NFL Reality Check: Better to Shut Down or Rest Stars, at Expense of 'Integrity'

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NFL Reality Check: Better to Shut Down or Rest Stars, at Expense of 'Integrity'
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Last week, NFL legend John Madden said resting a team's top players in a league with only 16 regular-season contests "affects the integrity of the game."

Madden was talking on the NFL's channel on SiriusXM this past Wednesday, specifically in response to the Washington Redskins' decision to bench Robert Griffin III for the remainder of the regular season for what head coach Mike Shanahan has led the public to believe is the quarterback's own protection.

Madden's longer quote, via NFL.com, was not just about the Redskins, but a forewarning to any NFL team that takes its foot off the regular-season pedal at the end of the year: 

This is still regular-season football. Draft order, that's one small thing, but you still owe it to the people that are playing, that are still in the playoff picture. And when you can affect that and you don't affect it with an all-out performance, then I think that affects the integrity of the game. ... If you're in the regular season, there's only one way to play, and that's to play your best people to win the game, every regular-season game.

As much as I love Madden and—like many gridiron fans—long for the simpler days of smash-mouth football, this is not the 1970s anymore. Madden's logic is antiquated, outdated and old school for all the wrong reasons.

Integrity is not tallied up in the standings.

The NFL does not give out credit for wins, losses and honor.

Does resting star players hurt the integrity of the NFL?

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If Mike Shanahan, or any coach, thought it was in his team's best interest to rest a player, we can question the decision, but it's unfair to question his integrity to the game, especially when the stated reason is to protect the health and safety of a star player.

Now, it is fair to suggest Shanahan may not have been completely forthright with his reasoning for benching RGIII. The season in Washington is lost, and while a few extra reps may do the second-year quarterback a world of good in three meaningless* games, giving another second-year guy—in this case, backup quarterback Kirk Cousins—a shot may be better for the franchise in the long run.

The Redskins have an opportunity to see what they have in Cousins. If Sunday's game is any indication of his ability, they know they have had a pretty serviceable quarterback holding the clipboard most of the year. Cousins went 29-of-45 for 381 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and a lost fumble against the moribund Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Cousins did drive the Redskins to a late touchdown that could have tied the game, but Shanahan decided to go for the two-point conversion to try to get his team a win. The conversion failed, and the Redskins lost again.

Did going for two on the road against a team with similar draft implications show a lack of integrity on Shanahan's part? What do the old-school rules say about the integrity of playing for overtime?

 

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Playing for What? The Future.

In all likelihood, Shanahan will not be the head coach of the Redskins next season. If we take him at his word and believe he benched RGIII to protect the quarterback's health, in doing so Shanahan was hurting the chance of keeping his job in an effort to help the franchise long after he is gone.

First, by not playing RGIII in three meaningless* games, Shanahan is protecting the team's investment for the future. Whether he needs the reps or not, we can't deny the fact that RGIII standing on the sidelines is safer than him taking a pounding under center.

Second, giving Cousins three games to start enables Washington to see what they have in their other second-year quarterback, to decide whether to trade him in the offseason. If Cousins plays well the last three weeks, the Redskins may be able to leverage his success into a positive trade, also helping the team in the future.

Third, if Cousins plays really well in the last few games, the Redskins could go in to next season with an open competition for the starting quarterback position. Regardless of who wins the job next year, the competition would be great for both players and the team.

All three of those reasons—again, if you believe Shanahan at his word—shows an incredible amount of integrity for a coach who probably won't see this plan come to fruition.

Shanahan is helping the future of his franchise, even at his own peril. How is that not showing integrity?

Oh, right…because of the relative meaninglessness* of those last three games. 

 

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The Tanking Issue

It's funny that tanking—losing games on purpose to ensure a better draft position for next year—is such an enormous issue in the NBA, which employs a lottery system for non-playoff teams, but not the NFL, which simply lists the teams based on reverse order of record and tiebreakers to determine each year's draft.

