The pursuit of perfection vs the goal of a championship
Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell stressed all season that his goal was a Super Bowl victory, not an undefeated season. He felt his team had a better chance at capturing the Lombardi Trophy if he could keep them rested and healthy.
With their place atop the AFC secured, Caldwell pulled many of his key starters in the third quarter against the New York Jets two weeks ago. The result was a 29-15 loss, ending any hope of the Colts joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only NFL team to go undefeated for an entire season.
Some said that by pulling his starters, Caldwell was tampering with the integrity of the game. As former Jets coach Herm Edwards famously said, “you play to win the game.”
Others felt the Colts, or any team that enters the final few weeks of the regular season with nothing to gain from a win, earned the right to decide who plays and who rests.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, obviously unimpressed with teams not fielding their best possible lineups during regular season games, said on Sunday the league is looking at ways to reward teams for playing their starters, even in games that will not change their place in the standings.
The debate was front and center again on Sunday when New England Patriots’ leading receiver Wes Welker suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of their game against the Houston Texans. Even though the Pats were not seeking perfection, win or lose they would be hosting a first-round playoff game next week.
When the Patriots were in a similar situation two seasons ago, head coach Bill Belichick played his starters from wire to wire, including a thrilling 38-35 week 17 victory over the New York Giants. That same New York team went on to hand New England their only loss of the season, five weeks later, in Super Bowl XLII.
This isn’t the first time the Colts have tried this approach entering the postseason. Unfortunately for then head coach Tony Dungy, the results we less than favorable.
We won’t know if Caldwell’s decision will have the desired result until after Super Bowl XLIV in early February. And even if the strategy does pay off with a Super Bowl win for Indianapolis, the debate on resting starters will likely continue.