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How Will Frank Reich and the Colts Come Back From This?

Indianapolis's disastrous loss to the downtrodden Jaguars is the type of game that stings a franchise for a while.

Frank Reich arrived as head coach of the Colts shortly after Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels took the same job, assembled a staff and risked nuking his professional career by backing out at the last minute.

Reich stood behind a podium and watched owner Jim Irsay and general manager Chris Ballard talk about the shocking retirement of Andrew Luck just before the start of the 2018 season, a year after Reich left a Super Bowl championship team that depended on the heroics of a backup quarterback whom Reich had to prepare after the team’s MVP candidate went down with a torn ACL.

He oversaw devastating injuries, coached the team through middling quarterback play and has proven, generally, to be the kind of person you would want riding shotgun when the car starts sliding off an icy road into midnight blackness.

His disaster preparedness credentials acknowledged, it’s fair to wonder how he will work his way out of the scenario he finds himself in now. We’re not saying Reich should be removed from his post on Sunday night, after his team lost its second straight game to an interim coach to cost itself what felt like a near-concrete playoff spot. Far from it, in fact. If the Colts irresponsibly opted for a reactionary head coaching change, they would release a candidate onto the market who would immediately be the No. 1 choice for almost any team with an opening.

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But what lies ahead of him now—recovering from arguably the worst regular season loss in franchise history—may be the greatest challenge he’s ever faced in a coaching career already improbably loaded with outsized mountains to climb. In the matter of a few months, he’ll be tasked with mending a prickly Carson Wentz situation. Wentz’s middling performance on Sunday against the Jaguars, even when paired with MVP candidate Jonathan Taylor, wasn’t enough to beat the worst team in football. He’s going to have to help justify the use of a first-round pick to get Wentz in the first place. He’s going to have to explain why we could only see the former No. 2 pick’s best moments in microscopic glimpses this year.

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Reich is going to have to recruit free agents knowing that the Titans are only getting healthier, the Jaguars are only getting better and the Texans are, at some point, going to emerge from this soft tanking attempt with some serious draft equity. Someone is going to have to sternly answer for the fact that the Colts, despite being one of the most forward-thinking organizations in the NFL, a team that seems to make one painfully sensible decision after the next, can somehow have finished Reich’s fourth year with only one playoff win under its belt.

This is the trouble with being a good coach: Losing a game like this feels so foreign and unexpected. The Jaguars entered the week as the worst offense in the league and, arguably, the worst defense in the league. Rookie Trevor Lawrence entered the game without a single game with a quarterback rating over 100, and his only multi-touchdown game coming against the Texans.

And yet, from the first drive, Lawrence and an offense with scattered skill-position talent walked down the field as if they’d finally managed to burn every Urban Meyer page from their playbook. Allowing the Jaguars to whoop their clown costume–laden fan base into a frenzy felt like a death sentence for a team with no margin for error.

These are the kinds of losses franchises don’t recover from immediately. Outside of blowing a 28–3 lead in the Super Bowl, losing to one of the worst teams of the last decade a week after losing to a second team operating without its head coach to knock yourself out of the playoffs is as emotionally devastating as one run can get. What do you say as the players clear out their lockers? How do you fumigate the collective psyche of a team that was unprepared to handle a tap-in? The 26–11 loss to the Jaguars wasn’t even particularly close. It was flat. Heartless.

Reich has trudged through some swamp land before. He didn’t sound like a person trying to make excuses or surrender on Sunday after the game. Maybe coaching Darwinism has led him to a point of balance. But one has to wonder if he knows how badly this will sting or for how long. One has to wonder if Reich has more magic left in him.

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