In any other year, the Redskins' loss to Atlanta would have ultimately helped Washington more than a win. The loser of that game would be in line for the second overall pick in next year's draft. Of course, Washington traded its 2014 first-round pick to the Rams as part of the deal to get RGIII in the 2012 NFL draft, so there is absolutely no reason for Washington to tank this year. Benching RGIII had nothing to do with draft position.

The Falcons, however, should totally be tanking. The season is lost, and unless Mike Smith feels he is coaching each week to retain his job—a preposterous notion considering Atlanta had the best record in the NFC last season—it's in the best interest of his franchise for Smith to rest his star players as well, giving backups a chance to get time while protecting those few stars who haven't already been decimated by maladies from getting an injury that, at this point in the year, may impact next season as well.

Integrity? Every team that's out of it should be resting key players, especially at quarterback.

 

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Star Safety Supersedes Integrity

The number of quarterbacks in the NFL who have thrown more than 20 passes this season currently stands at 52, which is the same number of quarterbacks to start a game this year. Five teams have started three or more quarterbacks this season, most due to repeated injury issues at the position.

If a team has the opportunity to protect a player from getting hurt in a late-season situation, why not do that?

There is no greater good in the NFL. There should be no sense of obligation for one team to play its best players at the risk of getting someone injured because the outcome of a game may impact next year's draft or this year's playoff seeding.

 

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Meaningless* to Some…Not Others

Atlanta plays at San Francisco next week in a meaningless game for the Falcons but a potentially enormous game for the 49ers.

If the Cardinals beat the Seahawks next week, Seattle will be 12-3 and a win over Atlanta would put the 49ers within striking distance of the NFC West title on the season's final week. A loss to Atlanta would provide life for Arizona, as the Cardinals and 49ers face off in Week 17 for what could be a playoff play-in if things shake out well for the Cardinals next week. 

The Cowboys play the Redskins next week, while the Eagles—one game up in the NFC East—host the playoff-contending Bears. A Cowboys win over Washington guarantees that the matchup between Dallas and Philadelphia in Week 17 will have meaning. A Dallas loss, coupled with an Eagles win or tie, would end the division race before the season's final game. 

What is meaningless to some may not be for others. But that still doesn't mean Atlanta or Washington or any other team with no hope for the playoffs should put its best players at risk.

Adrian Peterson has no reason other than pride and statistics to get back on the field this year, but his presence on the field next week would impact the AFC playoff race. Cincinnati, which plays Minnesota, could find itself in a tussle for the AFC North and will face competition with Indianapolis for the third or fourth seed in the AFC.

The Giants face the Lions next week in a game that will absolutely have an impact on the outcome of the NFC North. Should the Giants play Eli Manning just because it adds some level of perceived integrity to the contest?

Doesn't it make more sense, at this point in the season, for the Giants to see what other options they have at quarterback for next year?

It does. It just does. The Giants should throw rookie Ryan Nassib to the NFL wolves for two games because that decision can help them in the future. Even though head coach Tom Coughlin has said he has no intention of playing Nassib "at this point in time," per Dave Hutchinson of The Star-Ledger, the Giants owe it to themselves to see what they have in the fourth-round pick at the end of a season in which, frankly, Manning has looked atrocious. 

You want to talk about integrity? How is putting Eli out there for two more games this year showing anyone in the league—especially the Giants fans—anything close to integrity?

 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Rest The Best

Let us forget about the Redskins, Falcons and all the other teams with no shot at the playoffs for a moment and focus, instead, at those teams who are already in the postseason tournament. 

Should the Colts rest Andrew Luck for a week before the playoffs begin? Should Russell Wilson play even one down in Week 17 if the Seahawks don't need a victory? Should the Saints rest Drew Brees in Week 17 if they can?

Let's take these questions individually, because each answer helps explain why Madden's notion of integrity is faulty, and patently unfair to teams trying to win the Super Bowl. 

