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For Colts’ Frank Reich, winning in preseason is nice, but evaluation is main goal

Head coach Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

WESTFIELD, Ind. – There’s a bottom line.

You play to win the game!

But perspective trumps Ws and Ls in the preseason.

Listen to Frank Reich. A year ago, he was heading into his first preseason as a head coach. He had inherited an Indianapolis Colts franchise dealing with three consecutive non-winning records and non-playoff seasons.

“It was nice last year to win a couple, you know?’’ he said with a smile Tuesday afternoon. “I’m not going to lie, and we always play to win.’’

His Colts did precisely that. They opened with a 19-17 win at Seattle and finished 3-1, the franchise’s best preseason record since 2003 (3-1).

Twelve months later, the Colts no longer are hell-bent on fostering a winning environment. They did that with a 10-6 record and wild-card playoff berth.

The overriding factor: evaluate what appears to be a deep 90-man roster.

“At the end of the day,’’ Reich said, “you’re really just evaluating the players and who’s going to be on this roster.’’

Winning? That would be nice, but it’s secondary.

Reich’s history as a player and coach offers a deep-dive into how some teams with lofty aspirations view the preseason.

He spent the first 10 years of his NFL career as Jim Kelly’s backup in Buffalo. The Bills advanced to the playoffs six times and remain the only team ever to reach four consecutive Super Bowls (1990-93).

The Bills were putrid in the preseason, almost by design.

“It was 100% that way,’’ Reich said. “In the 10 years I was in Buffalo, I don’t know if we ever won more than one game.’’

They weren’t that bad, but the Bills routinely resided at the bottom of the standings. From 1985-94, Buffalo was 13-29-1 in the preseason. During their four-year Super Bowl run, they won six of 18 preseason games.

Coach Marv Levy and general manager Bill Polian always had the bigger picture in mind. They seldom played their front-line players much until it mattered.

“Marv was totally like that,’’ Reich said.

Often, it was up to Reich to carry the burden in the preseason. He did so, and probably still has some residual aches and pains to prove it.

Fast-forward to the 2000s, when the Colts were one of the NFL’s most successful franchises. Reich joined Tony Dungy’s staff in 2006 and remained a part of it through 2011.

Dungy and Polian, the Colts’ GM/president from 1998-2011, mirrored the Levy/Polian Bills. The big picture – the regular season and playoffs – is what truly mattered.

From Dungy’s first season in 2002 through Jim Caldwell’s second season in 2010, the Peyton Manning-led Colts were 119-25 in the regular season. They reached the playoffs all nine seasons, advanced to the Super Bowl twice and won a world championship.

In the preseason: 11-27. That included one incredibly futile stretch when they were 4-23.

“Chris and I have talked a lot about that,’’ Reich said.

It’s that time of year when one question begs an answer: How much is enough?

How much playing time do certain players need in preseason games to adequately prepare them for the games that truly matter? One series in the opener? Two in game 2? Maybe a full half in game 3?

A little? A lot? None at all?

Rookies and other young players clearly need the reps. Veterans? Not so much.

Andrew Luck won’t step on the field in Thursday night’s opener at Buffalo, and there’s every chance his first exposure will be in the Sept. 8 regular-season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Luck, who’s dealing with a strained calf muscle, figures to have plenty of company on the DNP (did not play) list. Running back Marlon Mack is healthy, but won’t play and several players dealing with any type of injury also will have the night off: center Ryan Kelly, defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Ben Banogu, tight ends Jack Doyle and Ross Travis, wideout Parris Campbell.

It remains to be seen if Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton, who’s in the midst of a solid training camp, will see any action against the Bills.

“However much Frank gives me,’’ Hilton said with a laugh.

How much exposure does Hilton believe he needs in the preseason to get him ready for the Sept. 8 opener?

“I showed y’all I could do that when I didn’t practice (late last season),’’ he said. “So it’s cool.’’

Backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett is expected to play a quarter before giving way to Phillip Walker. It’s uncertain how many front-line players will actually play, and for how long.

Whoever’s on the field and for however long, the objectives include giving 100% effort – for defensive players that means avoiding coordinator Matt Eberflus’ “loafs’’ – and being on point with assignments and technique.

“We’re looking for what players can do with the plays that are being called, with the plays they’ve been running in camp,’’ offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “We’re just looking to see how they execute . . . if they can win their one-on-ones battles.

“You’re right, it’s not (about) the score. We always want to win. I think everybody has that innate want-to to win, but we are evaluating every player on every play just like we are in practice. It’s just a little bigger stage, on TV and with the lights on.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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