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Sharp Team Previews

Can Frank Reich Work his Magic in 2021 with Another New Quarterback?

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: August 20, 2021, 1:18 pm ET

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What can you say about Frank Reich? Coaches can’t guarantee wins, but they can put their team in the best position to win games. 

On a weekly basis, that starts with how a coach prepares his team, the game plan he installs, the strategy he plans to employ, his teaching points to the team, and the messaging he delivers. It is the script he uses at the beginning of games. It is the strategy he uses to try and build leads.

Lead building. We often talk about team building. But lead building is vital. Too many coaches look to come out with a good script and “play hard all four quarters” type coachspeak. The true focus should be on jumping on your opponent with a lead.

Teams with a halftime lead win 80% of their games. If you want to talk about small leads, we can talk about small leads. How often do you think a team could overcome a halftime deficit of one point? Two points? One field goal? It shouldn’t be the end of the world to be down 17-14 at halftime. 

Yet teams with a halftime lead of 1-3 points have won over 62% of their games the last five years. 

Teams with any one-score lead at halftime? Again, it doesn't seem that hard to overcome, but they win over 71% of their games.

Every coach goes into halftime and makes adjustments, whether they are leading or trailing. Some coaches are much better than others. There isn’t much time at halftime to make adjustments, but offenses that are trailing, even by a score, tend to overcompensate in adjustments. They swing more for the fences. If the third quarter doesn’t start off well, they implement even larger changes which inherently produce less consistency but higher variance in search of a comeback win.

So how does this relate to Reich? Let’s look at the teams with the most halftime leads over the last three years. Most of these won’t be surprising:

34 – Ravens
31 – Chiefs
30 – Saints
29 – Colts
28 – Packers

Wait a minute, you’re probably thinking, as you see the two best teams in the AFC over the last three years on the list, and the two best teams in the NFC on the list. But how are the Colts on there as well?

To answer, let’s examine these team’s records with halftime leads:

The Ravens were 31-3 (91%) when leading at halftime in their 34 games. The Chiefs turned their 31 halftime leads into a 29-2 (94%) W-L record. The Saints went 29-1 (97%) when leading at halftime over the last three years. The Packers went 23-4-1 (85%). These teams knew the importance of getting out quickly and building leads. All were aggressive on offense. Ask any of their playcallers and they will tell you that executing early and putting up points has been critical to their ability to win games. Reich would say something similar. He’s gotten his team to execute early extremely well. 

But the reason you are surprised to see the Colts on this list is because they haven’t been one of the best teams in the NFL the last several years. That’s largely because they haven’t been able to hold onto these leads. They haven’t won 97% of games they led at halftime like the Saints, or just over 90% like the Chiefs or Ravens. They haven’t won 85% like the Packers. They haven’t even won 80% like the NFL average. The Colts are 21-8 (72%) with a halftime lead.

Reich can’t do everything. He’d be the first to tell you he needs to be better in the second half of some of these games, too. But his players need to help as well.

What is especially impressive is that unlike the Packers with Aaron Rodgers, the Saints with Drew Brees, the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes, or the Ravens with Lamar Jackson, Reich has gotten it done with a different quarterback every single year. Andrew Luck in 2018. Jacoby Brissett in 2019. Philip Rivers in 2020. Imagine being able to consistently build halftime leads with a new quarterback every single season. It’s truly impressive.

Unfortunately, Reich will have to do it for a fourth straight year, as the Colts traded what they ironically hope will be a first-round draft pick for Carson Wentz. They are hoping Wentz will deliver in 2021, paired up with Reich as he was in the 2017 season, when Wentz (a second-year quarterback) drove his team to the playoffs and finished third in MVP voting.

Making matters worse, it's unknown if Wentz will be available to start Week 1, so Reich may be working with another quarterback entirely.

When Wentz returns, there are question after question about what they will get out of him: 

Can Reich get Wentz to play well without play-action for the first time since 2017? 

Will Reich use more play action in 2021 than he used in 2020? 

