The Anatomy Of A Comeback, Starring Frank Reich

After the debacle that was Josh McDaniels’ tenure/non-tenure as head coach for Indianapolis last month, Colts owner and nightclub promoter Jim Irsay acted fast to secure the services of Philadelphia offensive coordinator Frank Reich to run the show in Indy. 

Reich has had an impressive rise to the top of the coaching ranks that culminated with the Eagles winning a Super Bowl. He comes to the Colts with a great pedigree as a head coach and former longtime backup quarterback in the NFL. 

Already his coaching career has outshined his NFL playing days, during which he started 22 games including playoffs in nine years. Even in college at the University of Maryland, he was mostly a backup. Reich played second fiddle to the great Boomer Esiason in 1983 and then split time with Stan Gelbaugh in 1984. Reich threw for 1,700 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Total. In his whole career. 

How he even made it to the NFL is beyond me.

The Bills took a gamble and selected Reich in the third round of the 1985 NFL Draft based on 210 pass attempts and this: He was 6-4. 

Turns out the NFL has had a problem scouting quarterbacks for a very long time. He was the second quarterback taken in the draft at pick No. 57—behind Randall Cunningham and 228 spots ahead of actually good college quarterback Doug Flutie.

At Boston College, Flutie threw for 3,634 yards, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. He went in the 11th round and then had to win three Grey Cups, three Grey Cup MVP awards, and a dozen CFL Most Outstanding Player awards before the NFL would let him in.

Flutie magic:

The NFL let Reich play because, you know, he’s tall.

The crazy thing about Reich is that, barring a Super Bowl victory as a head coach, it will still be his playing days that provide the most remarkable accomplishments of his career. He quarterbacked what was then the biggest NCAA comeback of all time (31-point deficit vs. Miami in 1984), followed by the biggest comeback in NFL history about a decade later (32-point deficit vs. Buffalo in 1993). 

There is no reason for this to be true but it is. 

A closer look at the first of his pair of remarkable rallies reveals that Reich’s heroics—at any level—are even more improbable than you might think.

The Anatomy Of A Comeback

I’ve decided there are two types of comebacks. 

First, you have the “Well, we played like garbage and then we made some sort of switch and then stopped playing like garbage” scenario.

Second, there’s the “We were unbelievably unlucky and then the luck started to even out” situation.

Luckily for us, each Reich comeback fits perfectly into those narratives (mostly because I made them up after watching the games). 

Maryland's comeback against Miami in the 1984 season fits the first description pretty well. The Terps were very bad in the first half. They couldn’t stop Bernie Kosar, their running game couldn’t get going, and Stan Gelbaugh—the starting Maryland quarterback—was dreadful against a loaded Hurricanes secondary. The switch comes at halftime when Gelbaugh is benched for Reich. All of a sudden, Maryland can’t be stopped. 

The Terrapins are in Miami on a sunny Saturday afternoon in November. The 'Canes were the defending national champs, but the ‘84 season hadn’t quite gone according to plan. 

Miami was 8-2 with early losses to Michigan when Maryland came to town at 5-3, which was par for the course for that program at that time. As noted, Gelbaugh started at quarterback for the Terps. Reich was the backup.

The Hurricanes were all over Maryland early. Kosar, as I’ve found out, was a pretty legitimate quarterback. He was throwing dimes all over the Terps defense. Miami moved the ball at will even when Kosar was taking these incredibly ugly dropbacks:

With the Terps already in a hole in the second quarter, a Miami fumble gave Maryland very good field position and could have put some fear into the ‘Canes. Unfortunately, an easy touchdown was dropped by the Terps tight end.

Miami would go down the field and score. 

Halftime tally: 31-0, Miami. Maryland’s offense was offensive in all the wrong ways, rolling up a grand total of 57 yards. 

Insert Frank Reich.

Right off the bat, Reich leads the charge and throws his first touchdown of the day. 31-7, ‘Canes.

An interception thrown by Kosar gives the Terps great field position and a Reich sneak makes it 31-14. 

Of course, Miami’s offense is still rolling, but the ensuing drive stalls inside the 10-yard line and the ‘Canes settle for a field goal.

During the last drive of the third quarter, Reich is perfect—particularly on this throw to the fullback for a big gain:

He then throws a touchdown pass to cut the lead to 34-21. Reich comes into the game and goes 12 for 15 in the third quarter.

The fourth quarter starts with Maryland snuffing out this insanely bad screen pass from Miami.

With good field position, Reich led the Terps down into Miami territory on their first drive of the fourth quarter and a rushing touchdown made the score 34-28. Another defensive stop by Maryland almost inexplicably gave the Terps the chance to take the lead with under seven minutes left. 

And Reich stayed hot. 

On the very next play, Maryland took the lead—albeit, with a bit of luck.

35-34, Maryland. Incredible. 

Oh, and then Miami fumbled the ensuing kickoff and the Terps added some all-important insurance to their newfound lead. 

That’s how you come back. 

There was some luck in this comeback, as there inevitably will be, but Reich really did put the team on his back while erasing a 31-point deficit against the defending national champions. 

He’ll need a lot of Luck if he hopes to have similar success with the Colts.

See what I did there?

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