For second-guessing the Colts.

(Update: I wrote everything below the jump yesterday. I still believe in my core argument: that yanking the starters was a completely appropriate, defensible strategy. But, not only will the controversy not go away, but it seems to be spiraling out of control. The entire city is in an uproar. This might indeed wreck the Colts season. We’ll see. But, since I put so much time into it, my original post follows.)

I think national sports commentators love this time of year. They have the BCS to bash, NFL playoff scenarios to hash out, coaching carousels to ponder, and for much of the last decade, the Colts to rip.

Once again, a Colts team that has locked in their place in the AFC playoffs decided to rest the starters late in yesterday’s game against the Jets. The Jets immediately took the lead and held it, denying the Colts a perfect regular season.


I understand people at the game being upset. It’s not like the Colts and the NFL were going to reimburse them 30% of their tickets because they didn’t get to see Peyton, Dwight, etc. for the final quarter-plus.

I don’t get all the national hand-wringing. So what if the Colts threw away a chance at 16-0? As they’ve shown time-and-again over the last decade regular season excellence does not necessarily translate to post-season success. Why not maximize the chance that your most important players be both in game shape and healthy for the playoffs?

The arguments I’ve read and heard today center on the idea that if you’re going to rest the players, why start them in the first place. The obvious counter-argument, generally offered by another talking head or as an aside in the column, is that you can’t give a team nearly a month off and expect them to be ready to play in the divisional round of the playoffs. “Then play them the entire game,” goes the counter to the counter, “You can get injured on any play.”

This is a dumb argument. I think it’s a good mathematical choice that Jim Caldwell made. He gets his front line players reps but at a reduced level. It’s not about eliminating the chance for injury, it’s about minimizing the chance. A calculated risk that Peyton, Dwight, etc. won’t pull a hammy or blow out a knee in two-plus quarters and that that work will be enough to have them in optimal condition for the first playoff game.

Perhaps a dumber argument I heard is that this puts doubt into the minds of the Colts players. They were humming along, 14-0, and now they’ve lost a game and they’ll start wondering if they’re really good enough.

Really? That makes no sense at all. I think this team, from its veteran leaders down to its rookies, is an incredibly smart squad that understands exactly what is at stake. They understand how to prepare for games, how to react to in-game challenges. Losing a game to a mediocre team because the coach pulled the starters in the third quarter is not going to make them question their talent, either individually or as a whole.

Jim Caldwell might just be a genius. He’s taken away the perfect season pressure. He’s made himself the bad guy. Now, instead of “Can you beat the Patriots/Chargers or are you going to lay another playoff egg?” the questions are going to be about him and his methods. Maybe he’s deftly adjusted what the line of questioning will be for the next month, removing the storylines that were already in place and putting himself at the center, knowing his team isn’t going to come apart because of it.

We’ll see. I think most people expect the Chargers to beat the Colts, if it comes down to that in the AFC title game. New ENgland is looking frisky again, and they did dominate the first three quarters of their loss in Indy last month. Nothing was guaranteed, regardless of what happened yesterday or next week in Buffalo. If the Colts win the Super Bowl, this will all blow over. If they lose along the way, Caldwell will obviously face a lot of off-season heat. Many of the same critics who are loudest today would also be screaming if Manning, Freeney, etc. had suffered an injury in the fourth quarter yesterday.

I’m not suggesting Caldwell’s choice can’t be questioned. I am saying many of the most outraged voices outside Indianapolis that I’ve heard today are making dumb arguments.