You have to admit, it’s a captivating story line, one the national media will love. Colts head coach Frank Reich comes back to Buffalo, the scene of his greatest triumph, the Bills’ famous comeback win over the Oilers in January of 1993.
Reich was one of the most beloved players in Buffalo sports history, a man known for his Christian character, his nurturing role as Jim Kelly’s backup, and his unparalleled knack for rising up when called upon in a crisis.
Charles Anzalone, a long-time Bills fan and former Buffalo News editor, called Reich “this angelic, almost religious figure” in a retrospective on the comeback in 2013. Looking back on the game, Anzalone said Frank pulling it off was like “evidence of the infinite.”
That’s pretty heavy stuff. But many of the people who experienced the greatest comeback in NFL history, including the fans who sat through it and some of the men who played in it, have said it felt supernatural, like divine intervention at work.
So while Bills fans revere Reich, deep in their hearts they have to fear him. Once again, a man of powerful belief will try to overcome the odds. And really, has anyone in NFL history been more dangerous in this spot?
It wasn’t just the Bills’ comeback game. In 1984, Reich came off the bench in the second half to lead Maryland from a 31-0 deficit to a 42-40 victory over defending champion Miami (Fla.), at the time the greatest comeback in college football history.
Reich made his first NFL start in October of 1989, when Kelly was out with a shoulder injury. On a rainy Monday night in Buffalo, Reich brought the Bills from behind twice in the last three minutes against a 5-0 Rams team, hitting Andre Reed with an 8-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left for the 23-20 win.
Reich had to step in again in the penultimate game of the 1990 season, with an AFC title on the line at Rich Stadium. He was near-flawless in the Bills’ clinching 24-14 victory over the Dolphins, outplaying Dan Marino.
The week after the comeback game in early 1993 — in which he threw four touchdown passes in the second half — Reich led a win over the Steelers, completing 70 percent of his passes in a mistake-free performance.
He’s arguably the most renowned backup quarterback in NFL history. Nick Foles could argue that point after his MVP performance for the Eagles in the Super Bowl three years ago. As you recall, Reich was his offensive coordinator.
The Reich story is one of belief, a refusal to bow to difficult circumstances. His Colts, the seventh seed in an expanded field, are 7-point underdogs at Buffalo on Saturday. The Bills, the hottest team in the NFL, are on a six-game winning streak, all by 10-plus points.
Reich knows what he’s up against. He concedes that coming back to Buffalo will be emotional for him and his wife, Linda, and their family.
“I love Buffalo, will always love Buffalo,” Reich said in a conference call. “I will always be a Bills fan – except for this Saturday, for sure.
“I don’t care what seed we are,” he said. “We’re the seven seed, big deal. We’ve got to seize the opportunity. This is the first year for a seventh seed. Well, let us be the first 7 seed to win a world championship.”
“It starts with believing we have the team to win it all. We have the right players. We have the right coaches. We have the right process, and the belief and conviction in each other to win it all.”
There’s that word again: Belief. Reich’s faith has been a powerful force his entire life. On the morning of the Houston comeback, he sat in his car and listened to a song called “In Christ Alone”, seeking spiritual guidance before the first playoff start of his NFL career.
“I said, ‘Win or lose today, whether I play good or bad, I need to share this song with someone today’,” he told me years later, “because it gave me the strength and courage to walk out there, not knowing what would happen.”
After leading the Bills’ 41-38 overtime comeback, Reich grabbed the words to the song from his locker before heading for his post-game press conference. He asked Scott Berchtold, the Bills PR man, if it would be OK read some of the lyrics: “In every victory let it be said of me, my source of strength, my source of hope, is Christ alone.”
“Frank,” Berchtold said. “You just led the greatest comeback in NFL history. You can say anything you want!”
Twenty-eight years later, Reich said he still seeks comfort and inspiration from religious songs and scripture.
“That’s just continued to grow,” Reich said on a conference call with Buffalo media. “I still have routines. It’s part of my week, definitely part of the last couple of days of a week before the game, as you free up and get a little more time to work out and travel to a game or whatever the case.
“I draw a lot of inspiration,” he said of his Christian faith. “It just puts my mind in a place of confidence and strength.”
Reich didn’t plan to coach after retiring from the NFL after the 1998 season. He enrolled in the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte and studied to be a master of divinity, intending to become a pastor or Christian speaker. He became director of the seminary.
But his heart yearned for football. In 2008, Bill Polian, now the Colts GM, hired him as an assistant under Tony Dungy. Reich spent four years in Indy, a year with the Cardinals, three with the San Diego Chargers and two with the Eagles.
In San Diego, Reich became an offensive coordinator for the first time, and guided Philip Rivers through some fine seasons. Then he went to the Eagles, where he helped prepare Foles for his MVP performance against the Patriots and won his first Super Bowl.
After that 2017 season, the Colts intended to hire Josh McDaniels away from New England as head coach. But McDaniels backed out at the last minute, leaving Indy in the lurch. Colts owner Jim Irsay pivoted to Reich, who hadn’t chased head jobs in that postseason.
So once again, Reich was the backup, and a perfect one. Polian called him “the best of the bargain,” and he was right. Reich inherited a young, flawed Colts team that had gone 4-12 in 2017 without Andrew Luck.
Luck returned in 2018, but the Colts stumbled to a 1-5 start. Reich led them to a 9-1 finish and the playoffs, where they upset Houston on the road in the first round before losing to the Chiefs in the division playoffs.
On the eve of the 2019 season, Luck suddenly retired. The Colts went 7-9. In the offseason, they signed Rivers, who was seen as shot around the NFL. Reich believed Rivers had something left, that he could lead Indy back to the playoffs and beyond.
So here we are. The Colts went 11-5, second to the Titans in the AFC South. Rivers had a solid year, if not up to the standards of his prime. But two years after Luck walked out the door, Reich has his team back in the playoffs, ready to give the surging Bills a run for their money.
The Bills set a franchise record with 501 points, breaking the record of 458 set by the 1991 squad. Over the last eight games, they scored 303 points, an average of 38.5 a game. Reich was asked if he detects a noticeable swagger to these Bills, similar to the high-flying offenses in the Kelly days.
“Yeah, I do, in fact,” Reich said. “I felt that from Josh Allen and the offense. That’s a good thing. Knowing the legacy of offensive football there under Jim Kelly’s leadership and the rest of the guys, you can definitely see that swagger in that offense.”
“But I also know that every team, no matter how good they are — us included — you can disrupt any offense,” he said. “It’s not easy to do. This is a good offense; they are a very good team, just like we were. But we weren’t flawless. Nobody’s flawless.”
“We have to play a good football game against a very good team.”
Reich know how dangerous a underdog can be. He believes the Colts are capable of the upset. As Buffalo fans well know, you underestimate the man at your peril.