That is the ultimate goal, right? Winning a Super Bowl.

The Colts have already won the AFC South and are in a two-week fight with Cincinnati for the third or fourth seed. The third seed in the AFC playoffs will most likely get to host either the Dolphins or the Ravens while the fourth seed will host either the Broncos or the Chiefs.

The Bengals beat the Colts this season, so if Cincinnati defeats Minnesota, Indianapolis loses at Kansas City and New England wins at Baltimore, the final week of the season will have no meaning for Indianapolis. So is it OK for the Colts to rest their stars because they face the moribund Jaguars in the last game?

What if the Colts were playing the Ravens, Broncos or Patriots in a game that didn't matter for Indy? 

Should an opponent's playoff standing impact how a coach prepares his own team for the postseason?

Seattle is a win or a San Francisco loss away from securing home field in the NFC, which will give Pete Carroll no reason to play his stars in the season finale against the Rams. The NFL recently configured its schedules to include a full slate of division games in the season's final week. This was part of a concerted effort to curtail potential tanking. The logic is that most division games will matter in some way, so putting one at the end of the season could prevent teams from taking that week off.

Is it fair for Seattle to take that week off because the NFL gave the Seahawks the Rams, not the Cardinals or 49ers, who may still be playing for something in Week 17? 

Is there any lack of integrity in keeping guys healthy for the playoffs? After all, there are only 16 regular-season games, and the fans are paying for those seats. Or something like that.

And what about the Saints? New Orleans can clinch the NFC South with a victory over Carolina in Week 16 and, at 11-4 and holding two victories over the Panthers, would be guaranteed a first-round bye in the playoffs regardless of the final week's outcome.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The Saints lost to the Seahawks this season, putting the No. 1 seed out of reach if Seattle also wins next week, so if the Seahawks beat the Cardinals in Week 16 and the Saints beat the Panthers next week—a big if, considering both the game is in Carolina where the Panthers are 6-1 and the Saints have struggled on the road this season at 3-4—New Orleans would be locked in to the second spot in the NFC.

Would the integrity of the league come into question with New Orleans playing against Tampa Bay? After all, the Bucs aren't a playoff team, so it shouldn't matter, right? 

Wrong. Greg Schiano was certainly on one of the hottest seats in the league earlier in the season, but a run of more competitive results that included four wins may help the second-year coach get a third year in charge. A win over the Saints, on the road, could go a long way toward keeping his job. 

Do the Saints owe it to the league to give their best effort when jobs are on the line, or just playoff spots?

 

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Health and Safety

In August, Madden was asked about how teams plan to defend the read-option quarterback this season. This was his reply, also published on NFL.com:

"Every guy I've talked to is going to go after the quarterback," Madden said, via Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times. "That's going to be their answer. If you watch what they did last year, a lot of guys played the quarterback. If he pitches, get off him. If he keeps it, tackle him. Now, they're just going to go after him whether he pitches or not."

Four months ago, Madden admitted that everyone he's talked to has a game plan to physically target the read-option quarterback. Griffin is a read-option quarterback, coming off a severe injury, and his coach has stated the reason for his benching is to protect him for the future now that the team's season is lost.

Essentially, Madden—and anyone who agrees with him—has suggested that the Redskins owe it to the league to put RGIII in harm's way against teams that have been taught to attack him whether he has the ball or not because his presence on the field theoretically makes the game more competitive, even if that presence leads to an injury that could ruin another season for Washington. Why? Because the Dallas game might matter, and because there are only 16 games each year, so they all matter.

Because, football. That's why.

In the NFC South, the Falcons host the Panthers in the final week of the season in a game that could determine whether Carolina or New Orleans wins the division and gets a first-round bye or has to travel on the road in the Wild Card Round. As banged up as the Falcons have been all season, is that game worth risking an injury to Matt Ryan or another star player, just to give the archrival Saints a better chance to get to the Super Bowl?

In today's game, with player safety as big an issue as ever, where is the integrity in that?

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