What? Ok, I know. It’s not that simple. It's what I hoped would happen before the game. But I just wanted the Colts to get beat. Instead, as everyone knows, leading 15-10 Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell made the curious decision to bench several of his starters including Peyton Manning. Once that decision was implemented the game turned. The second stringers were no match for the Jets and so the Colts went down for the first time this year. The CBS cameras fixated on Peyton Manning’s face while he stood on the sidelines watching his team lose its first game of the year. Hmm. How can I describe it? Well, he didn’t look too happy about it! The fans weren’t happy either. They furiously booed their home team. It was incredible theatre. You could just see how badly Manning wanted to be back in that game. He was clearly pissed.
Now the Colts made it clear weeks ago this might happen. They said they’d rest their stars once the team wrapped up the top-seed so we shouldn’t have been surprised. But I sure as hell was surprised! How could you not be? Who turns their backs on a shot at a perfect season? Bill Polian kept saying a perfect season wasn’t one of the team’s goals. No duh. Who goes into a season expecting to do undefeated? But once it’s there how do you not go for it? The ’72 Dolphins wrapped up their division (teams weren’t seeded back then) in week 10! But they kept playing like every game meant something. I thought for sure the Colts would do likewise. I’m kind of glad they didn’t because I know how much the perfect season means to Shula and his ’72 team. But what the Colts did just makes no sense and Tom Jackson summed it up in one word on ESPN right after the loss when he said he respects Polian but what the Colts did made him “uncomfortable”.
That’s exactly how I felt. To see Manning on the sidelines looking like that. And Wayne, Clark, and some of the other guys didn’t look to thrilled either. Manning knows his football history. Actually, even the dumbest player alive probably knows how special a perfect season would be. A championship’s great but 19-0 would be remembered forever. For Manning personally a perfect season could well earn him consensus “greatest QB of all-time” status. Not now.
So why’d they do it? To avoid injury? Then why play Manning and the rest at all? And why’d they play the whole game in week 15 when they had the top seed already wrapped up? A player can get hurt on any play at any time. Even in practice. You can’t play scared. Or maybe you can. Just leave Manning in but call only runs and safe passes. The chances of winning are still way better than with poor Curtis Painter. If Caldwell just wanted more rest for his players then again why play them at all? One more quarter was the breaking point?
I can see the argument that taking an undefeated season into the playoffs makes it more difficult to win it all. All that extra pressure combined with the extra physical wear and tear coming every week from every team playing you like it’s the Super Bowl so they can knock off an undefeated opponent. A lot of people think the Patriots got worn down by the time of Super Bowl XLII. Maybe it happened to the ’72 Dolphins too. They led the league in offense and defense that year but in the postseason they trailed late in two playoff games and had trouble scoring in all three. And check out this excerpt from an article about the Green Bay Packers first and only loss of 1962:
Lombardi, however, was actually seen laughing in the dressing room as he told the press after the game, "You didn't think we were going to win them all, did you?" He let the team know that the loss was a great reminder of the importance of teamwork and of not ever being overconfident.
Ok, so even Vince Lombardi thought trying to go undefeated could get in the way of trying to win a title. But so what? What do you do if you are undefeated, throw a game? Well you essentially could by resting starters during a tight game. But that just leads to a different problem. Now you’ve got a controversy dogging you the rest of the way. It’s the number one sports story right now: the Colts laid down and threw away a chance at a perfect season. They’re never gonna hear the end of it even if they win the Super Bowl. They threw away a ton of goodwill too. Fans everywhere were rooting for a perfect season to happen and for the game’s most popular player Peyton Manning to lead the way. Now you’ve ensured the reverse: fans rooting for the Colts to lose for angering the football gods by not putting their pedal to the metal and going for 19-0. Backlash! Yoou've got people speculating the Colts purposely lost to get the Jets or Texans into the playoffs and keep Pitsburgh and/or Baltimore out. The press has turned.
I don’t understand the thinking. What the Colts did makes no sense. It rubbed me and every other football fan the wrong way. To keep seeing Peyton Manning, a tremendous competitor, scowling like that on the sidelines denied a chance to do something nobody's ever done was just wrong. You know, this Colts team pulled out a lot more close games this year than you’d expect from a dominant team making a run at perfection. So now they’ve also lost their aura of invincibility if you will. And they can’t win for losing now. If they lose a playoff game everyone’s going to blame the loss to the Jets for killing the team’s momentum. If they win it all, everyone wonders what might have been.