt and led the league with nine interceptions against nine touchdowns.

Ryan’s replacement, Sam Ehlinger, is looking even worse. The second-year quarterback was battered during his second career start in Week 9, taking nine sacks and completing just 15 of 29 passes for 103 yards and an interception.

With the Taylor-less ground game failing to provide any support—if you take out Ehlinger’s team-high 39 yards on five carries the Colts gained just 39 rushing yards on 17 attempts—the club had one of its most pitiful performances of all time.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Sam Ehlinger (4) passes during to an NFL football game between the Colts and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

Indianapolis failed to convert all 14 of its third-down attempts—tying for the worst mark of the last three decades—and mustered just 121 yards of offense in total, the lowest it tallied since 1997, the season before the franchise drafted Peyton Manning at No. 1 overall.

That showing made it clear this organization needs to make several more moves besides a coaching change to return to prominence. The Colts were fortunate enough to secure Manning after bottoming out with a 3-13 campaign in 1997, landed Andrew Luck after a 2-14 season in 2011 and may need to find a similarly impactful player to help right the ship again.

It's obvious that the quarterback position is once again the Colts' most significant problem and the one that needs the most immediate answer. Ehlinger doesn’t appear to be a long-term solution, but the squad has no one else to turn to after passing up several chances to draft or trade up for well-regarded prospects in the wake of Andrew Luck’s retirement.

In the three drafts since Luck called it a career, Indianapolis has selected only two quarterbacks. Both Jacob Eason (No. 122 in 2020) and Ehlinger (No. 218 in 2021) were middle-round fliers with little chance of becoming franchise signal-callers.

General manager Chris Ballard should be the next domino to fall.

Ballard is the one who blatantly ignored the path his predecessors took to making Indianapolis a top-flight organization by avoiding taking any quarterbacks early in the draft. The GM has instead brought in a series of stopgap veterans past their primes.

El quarterback de los Colts de Indianápolis Matt Ryan se toma el hombre tras ser capturado en el encuentro ante los Titans de Tennessee el domingo 23 de octubre del 2022. (AP Foto/Mark Zaleski)
AP Foto/Mark Zaleski

While Philip Rivers at least managed to take the Colts to a Wild Card Round game in 2020 before retiring following his lone season in Indy, Wentz and Ryan both failed to elevate the offense. The team will now head into the 2023 offseason with the same familiar QB issues it has had to deal with since 2019.

Even if the Colts finally decide to draft a quarterback early, they may not have the good fortune to take one of their preferred options. The team has remained somewhat competitive despite its glaring issues and would be selecting at No. 14 overall if the draft was held today.

The Bleacher Report Scouting Department has identified three elite quarterbacks in the 2023 class in Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Alabama’s Bryce Young and Kentucky’s Will Levis, but all three could be gone before the Colts are on the clock.

Indianapolis may have to make a costly trade up, but those moves don’t always pan out and can set the franchise back significantly. Look no further than the draft capital the San Francisco 49ers had to give the Miami Dolphins to get Trey Lance and the impact, or lack thereof, that he has had thus far.

It will take a shrewd GM to pull off the kind of deal Indianapolis needs to make, one that will allow the team an earlier first-round pick without costing it too much.

Cap issues will start to creep up on the Colts soon as well. Pricy extensions for Taylor and Pittman are on the horizon, and while the team could find some relief by dumping the contracts of Gilmore and DeForest Buckner, it will likely be forced to eat at least some of Ryan’s $29.2 million salary in 2023.

Finding the right coach could take some time too. Jeff Saturday is an intriguing interim option for the club, but it remains to be seen if he can translate his on-field success to the sidelines. The former center is a fan favorite after spending 13 of his 14 NFL seasons in Indianapolis—where he made six Pro Bowls and earned a pair of All-Pro nods—but he has zero collegiate or professional experience as a coach.

Since his retirement after the 2012 season, Saturday has mostly spent his time working as an ESPN analyst. He did spend three years as head coach at Hebron Christian Academy but went just 20-16 during his stint with the high school.

Former Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday speaks to fans after he was inducted into the Colts Ring of Honor during halftime of an NFL football game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets in Indianapolis, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
AP Photo/Darron Cummings

While Saturday could turn out to be a surprisingly competent coach during his impending eight-game trial, it seems more likely the Colts opt for a more experienced candidate to fill the vacancy on a permanent basis.

There are some intriguing candidates potentially available, with Sean Payton recently revealing that he thinks he’ll coach again and Jim Harbaugh admitting he has “unfinished business” in the NFL.

Regardless of which coach the Colts award the position to, they’ll have a tall task ahead of them. Reich went 40-33-1 with a 1-2 record in the playoffs during his four-and-a-half-year tenure but couldn’t spark Indianapolis into contention with a consistent offense despite being a well-regarded coordinator with the Los Angeles Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles prior to his hiring.

Fixing the offense and developing a franchise quarterback will be Indianapolis’ top priorities heading into 2023. The offensive line is also a work in progress and could benefit from a full season of bringing along some young talent in the trenches.

If the Colts find a general manager who can unearth the right signal-caller and hire a coach to properly develop that player, the franchise could be back on track by 2024 and ready to consistently contend for the foreseeable future.

If the team doesn't fire Ballard, misses out on a promising quarterback prospect, settles for another stopgap veteran under center and doesn’t hire the right coach, the Colts will be in grave danger of taking yet another step back and will likely find themselves trying to answer these familiar questions all over again in 2024.