Will Wentz rebound from his 2020 head scratcher and play better with play-action? 

It’s impossible to say right now, but it will be fascinating to watch.

As alluded to earlier, the Eagles have been ridiculously unlucky with injuries along the offensive line. They ranked 32nd in offensive line health last year. The Colts should be in much better shape there, returning four of five starters on a top-10 pass protection line last year. However, they lost one of their most important pieces in left tackle Anthony Castonzo when he retired after the 2020 season.

There was rampant speculation the Colts would replace him with a tackle in the draft, but when EDGE Kwity Paye was available at the 21st overall pick in the 2021 draft, they snagged him. Then in the second round, they doubled down by taking DE Dayo Odeyingbo.

At that point, while there was criticism that the Colts didn’t address the hole, I knew savvy GM Chris Ballard had to have something up his sleeve. That something was free agent LT Eric Fisher. The former blindside protector of Patrick Mahomes tore his Achilles in the AFC Championship game, and the Chiefs quarterback was destroyed by pressure in the Super Bowl loss. Fisher may not be ready by the start of the season, but when he does return, if close to 100%, he would be a significant upgrade over LT Sam Tevi, who was signed this offseason. It will be vital to keep Wentz comfortable with the likely higher rate of 3-step dropbacks.

Reich’s offense improved in so many areas with Rivers at the helm, including passing against man coverage, efficiency out of 5-step drops, production from under center play-action, and the ability to use a more diverse passing game rather than throwing such a high rate of screen passes, which is what Brissett was doing throughout 2019.

The ground game still needs to take another step. They dipped from eighth in 2019 rushing efficiency to 15th last year. They dipped from fourth in 2019 EPA/att to 15th last year. This, despite drafting Jonathan Taylor 41st overall in the 2020 draft. Taylor was outstanding running the ball from 11 personnel (55% success, 6.4 YPA, and 0.18 EPA/att) and outstanding on fourth downs (100% conversion rate, 1.91 EPA/att).

But he, and the rest of the Colts, were terrible running out of 12 personnel. Even if you remove fourth quarter runs and look at runs from 12 on early downs, Taylor put up -0.07 EPA/att and 4.0 YPC compared to 0.07 EPA/att and 6.3 YPC from 11 personnel. The entire Colts roster produced -0.05 EPA/att and 3.9 YPC on these early down runs from 12 personnel, so this is an area for the Colts to address and improve upon this offseason.

The 2021 Colts are fortunate to face what I predict will be terrible defenses which should help Wentz get his feet wet in this offense. Last year at this time, I predicted the Colts would face the second easiest schedule of defenses and the third easiest schedule of pass defenses. I was almost dead-on accurate, and by the end of the year, they actually played the easiest schedule of both. This year, I forecast the Colts to play the third easiest schedule of both pass defenses and total defenses.

On the other side of the ball, it will be more challenging for the defense, as I forecast they will play a top-5 schedule of opposing offenses after playing a near-league average schedule in each of the last two years.

Speaking of schedule, Indianapolis continues to get the short end of the stick. Over the last five years, the Indianapolis Colts have played in 14 primetime games: two home and 12 road. Since 2017, it's one at home and nine on the road! This year, the Colts play in three primetime games and one on Christmas. The league made zero adjustments in their pursuit of unfairly screwing the Colts, and put three of these four games on the road.

No team starts with a more brutal schedule than the Colts, who begin the season with not only the toughest schedule of opponents in Weeks 1-5, but they endure a three-game road trip in that span as well. 

The Colts, previously carrying a 10-game win total at PointsBet and being favored to win the division, are now down to 9 wins and a second-place finish in the AFC South.  The start to the schedule is brutal, particularly if playing without LG Quenton Nelson and Wentz.  But the team is likely to improve down the stretch and is a team you want to bet on later in the season, not right now.

Stay tuned over the next eight weeks as we preview all 32 teams with daily articles and videos right here at the preview hub.  For complete team chapters featuring dozens of visualizations and 462 pages, pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book.

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Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.