INDIANAPOLIS — At some point Friday — like he does every Friday — Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich will meet with his team’s two analytics pros, John Park and George Li, to go over the playcall sheet for their game against the Houston Texans on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
The call sheet will include every imaginable scenario to make sure the Colts are prepared for any and everything thrown their way.
First down. Second down. Third down. Fourth down. The expected point total for the game. The type of offense they’re facing? They’ll even look at the weather conditions if they’re playing outdoors.
“Really, they are quite sophisticated, quite complex and run off of literally millions of iterations,” Reich said. “So I factor all that in, because that’s factored all into the charts and we talk about that. So those go into those calls as well.”
What’s in the spotlight — again — for Reich is his frame of mind when it comes to situational fourth-down calls. You shouldn’t expect Reich and his staff to deviate from their aggressive thoughts when it comes to fourth down, even if they’re put in the same scenario they were in against the Texans in their Week 4 overtime loss, and even after they went 0-of-3 on fourth down against the Jacksonville Jaguars last weekend.
The Colts are only 6-of-14 on fourth-down attempts this season. Their 42.9 percent conversion rate is tied for 27th in the NFL.
“I think what most people — not everyone — would agree, who use the analytics, is that 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,” Reich said. “Then you have to have maturity and wisdom to interpret the chart the way that you think is best for your team. That’s the art of it. That’s what the head coach gets paid to do. That’s what you take responsibility for. That’s what you take accountability for, because no matter what the charts says, it’s still my decision at the end of the game. If it turns out that we lost, then that’s my responsibility. If it turns out positive — great, good for our team.”
Reich first drew eyes on his aggressive playcalling when the Colts had the ball at fourth-and-4 from their own 43-yard line when quarterback Andrew Luck‘s throw landed at receiver Chester Rogers‘ feet, giving Houston a short field to work with to win the game in overtime on Sept. 30.
“I was thinking we had to get a stop,” Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said when asked his reaction on the Colts going for it on fourth down. “We had been 0-3 and trying to get a win any way we could, and we found a way. It wasn’t conventional. It was a wild game with a lot going on, but we found a way and that’s all that matters.”
Reich said at the time he would do it again, with the only exception being he wouldn’t have called a timeout before going for it on fourth down.
The first-year coach’s aggressive play didn’t work in the Colts’ 6-0 loss to the Jaguars. The Colts were given a fresh set of downs following a Jacksonville penalty on an Adam Vinatieri field goal in the first half. The Colts took the points off the board, but they were later stuffed at the goal line on fourth down when Jaguars defensive lineman Yannick Ngakoue tackled Colts running back Jordan Wilkins after he took a shovel pass from Luck. Reich credited the Jaguars for outcoaching him there because “they played a coverage that they had not shown in that situation and it’s not that we didn’t have an answer for it.”
Reich didn’t shy away from his approach on the following series when they went for it on fourth-and-1 from Jacksonville’s 31-yard line. They ran a “high risk-reward” play with tight end Eric Ebron on a jet sweep. The play never developed because Ebron was hit behind the line and he also fumbled the ball away.
The final failed attempt came late in the fourth quarter when Luck was sacked as the Colts were trying to get a touchdown to win the game.
“I had envisioned that play into breaking out — not just a first down but possibly a 20- or 30-yard gain,” Reich said of the Ebron play. “We had a half yard to go. If I had those three to look at over again, that would be the one that I would question myself the most on. Just run it up the middle. We had half a yard; run a quarterback sneak or just run a dive play up the middle and get the half yard. I took the risk for the big play and I was wrong.”
Reich, as he did back in October, had no regrets about his decision to go for it on fourth down, and he’ll likely continue to have that mentality going forward.
“Look, I’m with it,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said this week on WFNI-1070 AM. “We have a team of analytics here that do an excellent job, and I’m good with Frank being aggressive on fourth down. He puts a lot of trust and faith to execute; unfortunately, this last weekend we just didn’t execute. But there’s been other times in the season where we have.”