The journals of sports are full of playoff matchups with juicy storylines, especially involving the coaches. So nomadic is the profession that crosspollination of coaches with various organizations almost can’t be helped.
Maybe the most famous in NFL playoff history were the Vince Lombardi years of the Green Bay Packers in which the Brooklyn native rose to defensive coordinator with the New York Giants but perhaps hit a glass ceiling because of his Italian heritage. He did initially accept an offer from the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958 but was talked out of it by Giants owner Wellington Mara. Then the cobbled management of small-town businessmen who ran the Packers saw fit to offer Lombardi their gig in 1959 and he jumped at it.
When the Giants finally came around, it was too late; Lombardi was already meeting and beating them in both 1961 and 1962 for his first of five NFL titles.
Then, later in the decade, he was matched against his old coordinator counterpart with the Giants, meticulous Dallas Cowboys defensive mastermind Tom Landry. And again, Lombardi came out on top in narrow NFL championship wins in 1966 and 1967.
There’ve been many other such junctions since of a coach and his former home, but maybe none so tantalizing as tomorrow’s wildcard-round visit of Frank Reich’s Indianapolis Colts to Buffalo to play the scalding-hot Bills. Those of a certain age will recall that the former Cedar Crest High and Maryland quarterback was a 14-year NFL journeyman who never managed to latch on as a permanent starter with any of four clubs between 1985 and 1998.
But by far his most lengthy stay where the fans regard him as beloved was his 10 seasons in Buffalo. Longtime general manager Bill Polian called him “the greatest backup quarterback in NFL history. Which might sound like either faint praise or a backhanded compliment – unless you remember his seminal moment, a historic one in the league’s playoff annals.
In a Monday video conference, the Colts’ head coach was asked by a Buffalo reporter who prefaced with “I know it’s emotional…” what the Bills and the city have meant to him and his family.
“Oh, that’s unfair,” he joked. “That’s funny. When you said, ‘I know it’s emotional,’ I was getting ready to say, ‘No I’m taking all of the emotion out of it.’ I was getting ready to give my stock answer. And then you sucked me right in.”
Like all coaches, Reich won’t be getting sentimental on game day. When his Colts attempt to upset the hottest team in the NFL tomorrow (1:05, CBS), it’ll be all about the contest – both for Reich and Bills fans.
But there’s no getting around it: Reich is still very much a folk hero in Buffalo for leading the Bills to an unparalleled feat back on Jan. 3, 1993. Twenty-eight years and a week later, it remains the greatest comeback in NFL history, regular or postseason. The Bills trailed 35-3 in the third quarter, then stormed back with five consecutive TDs, four of them on passes by backup-QB Reich.
By the time all this happened, the Lebanon native was an entrenched 8th-year man on the roster, a trusted reserve who’d been beaten out his second year by Kelly when he emigrated from the Houston Gamblers of the disbanded USFL.
But Kelly had injured his knee in the second quarter of the final regular-season game – coincidentally against the Oilers in the Astrodome in Houston. Reich replaced him and was ineffective. He threw two picks in an ugly 27-3 loss.
When the wildcard playoff in Buffalo arrived, Kelly still couldn’t go. Reich would have to play. But he was guardedly confident. He told The Buffalo News of the first Houston game: “It took me several series to get warmed up and get a presence in the pocket. I was just rusty at that. I had trouble communicating the plays to the team and running the no-huddle was difficult.
“I’ve been in the situation before and as a team we’ve always been able to win. But then, I’ve never had to step in and throw five touchdowns for us to win. The other guys have always been able to step up and help us win.”
Reich had no idea how simultaneously prescient and ironic he was. By the third quarter, he would be asked to do almost exactly that. Actually, he only had to throw for four, but the Bills needed five.
Re-watching the game today, though the hairstyles are dated, it’s striking how up-to-date a lot of the 1992 action looks – because each team was ahead of its time in certain ways.
Houston ran the run-and-shoot offense under OC Kevin Gilbride that deployed Hall of Famer Warren Moon at quarterback. The scheme was trendy, but Moon was timeless. His mobility and poise extended plays like QBs of today, eyes always downfield looking for the chunk gain.
And Buffalo’s Marv Levy had adopted Sam Wyche’s no-huddle offense to great success.
But early on, it liked more of the same from the previous week. Moon connected with Haywood Jeffries (2), Webster Slaughter and Curtis Duncan for TD passes to put the visitors up 28-3 at halftime. And Reich looked just as befuddled as in the Astrodome.
