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Frank Reich's understudy-filled life prepared him for Colts job

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The last in a rambling series of questions from former punter-turned-media maven Pat McAfee elicited the most memorable line in Frank Reich's public debut as the Indianapolis Colts' head coach.

Do you hate or love Josh McDaniels for what happened?

"The backup role has suited me well in my career," Reich said Tuesday, drawing laughter and then applause from Colts employees and supporters seated alongside reporters in a club lounge at Lucas Oil Stadium.

This was supposed to be the setting for McDaniels' introduction six days earlier, before hours of meetings with Patriots brass changed his mind about leaving New England and forced the Colts to reboot their search for Chuck Pagano's replacement in the days after Reich and the Eagles outgunned the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

By Tuesday, Colts owner Jim Irsay was calling Reich the "perfect fit." General manager Chris Ballard said Reich checked the boxes in leadership, big-picture vision, smarts, adaptability, teaching and as a partner. Neither mentioned McDaniels by name, tacitly reinforcing the message Ballard delivered when he filled in for McDaniels at the podium last week: The first choice may not always be the right choice.

"But here's the key with the backup plan and being a backup," Reich told me later, sitting inside the stadium bowl, a message welcoming him as the Colts' new coach on the video board behind him. "You better be ready when your number's called. And I believe every step of my journey has prepared me for this time right now."

This was, of course, the story of Reich's 14-year NFL playing career, in which he made just 20 regular-season starts. He was the backup quarterback who kept the Buffalo Bills on a Super Bowl trajectory when future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly got hurt, the guy who led "The Comeback," the guy behind the guy who proved so valuable when given the chance. And Reich certainly sounded ready here, nine days after I walked with him to the team bus in Minneapolis, talking about the Eagles' winning game plan, another head-coaching cycle seemingly having passed without Reich getting a look.

On Tuesday, Reich laid out four marks he expects to see from the Colts every time they're on the field: the toughest, most disciplined, most prepared and most united team. He said he'll call plays and defined the type of offense he envisions: multiple, attacking, up-tempo, aggressive. He was direct, focused and passionate throughout. It was striking to watch in part because, through all my conversations this fall with NFL executives and others attuned to the coaching carousel, the biggest questions about Reich as a candidate were somewhat intangible factors, such as command and presence. In essence, as I told Reich on Tuesday, it almost seemed as if people were saying he might be too nice for this job.

"I'm not going to change. I am who I am. And that's a fierce competitor," Reich said. "I want to win with class. I want to treat people with respect. I want to have humility and confidence at the same time. Some people think that you can't have those both together. ... I'm pretty comfortable in who I am and how I've got here and just ready to go to work."

At age 56, Reich is the oldest first-time head coach hired by an NFL team since the Minnesota Vikings appointed 57-year-old Mike Zimmer in 2014. (Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter was promoted at age 56, but he'd twice been a head coach at the college level.) Several factors are at play there, including that Reich didn't start his coaching career until former Colts coach (and noted nice guy) Tony Dungy hired him as a 44-year-old intern in 2006, after Reich had spent post-playing time with family and in ministry. He didn't become a coordinator until he was 51 and took the fall the next year for the San Diego Chargers' struggles before landing the same job in Philadelphia under Doug Pederson, who calls plays for the Eagles.

Reich had been a serious candidate for a head-coaching job once before, with the Bills when they hired Rex Ryan three years ago. The Eagles' success this season seemed likely to put him in "hot coordinator" territory. Yet when Black Monday arrived, it was Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz who soon received interview requests. Reich said Tuesday he told his agent that he was "going dark" to focus on the playoffs, but that didn't preclude anyone from putting in a slip to talk to him. Nobody did, including the Colts, who spoke with five known candidates the first time around -- an omission Ballard has said was due in part to the scheduling crunch during the wild-card bye week.

Whatever the reasons, Reich was available when the Colts needed him. Former Colts (and Bills) GM Bill Polian and Pederson, among others, threw their weight behind him. Ballard told me everyone was on the same page after last week's interviews -- Reich was the guy.

The biggest question that now surrounds the Colts franchise is the health of starting quarterback Andrew Luck, whom Ballard said last week is in a good place and doesn't need additional surgery on the problematic throwing shoulder that sidelined him all of last season, but has yet to pick up a football. What's the level of doubt that Luck can not only play, but be Andrew Luck again?

"I'm very confident," Reich told me. "When I came with the interview with Chris and the rest of the team, there was discussion -- I got the same update that everybody else got. But what you learn as a coach as far as injuries go, it's out of your control. You trust the doctors. You trust the player. You work together and you figure it out as you go."

Reich also pointed out in his press conference the Eagles just won a Super Bowl with backup quarterback Nick Foles in place of injured Carson Wentz. Among those in the crowd Tuesday was the Colts' backup quarterback, Jacoby Brissett, the ex-Patriot who told me that he never spoke to McDaniels about what happened. "That just wasn't my place," Brissett said. When Reich's presser was announced, Brissett said, he flew in specifically to attend.

"It's an exciting time," Brissett said. "New era, fresh start. It'll be good."

It's not exactly the fresh start the Colts envisioned -- one that really started a year ago, when they hired Ballard to replace GM Ryan Grigson, proceeded full-throttle into rebuilding mode and, after consecutive 8-8 seasons, went 4-12. McDaniels was their guy, until he decided he wasn't. Now the task of -- as Reich said Irsay told him -- bringing the joy back to Indianapolis falls on Reich's shoulders.

The Colts' roster is slim on difference-makers, particularly on defense, but Reich brought up in the press conference the difference a player or two can make. Now that the franchise finally knows who its coach is, how many players away are the Reich-led Colts from returning to contention in an improving AFC South?

"I don't think it's fair to put a number on that," Reich said. "I just know this ... Every player makes a big difference, and I just think if you get the right players and the right things going in the direction, it can happen faster than you think."

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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