I fully admit that I had my doubts about the San Diego Chargers’ chances – and resolve – during the first half of their home opener. The interceptions, missed coverages, blocking errors and miscommunications were painful to see. And I was 2,600 miles away from the action. But damn, the Bolts sure had no problem moving those chains. And that’s exactly what I was hoping to see from Frank Reich this year.
Reich, of course, is the man responsible for two of the greatest comebacks in both college and professional football history. First with the University of Maryland (against Miami’s Bernie Kosar), and then with the Buffalo Bills (against the Houston Oilers’ Warren Moon). He’s been dubbed “the greatest backup quarterback in NFL history.” And he’s one of only a few NFL QBs who are undefeated in postseason play – plus the only one with more than one start to his credit.
Now, at the age of 53, Frank Michael Reich, Jr. has entered his second season as the Offensive Coordinator of the San Diego Chargers with a re-signed and clearly re-energized franchise quarterback in Philip Rivers, a crazy wealth of weapons at his disposal, and the eyes of the football world focused on whether Reich has what it takes to guide them back to the playoffs. Sunday was a great initial response.
Throw out that ill-advised pass on 3rd-and-1 which resulted in a pick-six, and the overall array play-calling by Reich (and by Rivers at the line) was as entertaining as it was clock-devouring. 74 plays to Detroit’s 47. 38:12 of ball possession vs. 21:48. 28 First Downs vs. 16. Rivers, Keenan Allen, Ladarius Green and Danny Woodhead all had stellar games. Rookie Melvin Gordon ran for 51 yards – and should’ve score a touchdown if not for an unfortunate elbow. They even ran the ball (gasp!) 30 times for 95 yards in a game where the QB threw for over 400. And that’s consistent with Reich’s philosophy for the offense going into the preseason:
“There’s no question we need, want and will run the ball better this year,” he said. “And it will help everybody — not just Philip Rivers. It will help our defense. It will just get us back on track. Last year we were poor in the running game. We know that. We own it. And we’re committed to changing that this year. …We’re very optimistic about where things are headed.”
So far, so good. Gordon and Woodhead are already giving the Bolts a respectable – dare I say, dangerous(?) – ground game. Throw in their ability to turn screen passes into significant gains – heck, Branden Oliver gained 17 yards on a pass – and you’ve got a newly dimensionalized offense that can come back from 18-point deficits, score 30 straight points on any given day, exhaust defenses, and win games that a majority of other NFL teams simply cannot.
It sure helps having the 2013 version of Keenan Allen back too, by the way. Tying Kellen Winslow’s record of 15 receptions for a career-high 166 yards is a poetic reward for the receiver who just won the prestigious U-T training camp award, plus kudos from Rivers in the process: “He’s had his best camp. I think that’s not even close, just how consistent he’s been. He came to get better every day.”
And then there’s Woodhead (whom I gushed about two weeks ago), rushing for two TDs and catching passes for another 20 yards. “Having him back is a quarterback’s and offensive coordinator’s dream,” Reich noted this summer. “Because he just does so much for you. There’s so much he can do. He has unique contributions that he can make to the offense. We certainly missed him last year. But it seems to me he’s as strong, as quick and certainly as smart as ever.”
Yes, it’s only one game in. But with an inspiring “W” in the books, the Bolts can now turn their attention to the Cincinnati Bengals – in the same stadium that they won their only postseason game in back in January of 2014. That year, Reich was still the quarterback coach, watching Ken Whisenhunt do the play-calling in a 27-10 victory before “Whiz” ultimately headed to Tennessee to take the head coaching job there.
Today, Reich’s the one wearing that headset. Something he envisioned doing even during his days with the Buffalo Bills. “As a quarterback.., you’re wired to think you want to be as involved as possible, call the plays and so on and so forth,” he told Ricky Henne of Chargers.com. “I’ve been around coaching all my life and knew that I would want to get into it. I think one of the primary roles as a coach is to not only be a motivator but a teacher also.”
The lessons he’s taught the Chargers, at least this week, have clearly sunk in. Bleacher Report’s grades for the team’s QB, backfield, receivers and tight ends range from B’s to A+’s. If this trend can continue for 9-10 more games this year, we could well be talking playoffs. And in turn, talking about which teams will want to interview this former backup QB as their next head coach.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves right now. Frank Reich’s certainly not letting the euphoria of Sunday’s win cloud his, or his players’, approach to next Sunday’s battle with another strong AFC playoff contender. And should the Chargers fall into a hole against them, don’t be surprised to see “The Comeback King” help engineer yet another comeback victory at Paul Brown Stadium, too.