Frank Reich always seems to be the adult in the room, the person common sense flows through, a mature voice of analysis.
During this long pro football offseason, where teams have had to adapt to changing world circumstances, new rules, fluctuating circumstances, things out of control taking control of daily lives, the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts has impressed as a rock of calm.
If Reich has thrown playbooks off the wall in frustration because the COVID-19 pandemic has altered his livelihood or cursed, slammed doors or drawers, he has done so in privacy.
While harboring the great aspiration of winning an NFL championship, Reich seems to have built a force-field around himself much like Captain America’s shield, something that helps deflect threats.
After just completing a Super Bowl, the NFL had the advantage over other professional sports leagues in North America, who were cut off in the middle of seasons or were just starting.
Now, it is the NFL’s turn to face reality, the league and its players coping with a virulent virus that has afflicted 17 million people worldwide and killed more than 150,000 people in the United States.
Through free agency and the draft, the Colts, who missed the playoffs last year, added many intriguing and talented players. Reich and the other coaches performed long-distance evaluation by watching virtual workouts.
This week, players are back in training camp in Indiana and subject to complex safety protocols in the sport of highest contact. One is a criteria that allows an individual to opt out of playing in 2020 because of underlying physical conditions or family concerns.
Confronting the threat of constantly changing situations, even as he tries to put the best team on the field, Reich sounds as much like an academic studying issues in the abstract as a leader on the ground dealing with reality.
“Many times in life, you’ve got to get ready, and sometimes, you have to make adjustments and get ready for new normals,” he said the other day.
Reich, 58, spent 14 years in the league as a quarterback, has been an assistant coach and is in his third season as the Colts’ head man. He does not seem to panic easily.
It may take a guy like that to lead in these perilous times, someone who thinks as he does and can survey the Colts and say, “The good thing is we have the players and the organization that has the maturity to not allow this to become a distraction.”
Reich and general manager Chris Ballard have repeatedly discussed a maturity that pervades this Colts team and how it should help the club on the field. Ballard can discuss the health, safety and cleanliness protocols in extraordinary detail, and he is a great exponent of the first line of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s virus defense: “Put a damn mask on,” Ballard said. “Why is that so hard? It’s not about you. It’s about everybody else.”
A standard common theme of teams usually is how everyone is in “this” together. In the case of the opt-out clause for players, that is no longer strictly true.
Players who qualify can skip the season and still get paid, though no Colt has yet declared. They may be paid $150,000 or $350,000 and have their contracts roll over a year.
Some matters on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s high-risk approval list include cancer, chronic kidney disease, coronary artery disease, asthma, high blood pressure, sickle cell disease, HIV, liver disease and Type 2 diabetes.
The list of opt-outs around the NFL has grown lately with the New England Patriots as of Friday having six players sitting out. Reich called the matter “a really serious question.” But he also said he hopes if a player is worried, he speaks to him directly before making a decision.
“I wouldn’t want a player to get into the fear-mongering mode of just opting out without all of the information, really understanding it and talking through it,” Reich said. “It is a big, emotional decision. If that is the best decision for your and your family, we will respect that.”
Pro football players have notoriously short careers and hate injuries costing them games. In this unique situation, at this unique time, some face the agonizing choice to essentially put themselves on injured reserve for a season totally based on a maybe.
Lew Freedman is the Sports Edtior for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected] aimmediaindiana.com.