The halftime stats were no closer than the score: Moon was 19-of-22 for 218 yards and 4 TDs. Reich was 5-of-11 for 59 yards with 0 TDs.
Complicating matters for Buffalo, it was missing not only its future Hall of Fame QB Kelly, but now its future Hall of Fame RB Thurman Thomas who’d been lost with a hip injury.
In the first two minutes of the second half, a tipped-ball pass by Reich was pick-6′d by Bubba McDowell to make it 35-3. Few would admit to leaving Rich Stadium at that point, but a breezy 36° under overcast and the home team trailing by 32 might’ve been tempting.
And on the ensuing kick, the Oilers’ Eugene Seale very nearly recovered a squib kickoff into a first-layer member of the Buffalo return team. But the Bills’ Mark Maddox wrestled it away in the pile. If he doesn’t, Houston has the ball again in Buffalo territory and the comeback likely just doesn’t have enough time or spiritual energy to materialize.
Even then, the Bills had to convert a 4th-and-2 at the Houston 7, but Kermit Davis’ 6-yard blast off tackle kept the drive going. What followed was astonishing. Once Reich and his receivers got in a groove, the run fed on itself – with the help of another couple of breaks.
With the score 35-10, Buffalo received an advantageous quick whistle when Don Beebe made a short diving catch of a low Reich throw, then had the ball slapped away by Houston corner Jerry Gray without apparent bodily contact. Gray picked up the ball and could have had a scoop-n-score, but the play was inexplicably blown dead. Had there been replay, the possession would have been overturned and gone to Houston.
Moments later, Reich found Beebe alone along the sideline for 38 yards and TD that made it 35-17 and ignited Rich Stadium. With half the third quarter still remaining, there was hope in Buffalo yet.
An onside kick was recovered by the placekicker Steve Christie, leading to a Reich TD pass to Andre Reed for 35-24.
A tipped-ball interception of a Moon throw by Henry Jones led to another Reich TD pass, this one on a 4th-and-5 post route to a sliding Reed that made it 35-31, incredibly with still 2:00 left in the third quarter.
It was coming apart for the Oilers. They had blown four 4th-quarter leads already in the 1992 season, the last three on the road. Meanwhile, Reich was turning from halftime goat booed off the field to leader of the GOAT comeback.
It took most of a tense fourth quarter to be completed as both sides squandered opportunities. What could have been a big interception for the Bills was nullified when Bruce Smith was flagged for roughing Moon.
But finally, Reich hit Reed for the tandem’s third touchdown with 3:12 left in regulation to put the Bills ahead 38-35.
Houston wasn’t done. Moon patiently worked them down the field and hit a huge 4th-and-4 throw to Slaughter that ultimately set up Al Del Greco’s tying 26-yard field goal to send it into overtime.
Houston won the toss which at that time meant more than it does now under the strict sudden-death rules. But Moon had a miscommunication with Jeffries and threw the ball straight to Buffalo safety Nate Odomes at the Houston 35 for a crushing pick. A facemask penalty on Jeffries’ tackle compounded the error and set up Buffalo at the 20. Three runs later and Christie was set up straight between the hashes from 32 yards out, which he nailed for the incredible 41-38 win.
Reich also led the Bills into Pittsburgh to win a divisional playoff game against the Steelers before Kelly’s knee was well enough to allow him back for the AFC championship.
The Bills were catapulted to their third straight Super Bowl where, despite Kelly’s return, they were dismantled in Pasadena by Jimmy Johnson’s young-buck Cowboys of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith. It would happen again the next year, in uglier fashion to give Buffalo an unassailable record that will likely never be broken – four consecutive Super Bowl losses. Reich suited up for each one.
But, as a coach, he finally got his ring, after stints with four previous NFL staffs, when he guided the Eagles offense during its 2017 Super Bowl run. His first shot as a head coach and his return to Indianapolis followed days later. He’s patiently built the Colts, first behind QB Andrew Luck who abruptly retired, now with veteran Philip Rivers.
And though the Bills are on a formidable roll behind a couple of young guns in head coach Sean McDermott and QB Josh Allen, it’s hard to count out Reich in Buffalo – even if he’s not suiting up anymore. He makes appearances in the city almost every year at benefits and various events and is treated virtually as Bills royalty. None of that will matter tomorrow, he maintained:
“This is a business trip. Fortunately, I have been back to Buffalo a few times. I feel like I’ve gotten all of that out of my system. Love Buffalo, will always love Buffalo, will always be a Bills fan. Except for this Saturday, for sure.”
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