Don't knock Colts, others
Teams that lock up playoff spots early reserve the right to protect assets
The mailbag was sprinkled with interesting questions about the way the Colts and other playoff-bound teams handled the final couple of weeks of the season. Many fans are concerned about integrity.
I don't think NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or the competition committee can solve this problem. Once a team accomplishes its goal of clinching a division or securing a bye week, it earns the right to look toward the postseason. Is it in the league's best interests? No. But you can't order the Colts to risk using quarterback Peyton Manning in a late-season game and lose hopes of going to the Super Bowl if he gets hurt.
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Goodell's idea of giving those teams draft-choice incentives to play their starters is silly. The rich teams don't need to get richer as far as talent. Plus, a future draft choice can't compensate for the loss of a key player during a playoff run. What draft choice in 2010 could replace the value of wide receiver Wes Welker, who's out with a knee injury and could cost the Patriots a chance at the Super Bowl?
If you want to talk about integrity of the game, though, you need to switch to a more important topic: revenue sharing. The league is less than two months from going down a dangerous path. If there is no collective bargaining agreement extension, the salary cap will go away and the $100 million-plus revenue-sharing plan will go with it.
Even worse, just like in Major League Baseball, the high-revenue teams will be in a position to grow the revenue gaps and create a league of haves and have-nots. The Jaguars, Bills, Bengals and other lower-revenue teams won't be able to compete with the Cowboys, Redskins, Giants and other higher-revenue teams.
If you think seeing backups in the final six quarters of the Colts' season is bad, think of what it would be like if high-revenue teams clinched spots in Week 16 of a 19-week season. Worse, those teams would do the same thing every season.
The integrity of the league lies in having a regular season in which all 32 teams have a chance. Let's focus on the big picture, not a couple of Colts games at the end of what was a great season for them.
From the inbox
Q: Now that the season is over and the Terrell Owens experiment did not work out with the Bills, where do you think he will land this offseason? Is there any chance he could go to the Patriots?
DT in West Palm Beach, Fla.
A: Wes Welker's knee injury could open the door for that to happen in New England. As you know, Welker blew out his ACL and MCL and will be a question mark for the start of training camp. I think Deion Branch could get cut in Seattle. He might be the Patriots' first choice to go back. But Owens is an interesting avenue, and the Patriots' locker room is strong enough to handle him. I also could see Owens in Baltimore, but he probably would have to take a 50 percent pay cut from his $6.5 million salary for either of those possibilities to happen.
Pacalon in the Bay Area wants to know whether the Chargers will draft Jahvid Best or Toby Gerhart to replace LaDainian Tomlinson. I believe they will draft a running back in the first two rounds, but not if a good nose tackle is available. They'll need a replacement for tackle Jamal Williams more than Tomlinson if they re-sign Darren Sproles. Chris K. in Oklahoma City is a die-hard Broncos fan who is disappointed about how the Broncos squandered their season but remains impressed with coach Josh McDaniels. He wonders whether the Broncos will draft a quarterback with their first pick. I wouldn't put anything past McDaniels. He's the most unpredictable coach in the NFL. Andy in Lomira, Wis., asks whether cornerback Charles Woodson's great season puts him in Hall of Fame territory. I think he's under consideration. He's had a great career, one of the best of his era. Gary in Goshen, Ind., wonders whether it's time for the Lions to look for another quarterback after Matthew Stafford's first season. No way. Stafford's a keeper. Get more talent around him. Steve in Phoenix asks whether Matt Hasselbeck's bad season can be attributed to an erosion of his skills, a bad offensive line or a bad supporting cast. The bad offensive line was a big reason for his struggles, and his supporting cast wasn't in sync all season. Hasselbeck still has good skills. Remember, they were saying similar things about Kurt Warner a few years ago. Jason in Virginia Beach, Va., wanted to throw Ken Whisenhunt's name in for coach of the year for work during the past three years. Your point is fair. A lot of times good coaches get credit for only a great first year and not a great series of years rebuilding a team. His reward should be a contract extension. Jason in Orlando, Fla., wants to know whether the Cowboys should trade receiver Miles Austin for a big-name receiver. They have a big-name receiver, Roy Williams, who cost them a lot. Austin may not have a big name, but he has meant everything to this offense. The Cowboys can't trade him.
Q: My 49ers had a pretty good season, although I expected more from them. What do you think they should do in the draft to improve? Would maybe a safety like Taylor Mays and help on the offensive line make sense in the first round?
Mo in Bakersfield, Calif.
A: The 49ers need to bulk up their offensive line and clean up some things in the secondary. Mays could be an interesting choice and give them a playmaking safety. Having two first-round picks gives them the luxury of making selections such as those.
The 49ers must decide what to do with their offensive line. They need to become more athletic there because they're leaning toward more shotgun-formation plays instead of being a mauling running team. That adjustment gets the most out of Alex Smith.
The 49ers can't improve their offense without improving their blocking. With Kurt Warner likely having only one more season as the Cardinals' starting quarterback and Seattle's offense in flux, the 49ers are in good position to become a major player in the NFC West.
