INDIANAPOLIS -- Frank Reich’s fingerprints are all over the Indianapolis Colts' moves this offseason.
From the new starting quarterback to the tight end he coached in Philadelphia to the first two players taken in this year’s NFL draft, the Colts coach has been working to get the players he wants to run to his offense.
The offensive struggles of 2019 couldn’t be placed squarely on the shoulders of Reich or even quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Nobody expected quarterback Andrew Luck to retire just two weeks before the start of the regular season. Reich still took the blame for an offense that ranked 30th overall in the NFL in passing last season.
“That hurt,” Reich said in February during the NFL combine. “I’ve always taken pride in having a dynamic passing game. Everywhere that we’ve been, I’m not saying we’ve been the best in the league, but the teams I’ve been on have been pretty dynamic for the most part. You can’t always have it all. We made some good strides in the running game. That’s a very important step for our team and where we’re going and how we get to the next level. I know we can do this other side of it. We just have to figure that out and get better there, and I think the end result will be a good thing.”
That’s what accountable coaches do. Reich, who broke into coaching as an offensive assistant after a 14-year career as a quarterback, vowed to correct the problem.
Enter QB Philip Rivers.
Reich and Rivers spent three seasons together with the Chargers. Rivers, despite throwing 20 interceptions last season, isn’t timid when it comes to taking shots down the field. That was a weakness of the Colts last season with Brissett at quarterback.
Rivers essentially has been running Reich’s offensive system since 2013, when Reich was quarterbacks coach with the Chargers.
Why is that important? Because it's likely there won't be as many workouts and practices this spring and summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Colts would like to have as smooth a transition as possible for Rivers while playing behind one of best offensive lines in the NFL.
“As far as Philip is concerned, I haven’t worked with him for three years -- getting an inside look at his accuracy, at his toughness, physical and mental toughness, at his playmaking ability, not just the three years I was with him, but when you look over the course of his career,” Reich recently said on ESPN Radio's Golic and Wingo show. “And then when you look at when he has been at his best, and there’s been a ton a great football games and great years in his career, is I think back to those days when he had LT (LaDainian Tomlinson) and they were running the ball great. One thing about Philip is, he knows how to create big plays in the play-action game, and on the trend that we’re on, I just think he’s the playmaker and leader that can help take us to the next level.”
Burton is another player familiar with the offense, as he was coached by Reich when the Colts coach was the Eagles' offensive coordinator. Search "Philly Special" on YouTube and you’ll see Burton throwing a touchdown pass to quarterback Nick Foles in Philadelphia’s Super Bowl LII victory over the New England Patriots after the 2017 season.
Heading into the draft last weekend, Reich and the Colts had their eyes on USC receiver Michael Pittman Jr. The Colts, in their draft video on the team website, compared the 6-foot-4 Pittman to former receiver Vincent Jackson because of his combination of speed, size and toughness.
T.Y. Hilton, who will turn 31 in November, is still the team’s No. 1 receiver, but Pittman has the potential to become their top receiver down the road. He had 101 receptions for 1,275 yards and 11 touchdowns last season at USC. Ballard said Pittman “can win at all three levels.” And by that he means the receiver is “big, strong to the ball, competes, got better every year in college.”
“He’s kind of a guy who plays above the rim. He brings an element that we were kind of missing to our wideout room [in 2019], that big-bodied presence,” Colts area scout Chris McGaha said. “He’s somebody that I never saw, watching in practice, lose a one-on-one rep. I know that might sound crazy, but it’s true. It speaks to his competitiveness. Wasn’t a guy who won a rep and let you know about it. He went about his business.”
The addition of Pittman -- selected No. 34 overall -- gives the Colts a player capable of using his strength to go up and get contested passes. He should complement the speedy receivers Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni like to use in crossing routes.
But one thing won't change: Reich still wants to “run the damn ball.” The Colts proved that when they traded up three spots from No. 44 to select Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor.
Taylor dominated on the ground last season at Wisconsin, rushing for 2,003 yards and 21 touchdowns. His 12 career games with at least 200 rushing yards are the most by any player in Football Bowl Subdivision history.
But what about Marlon Mack, who rushed for 1,091 yards last season?
The way Reich looks at it, the more bodies in the backfield, the better. He texted Mack and told him they were going to select Taylor, and Mack told his coach he was ready to roll with it.
“I think sometimes you do it by committee, but everybody has their emphasis,” Reich said. “... With Jonathan into the mix, I really envision that it’ll be Jonathan and Marlon really being that one-two punch. When you look at good teams over the years, it’s a long season. It’s a grind, and when you run the ball as much as we run it, it’s really good to be able to change that up. I think their styles will really complement each other very well. Marlon has that great vision. He can run that outside zone well, he can surge, surge, surge and then he can accelerate in the hole.
"Then you have a guy like Jonathan. He has the size and speed to be able to have good vision, and when he hits it, Jonathan Taylor is an explosive player. That size and 4.3 [40-yard dash] speed -- we want to turn those 10-yard gains into 50- and 60-yard gains. Now both he and Marlon can add that element to our offense.”