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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Colts head coach Frank Reich has embraced analytics and used it throughout his first season. Some of the decisions have backfired, but his players support his go-for-the-win strategy.

Thursday, December 06, 2018 1:00 am

Reich resolute in his numbers game

MICHAEL MAROT | Associated Press

Colts at Houston

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: NRG Stadium

TV: CBS

Radio: 1190 AM

INDIANAPOLIS – Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich leaves nothing to chance.

He and his staff spend hours meticulously poring through game tapes, crunching numbers and plotting strategy each week. There's a meeting every Friday with the team's two analytics experts where everything from over-under projections to weather conditions come into play.

Together, they try to plot out every conceivable game situation in hopes of simplifying the split-second decisions Reich makes each weekend.

“They factor what's the expected point total of the game, what's the output of the other offense,” Reich said, explaining some variables used to create the charts.

“It's like there is a sliding scale and those things are adjusted. Really, they are quite sophisticated, quite complex and run off of literally millions of iterations.”

Reich isn't the only NFL coach to use analytics, but he might rely more heavily on the projections than other coaches – regardless of the results.

Three times last weekend the Colts (6-6) found themselves facing fourth downs in field-goal position with Adam Vinatieri, the league's career scoring leader, ready to kick. Three times, the charts indicated Reich should go for it.

All three times, Indianapolis came up short.

The resulting 6-0 loss at Jacksonville ended the Colts' five-game winning streak, complicated their path to the playoffs and dealt Andrew Luck his first shutout as a pro.

Reich had been here before, though.

On Sept. 30, he also opted to go for the win in overtime against Houston. A failed fourth-down attempt allowed the Texans (9-3) to kick the winning field goal as time expired – giving them their first victory in a nine-game winning streak they'll put on the line in Sunday's rematch.

Houston can clinch the AFC South title with a win and a Tennessee loss.

Indianapolis (6-6), meanwhile, lost two more games before rebounding with a five-game winning streak that put it back in the playoff mix and had some outsiders openly questioning whether the Colts would have been better off playing it by the book and going for the tie in the first Houston game.

But inside the locker room, there is no debate.

“It told us he believes in his team, he was not going to allow us to lay down, and we would fight till the end,” rookie linebacker Darius Leonard said. “Yeah, we lost the game. But when he said we're going for it, everybody on that bench was behind him.”

Players embrace Reich's aggressive philosophy in large part because they understand the rationale for his decisions, and they know the former NFL quarterback does his homework.

He asks the analytics specialists not just to contemplate the Colts' potential game-day situations but also to break down tape of every other NFL game and plot how the Colts would handle those decisions.

Then Reich and Luck discuss the charts to assure everyone works from the same playbook.

As a self-described nerd who runs his own book club, Luck understands what Reich's philosophy is all about.

“You play this game to win and he's going to coach the game to win,” Luck said. “I think as players we obviously didn't execute that one (against Houston), but I think that gave us a glimpse into how he coaches and his approach. We appreciate that. We want to go out there and win the game and he gives us a chance to do that.”

Reich understands, even acknowledges, that sometimes coaches need to play a hunch or rely on their gut instinct. He's done it, too.

Even so, Reich believes there is power in numbers.

“This is preparation, thought and detail that go into it. It's not robotic,” Reich said, citing his decision to punt on fourth-and-1 Sunday when the chart said to go for it. “What the analytics tell us is that historical coaching philosophy has been a little bit conservative and that there are reasons to consider being more aggressive. Then you have to have the maturity and wisdom to interpret the chart the way that you think is best for your team. That's the art of it.”