INDIANAPOLIS – We could freak out about the Indianapolis Colts’ 27-20 loss Sunday at Jacksonville, just a terrible loss. Unexplainable, really. The Jaguars are going nowhere, their coach is a goner, and everyone knows it. I mean, those interceptions? And that pass defense? Gardner Minshew was almost perfect, and he’s Gardner Minshew, for god’s sake. And all those dropp–
Well, anyway. We could freak out about it.
Or we could remember 2018. You remember: The Colts won 10 games, went to the playoffs, beat the Houston Texans in the wild card game. That’s how the 2018 season ended.
Remember how it started?
It started with a bad 34-23 loss at Cincinnati, just a terrible loss. Unexplainable, really. The Bengals were going nowhere, their coach was a goner, and everyone knew it. I mean, that interception? And that pass defense? Andy Dalton was almost perfect, and he’s Andy Dalton for god’s sake. And the way–
This is how it is, one week into any NFL season, but we’ve never seen an NFL season with a more potentially misleading Week 1 than this one. Not much of an offseason thanks to the coronavirus, and no preseason games. What did you expect in the opener? A glimpse of what the Colts will be, 15 games from now?
Nah. What we saw on Sunday, that’s not the real 2020 Indianapolis Colts.
Enter the Puppet Master
To understand what’s going to happen next, you need to know how Frank Reich thinks. That matters, because the best coaches in the NFL – and the worst, come to think of it – are puppet masters. They’re pulling strings, motivating and even manipulating their players with mind games.
When teams are as competitively balanced as they are in the NFL, with rigid salary caps and similar schemes and so much of the same information available through scouting and analytics, the difference between one team and another is mental. It’s emotional. You wonder why the Detroit Lions are such a basket case? Why the New England Patriots are so ruthless? Look at their coach.
So, Frank Reich.
This is how he thinks: A few days before the Colts took that plane for Jacksonville, he gathered his team and told them something he suspects you’ll find strange.
“One of the things I said to the team – and this might sound a bit odd,” he’s conceding, “to set the tone for the week, knowing this is a long haul, I said, ‘Let’s do this: Let’s not ride the wave of results week in and week out. Rather, let’s create our own wave by the way we prepare and how close we are as a team and the mindset and mental toughness we have to overcome anything.’ That’s how you create a wave.”
That was a few days before the game. Immediately after it, Reich’s getting ready to get on the bus that will take the Colts from TIAA Bank Field to the airport, and he’s telling somebody that this game felt a lot like the way that 2018 season started. And we all know how that season ended.
Those are things you need to know, when you see how the Colts respond. If they are anywhere near as good as this city thought going into the season, there’s no need for anyone to freak out.
But it’s temping, isn’t it? By now you’ve heard about Marlon Mack.
It’s physics – and pyschology
The Colts’ No. 1 running back is done for the season, and maybe done with the Colts, after suffering a ruptured Achilles’ on Sunday in Jacksonville. That’s a brutal turn of events for Marlon Mack, just a sweetheart of a young man, not to mention a premium talent in the final year of his rookie contract. Stay healthy this season, and he’d have been in line for a contract in the $50 million range.
More: Colts RB Marlon Mack out for season after rupturing Achilles tendon
Just brutal for Mack. And not exactly good for the Colts, though running back could be their deepest position. Put it this way: Two years into his NFL career, Jordan Wilkins is averaging 5.8 yards per carry. And he couldn’t get on the field in Jacksonville.
Wilkins will be elevated to third string this week, but the starter for the Colts’ game Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings will be Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 6,000 yards in three seasons at Wisconsin, went to the Colts in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and produced 89 yards on 15 touches at Jacksonville (nine carries, six catches). Taylor is so tantalizing, Reich breaks out high school physics to explain his potential.
“You can feel his size,” Reich was saying Monday of Taylor, “and that combination of speed and size will equal force. I think we’ll see that. I think we’ll feel that.”
The Colts’ new backup running back will be Nyheim Hines, who ran for a 12-yard touchdown on Sunday and caught a 21-yard TD pass. If any team in the NFL can overcome the loss of a 1,000-yard running back, it’s the Colts.
Can the Colts overcome the rest of what went wrong on Sunday? Not if it keeps happening, no. As good as he was on his other 44 throws (363 yards, 78.3% completion rate), Philip Rivers can’t throw interceptions as bad as the two he tossed Sunday, with a third pick – nullified by a Jacksonville penalty away from the play – that might have been his worst throw of the day.
As good as he’s been for eight years with the Colts (556 catches), T.Y. Hilton can’t have drops as costly as he had on two of the Colts’ final three plays Sunday. As promising as the Colts’ young secondary appears to be, it cannot mangle an entire defensive series as badly as it did on the Jaguars’ go-ahead drive.
And so on.
That’s where the mindset of Reich comes into play. The Colts either are, or they are not, a team that will find ways to lose games the rest of the season. Reich will do what he can, whatever it is he does behind closed doors, to get inside his team’s head and convince them they are winners. It’s what he did in 2018 despite a 1-4 start, and what he would’ve done last season had the Colts received more competent play at kicker (and, in the fourth quarter throughout the season, at quarterback).
“In this business,” Reich says, “it’s very easy to get caught up riding the wave of results and the circumstantial feel that a Monday has. … It’s understandable we have the emotions, whether we lose or win, but the focus has to be creating our own wave – how we prepare, how we stick together – and I think we’ll do that.”
It’s Psychology 101, but done well it’s a powerful force in an NFL locker room. And as I consider whether the Colts can create a winning wave as they did in 2018, I’m reminded of something Reich said during his foray into physics:
I think we’ll see that. I think we’ll feel that.
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel.