Don Shula and his 1972 Miami Dolphins can rest easy. Their record perfect season remains safe for at least another year thanks to Indianapolis Colts rookie head coach's decision not to go for the record by pulling Peyton Manning and many other starting players. End result, Colts blew a 15-10 3rd quarter lead and lost their bid for perfection. Perhaps, they've lost more than just one game.
Indianapolis (14-1) was the lone undefeated team left in the NFL after Dallas beat previously unbeaten New Orleans last weekend. Indy soon found themselves subjected to fan and football analyst scuttlebutt questioning whether or not it is in a teams best interest to play for perfection or to rest regular players in an attempt to keep them fresh for the playoffs and shield them from sustaining injury.
Only two NFL clubs completed perfect regular seasons. 1972 Miami finished 14-0 before sweeping playoff opponents, ending 17-0 (Super Bowl Champs). It was New England's turn to run the tables in 2007 (16-0). They became the first to sweep a 16 game regular season schedule before being stunned by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII preserving Miami's place in history.
Colts rookie coach Jim Caldwell made a bold move pulling Indy's starters with 5:36 left in 3rd quarter leading 15-10. Perfection was only 5+ quarters away. The Colts were labeled an aging team on decline heading into 2009. Peyton Manning had been enjoying an MVP caliber season securing victories with 4th quarter game winning drives. A playoff atmosphere surrounded yesterday's game as the NY Jets were fighting to survive another week in the AFC wild card hunt. Manning had kept the NFL's top defense at bay. A perfect season was firmly at hand. A win yesterday and only one team stood in their way of history and I doubt if any sane person thinks Buffalo could beat a full strength Colts squad. There's only one way Caldwell's decision will be vindicated. Indianapolis must win the Super Bowl for the Colts coach to survive intense scrutiny and criticism.
Indy fans were not at all happy with their coaches decision. CBS kept focusing in on a visibly upset Peyton Manning as he watched helplessly from the Colts sidelines as replacement teammates fumbled and bumbled their way to defeat. Instantly, Indy fans blogged, Twittered, heckled and booed. Analysts differed on their critiques of Caldwell. Personally, I can't believe he pulled the plug and forfeited a perfect season. Yes, I said forfeit! Much more was at stake than resting players for playoff games which will not begin for another month. Caldwell claims it was strictly to protect his players. Here's a few press conference quotes (as reported on Espn.com):
"It's probably my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. I can focus in. I
can narrow my scope," Caldwell said, according to the Indianapolis Star.
"Once you make a decision, you have to live with it. You certainly weigh all
the options before. You take a look at all the things that could occur. But once
that decision is done, you keep moving."
Team President Polian chimed in to protect his coach. "Football logic has to come into play, and that logic is it makes no sense to have guys out there with the potential for injuries," Polian said. "We played for 16 weeks, sharp as any team in football. The good thing is that none of this mattered in the standings."
Even Peyton Manning, the ultimate professional who was clearly upset standing on the sidelines watching a perfect season go to out the window, put his best foot forward afterwards:
"Until any player in here is the head coach, you follow orders and you follow
them with all of your heart," Manning said after the game. "That's what we've
done as players. We follow orders. Our orders were not to give up a turnover,
not to give up a kick return for a touchdown. There's not many games, under any
circumstances, that you win when you have turnovers and give up a kick return
for a touchdown."
Ok, Manning. Way to try regrouping the troops. Clearly, not many were on board with Caldwell. It's one thing to want to protect your players. I'm all for it. But, was it necessary do pull Manning with 5:36 left to go? Take this into account too. The New York Jets are fighting to make the playoffs and Indy owed it to fairness of competition to continue playing hard with plenty of time left in the game. Once the starters were pulled a great contest turned into a one sided joke. The Jets prevailed 29-15 putting themselves in the proverbial drivers seat trying to extend their season. Other teams were either eliminated or face stiff hurdles if they're to make the playoffs.
From day one in pre-season "perfection" is preached in every aspect of the game, on and off the field. Coaches attempt to devise perfect training camps, practices and game plans. Players are taught and practice executing plays to perfection. The goal in every football contest is to win, period. So, how does an organization give away a perfect season? And, then to fluff it off as if it doesn't mean anything in the greater picture. Hogwash! I doubt there's a single Colts player who isn't disappointed today. It's one thing to lose a game putting your best foot forward. It's another to give up.
Caldwell's decision wasn't prudent even if the Colts go on to win it all. He could have pulled the plug midway into the fourth quarter and players would have understood even if their understudies blew it. There was simply too much time left in yesterday's game for any Colt to take this loss in stride. And there's another key point. Did Caldwell's move just disrupt team chemistry? With a perfect season now long gone will Caldwell rest everyone in game 16? There's nothing left to play for. Indy has clinched AFC's best record and first round bye. Buffalo isn't involved in playoff consideration. So, might as well not play any regulars right? If players know this then how does a rookie perfection forfeiting head coach keep these guys focused until their first playoff game on January 16th? Yes, that's right, January 16th.
Just think of the thunderous confidence a perfect season would have created in the hearts and minds of Indianapolis players? Losing ugly yesterday to the Jets forfeited a perfect season. If Colts replacements get knocked off by Buffalo ... then, what happens to team chemistry? What happens to team chemistry on the field when not facing live action for 3 weeks? January 16th is too far down the road. Caldwell's decision may have far reaching consequences he never imagined. Perfection was in the Colts grasp. Only winning Super Bowl XLIV can save their season now.
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