By Skip Bayless
Page 2

When Tony Dungy awakens these mornings, his first flash of consciousness must be: Is this really happening?

Is the team he coaches really (eyes blinking awake) 11-0? Did it just bully the bullies from Pittsburgh, where he once learned the game from a coach who won four Super Bowls, Chuck Noll?

Tony Dungy
AP
Dungy must be doing some serious thinking about this decision.

Has he finally (cobwebs clearing) built a defense in Indianapolis that is quick and rabid enough to give his team a chance to win … every game? All 16 in the regular season? All 19, including the Super Bowl?

Did his quarterback, Peyton Manning -- really his co-head coach -- actually agree on Monday night to (rubbing eyes) run the ball on third-and-18 from the Steelers' 18 and take a field goal instead of trying to throw another touchdown pass? Has Peyton finally matured and humbled himself enough to realize that running the ball more than throwing it -- that giving the defense time to rest -- is the way you win championships?

Did (swinging feet over the side of the bed) division rival Jacksonville just lose its quarterback and leader, Byron Leftwich, to a broken ankle, making the game at Jacksonville on Dec. 11 so much more winnable? Is an undefeated season somehow meant to be?

These mornings, Tony Dungy's first-light emotions must swing from elation to amazement to (swallowing hard) fear. He knows he could soon face a decision that will define his coaching career.

Should he risk injury to make regular-season history? Or should he follow conventional coaching wisdom -- as Noll surely would advise -- and rest and protect his players for a Super Bowl run?

If his Colts have clinched their division and home-field advantage by Christmas Eve, should he play his starters sparingly at Seattle in Game No. 15? Should he not play them at all the final Sunday against Arizona at home?

After all, no black coach has ever won a Super Bowl.

Then again, no coach of any color has gone undefeated through a 16-game season. Don Shula's 1972 Miami Dolphins won all 14 that were played in those days, then finished off a perfect season with three playoff wins, including Super Bowl VII.

But winning all 16 scheduled games in this day and parity-riddled age? Virtually impossible. Until now.

In fact, going 16-0 would be even more difficult than winning a Super Bowl. Sure, given a choice, any coach or player would take a championship ring over a 16-0 memory. Yet it could be another 33 years before you see another undefeated regular season.

That's why Dungy should play his starters no matter how "meaningless" those final two games might be.

He owes that much to his players.

And to himself.

For now, Dungy is saying all the right one-game-at-a-time, by-the-book things. This is no mold-shattering Mike Ditka or Jimmy Johnson. This is a deeply humble and spiritual man, the son of a physiology professor and a high school English teacher. No showboating. No trash talking.

Edgerrin James
AP
Edgerrin James has been a big reason for the Colts' success.

No presumptuously cocky message does Anthony Kevin Dungy want to send to his coaching peers that he's already considering his 16-0 options. Why put any more pressure on a team that doesn't exactly have three "byes" before Seattle? It isn't like Tennessee (at Indy), the Jaguars (in Jacksonville) and San Diego (at Indy) will roll over and play dead at the mere sight of his Colts.

In fact, in his heart of hearts, Dungy surely has hoped for the last month or so that his Colts would lose a close game. At Cincinnati? Pittsburgh? Just one, just to take the growing "undefeated" burden off their shoulder pads going into the playoffs.

But Dungy's Colts keep winning, even dominating the Steelers on a night when Manning sometimes looked confused and rattled. Manning completed only 15 passes, to Ben Roethlisberger's 17 -- yet Manning gave it to Edgerrin James 29 times for 124 yards. The Colts stuffed Pittsburgh's three marquee running backs for a combined 58 yards on 21 carries.

Colts, 26-7.

Dungy, pinching himself.

So media members keep asking about 16-0, and Dungy, the nice man that he is, keeps trying to accommodate questioners with answers such as this to Sports Illustrated's Peter King: "They don't give out rings for going 16-0. They give out rings for winning the Super Bowl. So everything we do will be with that goal in mind."

Yet Dungy eventually should awaken to this reality: Playing his starters in Games 15 and 16 will help him win the Super Bowl.

Especially his defensive starters.

Lee Roy Jordan, pound for pound the toughest player I ever saw, played middle linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys at 205 pounds. Jordan once said: "The harder you play, the less likely you are to get hurt. You usually get hurt when you're trying not to."

Yet that's a defensive player's mentality. Good defensive players usually want to play and play hard, no matter the stakes.

The 1985 Bears defense remains the most terrifying unit in NFL history. Did its starters want to rest after the Bears lost their first (and last) game Dec. 2 in Miami? No. They wanted to play.

The '72 Dolphins won mostly with their famed No Name Defense. Their starting quarterback, Bob Griese, was hurt in the fifth game, was replaced by 38-year-old Earl Morrall and didn't return until the second half of the AFC Championship Game. Griese threw only 11 times (and completed eight) as the Dolphins beat Washington 14-7 in the Super Bowl.

The point: The Colts are now potent enough on defense to win "meaningless" games if Dungy will keep playing that unit's starters. Dungy, whose specialty is defense, knows this if he will just trust it.

Tony Dungy
AP
Dungy must be doing some serious thinking about this decision.

The one remaining doubt about Dungy: Is he too nice a guy to make the tough, bold decisions required to win a championship?

Now we find out.

Now this defensive coach needs to think offensively. Now he needs to concentrate on winning instead of possibly losing players to injury. Now that he has come this far, there are no "meaningless" games.

Losing one to protect starters could be as damaging as losing a starter. Now, losing a game means losing a little edge and momentum and mystique and giving playoff opponents a little more confidence.

Manning's offense needs at least three quarters of lubricating repetitions, even if the Colts have clinched. Of course, the Colts already would have a playoff bye. Does Dungy want them to coast for a month?

And what if he sits Manning for most of the last two games -- in favor of the NFL's least-known backup, Jim Sorgi -- and then Manning gets hurt in the first quarter of the first playoff game?

No more playing it safe, Tony. Go for it.

You have an extremely rare opportunity to make history in the regular season and the postseason -- to achieve stature that no black football coach has ever had. You had the guts to speak out when Terrell Owens did the "Monday Night Football" skit with the naked babe in the locker room, calling it racially insensitive. Now have the guts to close this deal.

Your team is good enough -- better than you ever dreamed.

Do not be afraid. Let your players play.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.




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