Commentary

13-0 seems to be dividing line

Saints, Colts on hallowed ground, but should they rest the 'perfect' quest?

Originally Published: December 16, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- The forearms are still formidable.

That head of steel-colored hair still flourishes. The famous jutting jaw has softened a bit in its 80th year, but the laugh fills this well-appointed VIP room. Its owner still seems larger in life than any of the champions whose photographs surround him, including Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus and Joe DiMaggio.

Last week, Don Shula opened another in his burgeoning chain of restaurants, Shula's 347 Grill, this one in the tony Buckhead section of this vibrant Southern city. The name references his NFL-record victory total. But this time of year, when (or if) there is a team fortunate enough to be undefeated, 17-0 might be a more appropriate handle.

"Every year, we get resurrected when people start talking about having an undefeated season," Shula said, laughing, naturally. "They always go back and talk about the 1972 Dolphins."

Seven teams in NFL history have started 13-0, but Shula's Dolphins are the only ones to finish unbeaten. It's been 37 seasons since they ran the table, but if the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts keep winning -- consider this the first Mercury Morris warning -- those old Fish could be the media stars of Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.

But that is getting ahead of things. The dominant debate surrounding these two perfect teams concerns the path they should take to get to the ultimate game. Should they play all out for perfection -- or rest their star players down the stretch? According to Shula, back in 1972 there was never a consideration of resting players who weren't nursing major injuries.

"Every game was important to us," said Shula, who said he was driven by an 0-2 record in previous Super Bowls. "So I didn't have the luxury of sitting people down and making sure they were healthy for the big game."

Not surprisingly, the leadership in New Orleans and Indianapolis is downplaying each team's potential run at history. Clearly, those running the teams believe the best way to achieve history is to ignore it.

"I think our players do a really good job of really just focusing on the next day," Saints coach Sean Payton said last week.

The Saints dispatched the Atlanta Falcons -- barely -- 26-23 and clinched a first-round bye. Similarly obsessed with one-game-at-a-time focus, the Colts earned home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with a taut 28-16 victory over the Denver Broncos.

"We try to address everything talking about next week," Colts coach Jim Caldwell explained. "We never look beyond that."

Under former coach Tony Dungy, the Colts were so good in the regular season that often they had the luxury of resting some of their players down the stretch. It didn't usually work to the team's benefit in the postseason.

For example, in the four seasons Manning has seen limited action in the regular-season finale, the Colts lost their first playoff game. But in the final regular-season game of the 2006 season, with the Colts scuffling for playoff seeding, Manning threw 37 passes in a win over Miami. The Colts beat Kansas City in the wild-card game and went on to win their only Super Bowl, over the Chicago Bears in Miami.

Maybe that was why Colts receiver Reggie Wayne seemed to be appealing to Caldwell last week when he said, "If I had the opportunity to put my two cents in, I'd play."

A philosophical shift?

On Monday, those two cents seemed to have paid dividends.

"We're going to approach the 14th game exactly like we did 1 through 13," Caldwell said in Indianapolis. "The only thing that would deter anyone from playing is a health issue."

Of course, with 13 Colts starters listed with some form of injury, Caldwell has left himself all kinds of wiggle room. Nevertheless, he appeared to be distancing himself from Dungy's philosophy of giving his players a break down the stretch.

Maybe it's because Caldwell was on the sideline next to Dungy when the Colts flamed out in their first playoff game, in 2005 and in 2007, after securing first-round byes.

Indianapolis is working on two records for victories -- consecutive regular-season wins (22) and wins in a decade (114) -- but these are secondary to winning the Super Bowl. In resting players who weren't injured beyond the usual bumps and bruises, the Colts seemed to lose some momentum in recent years. This was particularly obvious in 2005, when they fell behind 14 points to the Steelers in the first quarter and eventually lost that playoff game 21-18 despite scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter.

"We were very sluggish in that game," said former Colts running back Dominic Rhodes. "Let guys go out there and get a little work in the games. You want them to rest, but not sit out that late in the season because we know in the NFL, it's all about who's hot.

"That's the downside of resting guys at that point: You lose your rhythm."

"I'm always a guy who wants to play," defensive end Dwight Freeney said. "But I do understand it's most important to be fresh when they really need you, and that would be the playoffs."

More than likely, Caldwell and the Colts will try to find a happy medium, playing serviceable starters less than usual but enough to keep them fresh.

"We have to look at our team and make certain we stay in rhythm," Caldwell said. "That's what's most important to us."

The Saints, from all appearances, seem intent on giving themselves every chance to finish the regular season perfect. This doesn't mean they aren't pushing the company line when the P-word is broached, however.

"I don't think we talk about having an undefeated season too much," said New Orleans running back Reggie Bush. "I've rarely heard it -- other than being asked by the media guys."

Said safety Darren Sharper, "We're not really focused on the regular season, to be honest with you. Our main goal is the first-round bye and to get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If we accomplish that and we go perfect with our record, that's just an added plus."

The 2007 Patriots became only the second team to rip through the regular season undefeated. Then-wide receiver Troy Brown said the decision to go for perfection stemmed from coach Bill Belichick's general philosophy.

"What Bill always preached was, 'I'm playing the guys that give us the best chance to win,'" Brown said. "How can we preach that we play to win every game when you don't give your team the best chance to win?"

Brown favors the go-for-it strategy.

"Down the stretch, you have to keep your foot on the pedal," he said. "I think it would have been disastrous for us [to sit players] because we would have developed what we didn't want to have. You can't play the game thinking that I've got to save someone from getting hurt. It's football.

"For me, it's balls to the wall from start to finish."

Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem seems to be on the same page.

"That's a decision Coach Payton is going to have to make," he said. "But as far as the [players], we're going to play. As of right now, in our mind, we're going to play. Only way you get hurt is if you start relaxing."

The 1985 Bears, the modern Monsters of the Midway, started 12-0. The 13th game was a "Monday Night Football" classic in Miami.

"Somebody beat them that year," Shula said coyly when the subject came up. "Think it was that team from Miami, by the name of the Dolphins."

Indeed, with members of the 1972 team looking on, Shula's Dolphins handed the Bears their first (and, ultimately, their only) loss.

"We had a tough, tough go in Miami," then-Bears quarterback Jim McMahon said recently. "They had all of the '72 guys on the sideline rooting against us. Of course, they were very happy in the end.

"It would be great to go undefeated, but the only time you want to go undefeated is when the playoffs start. Three or four games and you get a ring."

Where does McMahon fall on the play-or-sit debate?

"I'd love a few weeks off," McMahon said laughing. "I wouldn't have minded sitting out three or four weeks."

This season's irony? Super Bowl XLIV is in Miami, and Shula will be in attendance, along with a number of his former players, if the Saints and/or Colts arrive unscathed.

"They're bringing it right to our backyard, so I'm going to be there," Shula said. "I'm going to be the first guy that calls that [undefeated] coach. [I'll] congratulate him and tell him what a great job I think he's done."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.