Q: After watching Mark Sanchez go through the wringer in his rookie season, do you think he is the QB of the future for the Jets?
Dave in New York City
A: Sanchez is absolutely the Jets' quarterback of the future. I don't think he has sufficient talent to reach the elite level of quarterbacks, but he can be a good quarterback who's capable of taking the Jets to the playoffs in any season. He's made in the Chad Pennington mold but has a stronger arm. Getting to the playoffs as a rookie is a huge thing for Sanchez. Remember how uncomfortable Ben Roethlisberger looked in the playoffs during his rookie season? Even if Sanchez has a bad game against the Bengals on Saturday, he can look back at the film and understand what he needs to work on for the next few years. The Jets have their franchise quarterback.
Q: I appreciate the well-deserved pub for Matt Schaub, and I'm glad that Gary Kubiak finally has his quarterback. However, I take issue with your determination of what constitutes an elite quarterback. When you consider virtually half the starting quarterbacks in the league to be elite, you have watered down the definition of that concept. I would posit that there are four elite quarterbacks this year (Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Manning and Brett Favre), four who are a notch below (Aaron Rodgers, Schaub, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger) and then everyone else.
Michael in Denver
A: I still struggle with the right term to capture the concept. I'll take suggestions. Although calling 15 quarterbacks elite might water down the definition, it doesn't take away from the reality. If you go through the quarterbacks from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, in some years you struggle to come up with more than seven quarterbacks who could be termed elite. But look at the numbers from this season. There were 10 4,000-yard passers and 12 who threw more than 25 touchdowns. And those quarterbacks weren't just stats guys; they were on teams that went 8-8 or better. Listen, this mailbag is year-round. We'll figure out the right label to illustrate the most defining trend of 2009.
Q: How can the Cincinnati Bengals have zero Pro Bowlers?
Zack in Chicago
A: The Bengals are the first division winner since the merger not to have a Pro Bowl player. It is ridiculous. Running back Cedric Benson, guard Bobbie Williams, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and defensive tackle Domata Peko were second alternates. Carson Palmer was a third alternate. Standout OT Andrew Whitworth didn't make any of the four alternate spots, which is a major slight. They deserved better.
Q: I don't agree with the Colts' benching their starters. When the Colts won the Super Bowl after the 2006 season, they had to play through, and the team stayed hot in the playoffs. Don't you think an offense that's built on timing like the Colts' could struggle?
Andrew in Detroit
A: It could struggle early, but it should get into a rhythm once the game starts. As you know, the key to beating Manning is pushing him out of his rhythm. Against a good blitzing team, Manning might struggle, but he's a problem solver on the field. Sometimes it may take him a series or two to figure out what a defense is doing, but he's great at figuring things out and making them work.
The pressure will be on the Colts' defense not to give up touchdowns, it excels in that department. The Colts may give up yards, but they don't give up too many touchdown drives. Overall, they probably were better off resting their players. Now they'll enter the playoffs healthier and well-rested. They had 12 players who couldn't play much in the finale anyway because of injuries.
Q: When will Mike Scifres ever get recognition he deserves? He had arguably the best season ever for a punter, and yet he didn't make the Pro Bowl again.
Jonathan in New York City
A: The tough part for Chargers punter Scifres is that he plays a few hundred miles south of Raiders punter Shane Lechler. In my opinion, Scifres may be the best punter since Ray Guy. Lechler continues to improve, and that casts a big shadow for Scifres to overcome. Like place-kickers, punters are getting better each year.
Q: Why didn't the Steelers get an offensive player on the Pro Bowl squad?
Tyler in New York City
A: No receiver in the AFC was able to beat out the top four receivers from last year. Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne and Welker have been the top four for two straight years. Santonio Holmes was the fourth alternate, and Roethlisberger was the first alternate. He'll make it in when one of the three Pro Bowl quarterbacks pulls out. Guard Chris Kemoeatu was the fourth alternate. Rashard Mendenhall was shut out, but that was understandable when you realize Thomas Jones and Benson were the first and second alternates and Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice had great seasons. Hines Ward should have received more votes. Tight end Heath Miller didn't have a chance in a conference with Dallas Clark and Antonio Gates.
Q: Shouldn't Tom Coughlin be held more accountable for the Giants' late-season slide? Let's not forget that his job was on the line during the Giants' improbable Super Bowl run. They failed at the end of last season and were consistently pretty bad this season. The team's supposed strengths -- running game and D-line -- were very poor. Don't you think he should be replaced?
Mike in Kingston, Ontario
A: No way should he be replaced. The guy is a great coach. Remember, Coughlin led this team to a 12-4 record last year, and he has a Super Bowl ring. Teams have bad seasons. It happens. Obviously, Steve Spagnuolo wasn't properly replaced as defensive coordinator. The team didn't rally around Bill Sheridan, and now he's gone. The early loss of Kenny Phillips killed the team at safety, and the cornerbacks were injured all season. The Giants have been patching at linebacker for years, and it wasn't the same without Antonio Pierce. If the trend continues into next season, there might be a chance Coughlin could be let go. But not now.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
2009 NFL PLAYOFFS: ROAD TO MIAMI