HOUSTON -- His body was back in Philadelphia, but Frank Reich's head remained in the clouds. The Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator was still glowing from the team's epic Super Bowl LII victory over the New England Patriots two days earlier when an alert popped up on his mobile phone: Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had backed out of a verbal deal to become the Indianapolis Colts' head coach, sending shock waves through the football world.
Reich barely reacted, and with good reason. He hadn't generated much heat during the month of January, as numerous teams filled head-coaching openings, and he'd been unable to crack Colts general manager Chris Ballard's top-six list and even land an interview. At 56 (he has since turned 57), Reich, on that early February night, could reasonably confront the possibility that his window as a viable candidate had closed.
"We had just won the Super Bowl -- and I was up late and still celebrating that," Reich recalled Saturday night as he stood in a tunnel leading out of NRG Stadium, where he had just emphatically proven his professional worth in front of 71,798 frustrated Houston Texans fans. "I was at home, and when I told my wife the news she said, 'Are you gonna call your agent?'
"I said, 'Nope. Just let it play out.' "
Things proceeded to play out in a manner that would make most Colts fans want to pinch themselves: Three days after getting that update on his phone -- and one day after attending the Eagles' victory parade -- Reich interviewed with Ballard. Two days later, he was announced as the team's next head coach. And on Saturday -- after a season that began with uncertainty over franchise quarterback Andrew Luck's throwing arm and saw the Colts sputter to a 1-5 start -- Reich coached Indy to a comprehensive and impressive 21-7 beatdown of the Texans in an AFC wild-card game.
While Reich was typically low-key as we spoke before he boarded the team bus -- and was undoubtedly thinking ahead to next Saturday's divisional-round clash with the top-seeded Chiefs in Kansas City -- his players were unabashedly pumped about the franchise's first postseason victory in four years. And before leaving the area outside the locker room on a golf cart, Colts owner Jim Irsay was positively giddy.
Irsay had just extolled Reich's virtues to a group of reporters, and afterward I asked him to reflect back upon McDaniels' decision to spurn the franchise last February.
"Who?" Irsay said, flashing a sarcastic smile. "I forgot that guy's name, man."
When it was suggested that Irsay might want to send McDaniels a thank-you note, he laughed and said, "I'll send him a postcard," and then disappeared into the Houston night.
In defeating the third-seeded Texans, the sixth-seeded Colts had earned the right to gloat. Some of us (and yes, I'm raising my hand here, and preparing to take my medicine) were skeptical of Ballard's relatively passive approach to the start of free agency. And when Indy lost five of its first six games, many people concluded that the Colts were legitimate contenders -- for the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Reich, however, never wavered in his belief that he was coaching a very good team, and he convinced his players to share that optimism.
"I wasn't trying to think too far out -- it was just believing in the guys we have and knowing we have a good football team," Reich said. "There was never a thought of rebuilding, or of us being too young to get it done this year. I know that's hard to believe, but that's the truth."
Veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who missed the first five games with a hamstring injury, had a similarly upbeat perspective during the team's early-season struggles.
"Sometimes, when you're losing, it makes sense that you're losing," Castonzo said after Saturday's game. "But I remember thinking, 'Man, this team is too good to be 1-5.' We love Frank; he's a fantastic leader for this organization. Guys buy in, and everybody's so tuned into doing [his] job on every play that it's methodical. Our defense makes you do it the hard way and drive all the way down the field, and we're not afraid to do it the hard way on offense.
"And our quarterback -- every time you've got him on your side, you've got a great chance."
Luck was terrific from the start on Saturday, leading the Colts to three touchdowns in their first four possessions, the only slip-up coming when star Texans defensive end J.J. Watt deflected a pass at the line that was intercepted by teammate Brandon Dunn at the Houston 15 with 12:27 to go in the second quarter. Luck completed 19 of 32 passes for 222 yards, throwing touchdown passes to tight end Eric Ebron (six yards) and wide receiver Dontrelle Inman (18 yards) without being sacked. Indy's other score was a 2-yard run by second-year halfback Marlon Mack, who carried 24 times for 148 yards.
As for the Texans -- well, this was a desultory performance from the AFC South champs, whose bounceback from an 0-3 start was fueled by the calm confidence of second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson. Though Watson (29 of 49, 235 yards, one touchdown, one interception) had a subpar game against the Colts, he was far from alone, and a painful shoulder injury suffered by star receiver DeAndre Hopkins (five receptions, 37 yards) late in the first half certainly didn't help.
If nothing else, Reich and his assistants -- many of whom, including defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, were hired before Reich even interviewed for the job, under the presumption they'd be part of McDaniels' staff -- did a terrific job of minimizing the Colts' shortcomings while exploiting two glaring weaknesses that haunted Houston all season: a flaccid offensive line and a shaky secondary.
And if you believe Reich got his players revved up with a fiery pregame speech, well, you're thinking of a different coach.
Said Castonzo: "He told us, 'Play mistake-free football. You win in the playoffs by being sound and not making it bigger than what it is. You don't need to be a hero. Just do what you usually do, and do it well.' "
Reich may deliver his messages in understated fashion, but there's nothing conservative about his coaching style. The Colts learned that in a Week 4 home clash against the Texans when, with 24 seconds left in overtime and the game tied at 34, Reich went for it on fourth-and-4 from his own 43-yard-line. Luck threw an incompletion; Watson hit Hopkins to set up a game-winning field goal; and fans and media members lambasted Reich. He stood by his decision afterward, saying, "I'm not playing to tie. I'll do that 10 times out of 10. That's just the way it's got to roll."
By then, Indy's locker room was brimming with confidence.
Has danger ever been stranger? Fired three times in five seasons, most recently as the Chargers' offensive coordinator following the 2015 campaign, Reich was, at best, on the slow track to success -- and he seemed to have missed the train entirely until McDaniels' surprising decision created this unforeseen opportunity.
"Actually," Hilton said, "it worked out perfectly for us."
It worked out pretty well for Reich, too. As he prepared to leave the stadium Saturday night, he admitted that once he finally got the call from Ballard last February, he very much wanted the Colts' job.
"There was so much energy, so much juice," he said. "I was ready."
A couple of minutes later, Luck stopped as he strolled across the NRG Stadium turf and to talk about the Colts' Accidental Coach who helped revitalize his career.
"He's just genuine, authentic and consistent, and he brings it every day," Luck said of Reich. "He's focused each day on him getting better as a coach and us getting better as a team, and that's it. When you focus on those things and stick to the process, you see results. Period."