Calm, cool Frank Reich pushing right buttons for surprising Colts

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The schedule says the Indianapolis Colts turned their season around Oct. 21 with a win against the Buffalo Bills. That started a stretch of seven victories in eight games, including five straight.

But you have to go back three weeks prior to that to see when things really turned around for them. It was on Sept. 30 against the Houston Texans that the belief was publicly displayed between coach Frank Reich and his players.

Reich, the first-year coach of the Colts, could have played it safe and possibly settled for a tie against the Texans by punting on fourth-and-4 from their own 43-yard line in overtime. He went for it, the Colts failed to get the first down, and they lost the game three plays later.

The Colts went on to lose their next two games, too, including one to the struggling New York Jets. That pushed Indy's losing streak to four, dropped its record to 1-5 and had the team looking like it could be on its way to another high pick in the 2019 draft.

Reich was criticized by some on the outside for not punting the ball away and letting his aggressive nature get the best of him against the Texans.

The players?

They were disappointed, angry, mad, whatever you want to call it about the loss, but there was no questioning of Reich's decision publicly or even privately. They loved what their coach did on fourth down that day.

"The fourth-down call solidified everything for us as players, because he believes in us enough that we're going to go out on fourth down and we're going to get it," Colts center Ryan Kelly said. "If we punt, it's a very different message you're sending to players. He said that from Day 1. That's something the players got behind."

That's Frank Reich.

The Colts (8-6) have gone from the Josh McDaniels fiasco last winter, to publicly admitting Reich wasn't even on their top-five list of candidates, to now being the team that's one of the scariest in the NFL. One that could be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014 -- with Reich leading the way.

As Reich said during his introductory news conference back in February, "the backup role" has suited him well in his career. The former quarterback spent years backing up Jim Kelly with the Buffalo Bills, but during his playing days he also led historic comebacks while at Maryland and later with the Bills, so it shouldn't be surprising Reich is leading the Colts back into playoff contention.

The easiest way for the Colts to make the playoffs is by winning their final two games against the New York Giants on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS) and at Tennessee in Week 17. If that happens, they would need Baltimore or Pittsburgh to lose one of their final two.

"When you look at a season where you start 1-5, a lot of questions can easily start coming up around the building, people start looking around, wondering what's going on, you start getting confused and there's easily a chance you could stay off track and not get back on," Colts linebacker Najee Goode said. "Frank didn't let any of that happen. That's who he is, somebody who does not get rattled. It's cool to play for him and see him never change."

Added veteran kicker Adam Vinatieri: "When you get a brand-new head coach, one who has never been a head coach before, you kind of wonder how it's going to go. He's spot on. He's not a yeller or screamer. He's a very good, calm motivator. You know where he's coming from. He gets fired up and he's fiery and stuff like that, but he's not a yeller."

Reich likely won't win NFL Coach of the Year, but there should be no doubt that he'll receive some votes, especially if the Colts make the playoffs. This stretch of success has included the Colts beating Houston and Dallas, which were on nine- and five-game winning streaks, respectively. They've also beaten five teams with defenses ranked in the top 15, including four in the top 10.

"Players, we've got good players," Reich said about the turnaround. "We've got good players who are not only talented, but -- what [general manager] Chris Ballard and I talked about was we wanted guys [who are] not only good, talented players but [have] high football character. That's what we have. They make it much easier. The kind of thing doesn't happen if you don't have this kind of quality of players, not just talent but the fortitude -- the internal fortitude they have."

Well, the players point the finger back at Reich.

Reich is a 57-year-old first-year coach who walks, dresses and talks with the confidence that has him and others believing that no situation in any phase of the game is too much for them to overcome.

"He never changed throughout the season," safety Clayton Geathers said. "Not once. Even when things weren't going our way. He stayed the same way day in and day out. That says a lot about your character, says a lot about the person you are. Guys respond well to that. Never change and hold every man accountable. That's what you have to have. It doesn't matter if it's Andrew Luck or someone else on the roster. I think that's special."

Reich seizes the successful moment only momentarily before he emphasizes the need to move on. As he said in his postgame speech via Colts.com after blanking Dallas 23-0 on Sunday, "We're not done ... Have to keep going in this direction right here. Climbing that mountain, we're near the top. We're getting near the end of it. That's where the most difficult climb is."

The playoffs are in sight. The Colts have to keep doing their part and then get an assist from one of Baltimore or Pittsburgh's opponents to go from a fourth-down failure and later being 1-5 to making a trip back to the postseason.

"It's always the same message with Frank," defensive lineman Al Woods said. "He always says, 'Reset the clock, refocus and let's get back to work. Let's finish strong.' Frank is an incredible guy. You want to bust your ass for a guy like that. We'd do anything for him. We want to fight for him."