Lombardi: Colts firing Reich makes sense; hiring Saturday not so much

November 8, 2022 10:38 AM

The American ’70s and ’80s rock band Chicago (still playing today) featured the wonderful voice of Peter Cetera and a heavy horns section making their sound a mixture of pop, rhythm and blues and jazz. One of their many hits was “Saturday in the Park,” which takes the listener on a musical journey through a city park on Fourth of July weekend — “with a man selling ice cream, singing Italian songs.” (I was always fond of that line.) Well for Colts fans, every Sunday will be a Saturday in the Park, as their former star center Jeff Saturday is now their interim head coach.

Colts fans started their Monday in not-so-shocking fashion, hearing that Frank Reich had been removed as head coach. With former head coaches Gus Bradley and John Fox already on the staff, my first instinct was they would allow one of them to steer the Colts for the interim. The shock came hours later when owner Jim Irsay announced Saturday would be the interim coach even though he has no coaching experience beyond high school. As the song says: “A bronze man still can tell stories his own way.” Irsay is the Colts fans' version of the bronze man in the park.

Before breaking down the bizarre move of hiring Saturday, let’s examine the Reich era in Indianapolis. He showed promise in his first season with quarterback Andrew Luck under center. The Colts went 7-1 in their last eight games and beat the Texans in the wild-card round before losing to the Chiefs the next week. All hell broke loose the following August when Luck stepped away and Jacoby Brissett had to take over as starting quarterback, resulting in a 7-9 season.

Reich then rearranged his staff and the Colts brought in aging former Charger Philip Rivers to play QB. Reich had coached Rivers in San Diego and was a strong supporter of the veteran having more football left beyond the one year — which he clearly didn’t. When Rivers retired, Reich doubled down to sell the organization on Carson Wentz as the next leader. The Colts went all in, giving up a first-round pick and a third-rounder for Wentz, demonstrating their trust and faith in Reich’s ability to evaluate the position. When the head coach proclaims “trust me on this” it’s hard to ignore, especially when the head coach is supposed to be a quarterback expert having played and coached the position his whole life.

From Rivers to Wentz, this is where Reich lost the organization, his team and then his job. When a decision-maker goes “all in” and the organization is counting on him being right, then he ends up being badly wrong — twice, there is no coming back. Reich could never get over the Wentz cloud as each Irsay attack on Wentz was an attack on Reich. Privately the organization had to wonder, “How could Reich be so wrong?”

Reich lost his confidence, lost his fastball, lost his toughness, and all of that resulted in him losing his job after the ninth week. Under Reich, the Colts had always been tough, but somehow they lost that toughness. And their offensive line, which was their strong suit, became a weakness. By the end, Reich looked like a president after four years in office. When he was fired, as much as Reich wanted to be successful and fix what he broke, he knew his voice and credibility had been lost. The time was right for him to leave, but is the time right for “funny days in the park?”

On Monday night, Irsay held a press conference to introduce Saturday as the interim head coach and confidently told everyone “You wanna bet against this guy? Put your money down, people.” He then grabbed my attention when he said: “The thing I’d say: Al Davis has always been my biggest influencer in terms of football. (Don) Shula, Paul Brown, Tex Schramm, yes, but Al was always No. 1. If Al was here and you’d say, ‘Hey Al, why do you think Jeff is going to be successful?’ He’d say three words. ‘He’s not scared.’”

Al did love fearless people — people who were willing to embrace a challenge. He also loved intelligence and someone who could run an offense. Davis saw himself as the strategist, someone who could take a young coach and make him a superstar. He also loved someone who could go toe to toe with him on scheme, players and game management. Davis, the ultra-contrarian, wanted discourse, he embraced hearing someone express their views. And because Davis wanted to teach and learn, he craved being around smart people with some experience he could mold and develop. The difference for Al in the case of Saturday, is Saturday has zero experience outside of the Hebron Christian Academy, a high school in Georgia. Davis wouldn’t allow someone to represent his silver and black without having paid his dues or having a full understanding of the professional game. He loved his former players, but he also knew that for the current players to respect them, they needed to be prepared and as he would often say: “organized.”

Saturday might not be scared, but he is about to embark on something he has no idea about or is prepared to handle. When something like this happens, I often remember a conversation with former Browns great tight end Ozzie Newsome, who left the field and became a personnel man while we were together in Cleveland. One day, Newsome, who was incredibly smart about the game, looked at me and said: “I had no idea what happened up here (in the coaching and scouting offices) and all that goes into preparing a team.” No player does. It’s two different worlds, playing and coaching. This isn’t to diminish Saturday’s intelligence, but rather to say his learning curve will be steep. He will have to convince the players he can help them become better, show them how to win a game and then make great decisions in the game. Is this doable? Call me doubtful. And the betting public will be all over the other side once the shine of the hire wears off.

For me, the bigger issue is the lack of respect Irsay is showing the head coaching position. In the past few years, we have witnessed organizations minimizing the position, hiring coordinators and calling them head coaches. The NFL once held head coaches in high esteem — believing they could lead all three phases of the game. Not anymore and now with this move, the league continues to move further away from the model of Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, Don Shula, Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll and into a more collaborative one. And what they fail to realize is the players must believe the coach knows what he’s doing and can make them better. Players today are unaware of the past, could care less about the former players and care about how they can become a star and will only listen to those helping them along that path. Players have changed over the years, but selling credibility hasn’t. And in fairness to all the coaches who were passed over in favor of Saturday, they know being credible is the No. 1 tool in their toolbox.

Chicago ends their song with the line: “Been waiting such a long time, for the day” — Saturday. I am not sure Colt fans will feel the same.

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