Commentary

Colts resting starters defied logic

If Manning could finish blowouts earlier this year, why not let him play for perfection?

Updated: December 29, 2009, 9:41 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Coach Jim Caldwell, unbeaten and at home, committed not one potentially colossal mistake Sunday against the New York Jets but two. The first -- removing his starters with a lead that crumbled along with the Indianapolis Colts' chance to finish the season 16-0 -- led immediately to the second -- creating distractions for his football team instead of limiting them.

And now the once-undefeated and unknown coach has -- at least until the playoffs begin and/or the Colts win the championship -- overshadowed the team he coaches.

[+] Enlargefumble
AP Photo/Darron CummingsThe first mistake was benching the starters. Then the Colts fumbled away their perfect season.

When Caldwell yanked center Jeff Saturday and later Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai and Reggie Wayne, the immediate thought that came to mind was, "This is a fireable offense." The Colts had not lost a game, it seemed, since the Carter Administration, doing nothing more or less than what they've done all season. And it was the coach, oddly, who ripped the needle off the record.

On its face, Caldwell's stated logic was sound, and he calmly reiterated after the 29-15 loss that finishing the season unbeaten was never a stated goal for the franchise, but he is guilty of over-thinking and left two questions hanging.

Question 1: Are the Indianapolis Colts any closer today to winning the Super Bowl than they were, say, Sunday at halftime?

Question 2: Is there any correlation between finishing a season 16-0 and losing the Super Bowl?

Answers: No, and No.

Yet by diminishing the priority of winning all of his games, Caldwell sounded as though some inherent danger existed in a team winning all of its games, as if perfection were something to fear.

And in remembrance of 2007, it should be noted that the New England Patriots did not lose the Super Bowl to the Giants because they went undefeated. In no specific order, they lost because: 1. In putting on a fantastic show in the season finale against New England instead of resting their starters for the playoffs, the Giants realized they could beat the Patriots; 2. Bill Belichick had his worst day coaching; 3. Tom Brady was hurt; 4. The offensive line picked the wrong day to have its worst game; and 5. The Giants, plain and simple, were better on that day.

Now, Caldwell and his team will have to live with uncertainty, wondering what might have been should they defeat 5-10 Buffalo next week, questioning the impact of removing the best players from the final 20 minutes of a winnable game should the Colts sputter into the playoffs, and doubting the coach's decision should they not advance to the Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Painter
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesDid any Indianapolis fans at the game Sunday pay to watch Curtis Painter play quarterback in a losing effort?

Ostensibly, coaches insist on resting players to protect them against injury as the playoffs near. Injuries are the chilling and unfortunate eventuality of playing professional sports. Nothing can alter a game plan like an injury to a key member of the team.

But here is where the entire logic of resting starters in December collapses: In the most dangerous and violent of sports, football coaches don't practice this protective strategy during the season. If Caldwell or any coach were going to rest starters at the end of the season, he should do so during the entirety of the season, following the NBA approach (it is commonplace to watch Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan watching a fourth-quarter blowout from the bench).

Take, for example, how Caldwell handled Manning earlier this season:
• Led 31-10 in Week 3 at Arizona with 11:31 left. Manning played the whole game.
• Led 28-3 in Week 4 versus Seattle with 8:02 left in the third quarter. Manning played the whole game.
• Led 31-9 in Week 5 at Tennessee with 7:32 left and a bye week coming up. Manning played the whole game.
• Led 28-6 in Week 7 at St. Louis at the end of third quarter. Manning played the whole game.

So Caldwell coached a certain way all season long. Why, then, would Manning be more at risk on Sunday than he had been during the rest of the regular season? If the stated objective is to win the Super Bowl, wasn't Manning unnecessarily at risk on the field for the entire game in a 42-6 win over the Rams?

Taking out his starters would have made more sense under the following conditions: 1. The game was especially physical and/or dirty; 2. Weather increased the risk of injury; 3. The result of the game was no longer in doubt; or, 4. The players in question were already playing with injuries that threatened their playoff availability.

When Manning was removed, he had not been sacked nor intercepted. The Jets are a tough, physical defensive team, but Manning had completed 14 of 21 passes for 192 yards. The two teams are formal rivals, but the game itself wasn't a particularly edgy one in which a star player was at greater risk of injury due to a cheap shot or rougher play. Weather, naturally, was not a factor because the Colts play indoors. At 15-10 with five minutes left in the third, the outcome of the game was hardly assured, and Manning, who has played in 191 consecutive games -- which is to say every game of his NFL career -- is not an injury risk.

And if injury was truly such a major consideration, why allow Manning to play at all? He could have broken his leg in the first quarter Sunday and could injure himself at Buffalo next week. In short, none of it really made sense.

Caldwell should not be fired, naturally. He is obviously a good coach, and clearly the decision to rest his players was not made alone. Colts general manager Bill Polian most likely was aware of the decision and had signed off. Manning said during postgame interviews that he knew being removed from the game was a "possibility."

But even though the decision to take players out of the game was not malicious, the events of the afternoon struck at the integrity of the game. When bad teams are accused or not playing hard at the end of the season to receive the top pick, say, in the NFL draft, the outcries can be heard from Cleveland to Detroit to Oakland. If a player doesn't play his hardest in meaningless games, to protect himself either for his next contract or the next big game, he is attacked for lack of professionalism, for not giving the paying fan his money's worth.

Yet each year winning organizations essentially do the same.

Make no mistake, the Colts robbed their fans of a special moment -- an undefeated season -- that few have ever had the opportunity to witness. And the game had AFC playoff implications (the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos could not be happy with Caldwell's decision, either).

The Colts are not alone -- teams in all sports outthink themselves in attempting to manage injuries -- but that's not enough of a reason to take something very special away from fans, players and the game, leaving behind only a hollow afternoon.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and the forthcoming "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter @hbryant42.

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