Buffalo Bills: A postseason legend returns as an enemy on Saturday

Nov 10, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; Buffalo Bills linebacker Corey Thompson (52) unsnaps his helmet that features logos for the NFL Salute to Service before the game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

A Buffalo Bills postseason legend returns to Orchard Park on Sunday. But Frank Reich won’t receive a warm welcome.

If anyone knows what it’s like to be underestimated in the NFL playoffs, it’s Frank Reich.

Reich is best known for engineering perhaps the greatest comeback in football history, leading the Buffalo Bills back from 32 points down to top the Houston Oilers in the 1992-93 AFC Wild Card playoffs. The Bills were underdogs when Reich had to start the following weekend against Pittsburgh, but he scored two touchdowns in a 24-3 triumph. Reich’s long-awated Super Bowl title came when he was the offensive coordinator of the star-crossed Philadelphia Eagles…underdogs to the mighty New England Patriots in the game’s 52nd edition. Reich’s unit became the eighth team in Super Bowl history to put up at least 40 points in the 41-33 triumph. Surely there were some Bills fans that appreciated the fact that the veteran Buffalo thrower finally got a ring…and that it came against the hated Patriots.

A similar situation awaits Reich on Saturday afternoon. This time, though, no one in Western New York is going to be celebrating if Reich leaves the area with a victory.

Reich returns to Bills Stadium as the opposing head coach in Buffalo’s first playoff game in Orchard Park since December 1996. The Bills battle Reich’s Indianapolis Colts in the modern AFC Wild Card playoffs, officially kicking off the 2021 postseason on Saturday afternoon (1:05 p.m. ET, CBS).

Obviously, Reich is business-focused as the Colts prepare to make their arrival. But it’s hard to deny the significance and irony of a former Bills postseason hero potentially spoiling a long-awaited party that will be open to just over 6,000 members of Bills Mafia (though Governor Andrew Cuomo will no longer be one).

“This is a business trip,” Reich said of Saturday’s showdown, per Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “Fortunately, I have been back to Buffalo a few times since (leaving in 1994) as a player and as a coach. 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.”

Bills fans more than likely hope that Reich’s latest visit ends like the one he made in November 1996, just over a month before they fell to the Jacksonville Jaguars in their most recent playoff staging at what was then known as Rich Stadium. Reich threw three interceptions as he and the one-win Jets fell in a one-sided 35-10 defeat to Buffalo. More recently, Reich holds the current bragging rights in the series, with his Colts dominating a 37-5 decision at Lucas Oil Stadium in October 2018.

Even if Reich is unwilling to give in to nostalgics, his impact is recognized by those who came after him in the Bills’ quarterback room.

“It’s a cool moment with coach Reich and what he meant here in Buffalo,” quarterback Josh Allen told Maiorana. “I saw his press conference on coming back and you know he was excited that we won on Sunday, but he’s not gonna be a fan of the Bills when he comes into town this time. The fans obviously love him and what he’s been able to do here so that’s a cool story in itself.”

A good part of Reich’s NFL story is written in blue and red ink. He was drafted by the Bills in the third round of the 1985 draft out of Maryland, spending a decade as Jim Kelly’s backup before he served as a mentor and fill-in thrower in Carolina, New York, and Detroit. Such a career made him ideal in a coach’s spot, and his career with a headset has come full circle. He was an offensive assistant for four years with the Colts (2008-11) before other deputy positions in Arizona and San Diego before his championship dream was finally fulfilled with the Eagles. Reich accepted his first head coaching job shortly after with the Colts. Philadelphia hasn’t reached 10 wins since his departure.

Reich’s tenure has been about stabilizing a franchise that could’ve been set back years by the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck. The Colts won 10 games and a Wild Card contest during Reich and Luck’s one season of collaborating, but Luck’s departure during the ensuing preseason was a roadblock that could’ve set the franchise back several seasons.

But Reich made due with a fate that dealt him a Luck-free future, driving the Colts to a respectable seven-win season that fell two games short of the playoffs. With the addition of an experienced placeholder quarterback (Phillip Rivers) and the emergence of a day-two gem at the draft (Jonathan Taylor), the Colts won 11 games for the first time since 2014 and captured the final AFC Wild Card spot, leading to Reich’s date with destiny.

Even Reich’s most recent playoff clinch was sprinkled with a healthy dose of Buffalo-based irony: the Bills’ dominant 56-26 win over Miami during Sunday’s early window put the Colts in a win-and-in situation for their late afternoon game against Jacksonville. Indianapolis’ 28-14 triumph clinched the spot on the 28th anniversary of Reich’s dramatic comeback against Houston. Reich would later insist that he was unaware of the coincidence until the day before the game.

“Us coaches, we don’t know what day of the week it is or what the date is, we just know when we play and what the practice schedule is,” he remarked in Maiorana’s report. “It actually wasn’t until I was doing the production meeting with the TV crew and someone mentioned that did the thought even cross my mind.”

In preparing for the Bills, Reich was more willing to focus on the current incarnation of Buffalo’s gridiron endeavors. In another report from Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com, Reich referred to them as “one of the hottest teams, if not the hottest team in the NFL” and to head coach Sean McDermott as “one of the (most) respected coaches in this league”.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags