Frank Reich didn’t watch the Los Angeles Clippers complete the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night. He was asleep as the Clippers came back from a 27-point deficit late in the third quarter and from 24 points down with 7:55 left in the game. But when Reich read the headlines online in the morning and saw the highlights on television, a big smile came over his face.
“Whenever I see a big comeback in any sport it make me think back to the comebacks I was apart of in college and in the NFL,” Reich said. “I always think back to the dynamics of those games and the good memories from being a part of those teams.”
Reich quarterbacked the Buffalo Bills to the greatest comeback in NFL history when he led the Bills back from a 35-3 third quarter deficit to a 41-38 overtime victory against the Houston Oilers in the 1992 AFC Wild Card playoffs. He also led the University of Maryland back from a 31-0 deficit against Miami in 1984 to a 42-40 victory, which was the biggest comeback in college football history at the time.
“The great thing about being a part of the greatest comeback is it’s such a team-oriented thing. It’s not like one guy just takes over,” said Reich, who was a quarterback in the NFL for 15 years and is now the receivers’ coach of the Arizona Cardinals. “You really do need everyone and everything to click in football and in basketball. Even if one guy scores 50 points, it’s the defensive play of the team that drives the comeback. It’s the same in football with your defense making stops and your special teams playing well. I do feel a connection when I see it happen. You take pride in the fact that you were on a team that did something special like that and when you see it happen in other sports it reminds me of that and it’s a great thing. I love that.”
Late in the third quarter of the Clippers’ 99-98 win over the Grizzlies, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro had taken out Chris Paul, who was dealing with a strained left groin, and was prepared to remove the rest of his starters. Paul pleaded with Del Negro to put him back in the game and he listened. Reich said he never had such a conversation with Bills coach Marv Levy during his comeback but figured he was in jeopardy of being pulled before finally throwing his first touchdown pass.
“If it’s a regular season game, the coach might be a little quicker to want to preserve the players,” Reich said. “But when it’s a playoff game, there are bigger implications. I couldn’t ever see wanting to take your guys out of a playoff game as long as it’s conceivable to come back. I think in Buffalo, I was in danger of being yanked but it didn’t happen and I really credit the comeback we had to our head coach for being 100 percent tuned in and never letting his guard down.
“In our comeback, our mentality was one play at a time, one first down at a time, one touchdown at a time. I have to be believe that’s’ the same in any sport. When you’re down that much that’s really all you can do. You have to execute the next time down the court and play defense and get a stop the next time they’re coming down the court. You have to get it down into smaller increments and get little victories that build momentum throughout the rest if the game. Those little victories are important in a comeback.”
The biggest difference between Reich’s historic comeback in the NFL playoffs and the Clippers’ in their first playoff game in six years is the Bills didn’t have to play the Oilers again whereas the Clippers have to find a way to beat Memphis three more times in a seven-game series. Reich believes the comeback, albeit just one game in the series, can have a lasting impact for both teams moving forward.
“You’d like to think a comeback like this has a positive impact for the team that came back moving forward,” Reich said. “I remember when we had our comeback against the Oilers, the next week we played the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road and it’s hard to win an NFL playoff game on the road and we went down there and carried the momentum from that comeback and won that game. Then we won the next week on the road in Miami and went to the Super Bowl.
"In a seven-game it’s a different deal but the point is the same. If you were on the winning team you really want to build off that momentum and if you’re on the flip side, you got humiliated and embarrassed and you have to come together and say that’s not going to happen again. It can linger on bother sides but that’s when the leadership comes into play. A strong leader can really set the tone for what’s going to linger and what’s not going to linger.”
Reich said that after being a part of a historic comeback in college, his similarly historic comeback in the NFL wasn’t an aberration and that the same is true for the Clippers after they have come back from double-digit deficits 15 times this season, which is the most in the league.
“It’s not a coincidence that they came back last night and also lead the league in comebacks,” Reich said. “That’s just the way it works. The positive is you feel like you’re never out of the game. The negative of it is you don’t want to be lax and say we’re just going to turn it on in the fourth quarter.
Although Reich isn’t a Clippers fan, he said he will be keeping an eye on them moving forward in the playoffs after their historic comeback. He said being a part of a team like that will always endear you to people, even those that don’t watch sports.
“It’s the never say die spirit,” Reich said. “The reason we love comebacks is because every person at one point or another in their lives, whether it’s in sports, school or their job, has been counted out. We all know what it feels like to be counted out. You don’t have to play sports to know that. So the exhilaration of someone or some team that was counted out, coming back and overcoming the odds, everybody can relate to that.”