Rams Are Dragging the 'Rest the Starters' Debate into the New Millennium

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 28, 2017

Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay talks with quarterback Jared Goff during the first half of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Millennials are killing playoff momentum!

The Rams have already clinched the NFC West, but they cannot earn a first-round bye when they face the 49ers on Sunday. They are locked into either the third or fourth seed in the NFC playoffs, guaranteeing them one home playoff game and, should they win that, one road game in either Philadelphia, Minnesota or Carolina.

The advantage of a third seed over a fourth in the NFC is so miniscule that the Rams have almost nothing to play for this week. And head coach Sean McVay, a refreshing 31-year old slice of avocado toast in a profession dominated by fogeys, knows it.

"Being locked into that third or fourth seed—every single game is important—but I think it will provide an opportunity for us to potentially get some guys healthier, rest them, give some other guys a chance to step up," McVay said in his Tuesday press conference.

"That's a luxury that we want to take advantage of," McVay continued. "And everything that we do is what we think is best for our football team."

That's right, old-timers: The Rams are going to rest their starters, conventional wisdom be damned, even though they technically still have something to play for.

And because McVay is a hip, young trendsetter, this newfangled line of reasoning is already catching on.

Mike Tomlin, who isn't all that old but is definitely old-school, is considering resting Steelers starters in the season finale against the Browns, even though the Steelers still hold slim hopes of earning home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin
Steelers coach Mike TomlinKeith Srakocic/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I'm undecided as I stand here right now," Tomlin said when asked about resting starters. "It's obvious that those types of discussions are in play."

Home-field advantage in the AFC is far more important to the Steelers than the third seed in the NFC is to the Rams. Tomlin is mulling the risk of conceding a likely AFC Championship Game in Foxborough against the risk of losing Ben Roethlisberger or Le'Veon Bell and making a Super Bowl run impossible, regardless of where the games are played.

Antonio Brown just suffered a partially torn calf muscle in Week 15, so the potential of losing an indispensable player is still fresh in Tomlin's mind. The Steelers also need the Jets to beat the Patriots to give them a crack at the top seed. If Tomlin needs help deciding whether to rest his starters, he just needs to watch 30 seconds of Bryce Petty tape. His next stop will be Landry Jones' locker to tell Big Ben's backup the good news.

The Chiefs, stranded on the same plateau as the Rams, will also rest key starters in Week 17, as head coach Andy Reid confirmed Wednesday. That means No. 10 overall pick Patrick Mahomes will make his NFL debut, which will delight Chiefs fans who are certain he is better than Alex Smith anyway.

"Rest the starters" controversies used to apply only to teams locked into precise playoff positions, especially those that had clinched home-field advantage. Even then, they usually involved lots of hemming and hawing from coaches who feared a team that won 13 games would suddenly rust like pickup trucks on cinder blocks if the veterans took a few days off.

But McVay and more experienced coaches are now more carefully and realistically weighing the marginal value of a slight playoff seeding advantage against the potential of a devastating injury and the rest-and-recuperation benefits for the players on the injury report.

One look at the NFL's injured reserve list for this season, which is far more impressive than either Pro Bowl roster, should be enough to make any coach wary of a devastating injury.

As for the benefits of a week off: Two of the Rams' top offensive linemen, 36-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth and 32-year-old center John Sullivan, are older than their head coach. Both have been on reduced practice schedules for weeks to keep them fresh and healthy. They don't need reps; they need a break. And if your center and left tackle aren't playing, the quarterback and Pro Bowl running back shouldn't even strap on a helmet.

But what about momentum, that mighty mystical force which binds the universe together and punishes teams that dare to look past meaningless late-season games?

Momentum is mostly a hobgoblin of little minds. It's something fans worry about because we think that if we stop paying attention to football for one week, the home team does as well. Among old-school coaches, momentum is part superstitionthese are men who repeat "establish the run" like an incantation before calling 55 passing plays per game—and part cautionary reminder that some NFL players will book a party boat instead of extra whirlpool time the moment they find out they have a Sunday off.

There is a smidgen of merit to adopting a business-as-usual, win-at-all-costs approach to barely meaningful late-season games. NFL teams thrive on habits and routines, and some locker rooms are  equipped to handle a late-season loss or a change in routine better than others.

Jaguars coach Doug Marrone
Jaguars coach Doug MarroneStephen B. Morton/Associated Press/Associated Press

Take the Jaguars. Like the Rams, they are locked into either the third or fourth seed. A loss to the Titans on Sunday would spark an immediate rematch against the Titans the following week in Jacksonville. While the Titans beat the Jaguars early in the season, they are a familiar and relatively weak foe compared to other possible opponents such as the Ravens (notoriously obnoxious in the postseason) or Chargers (veteran quarterback, scary pass rush).

Jaguars coach Doug Marrone (and team overseer Tom Coughlin) won't be resting any starters, despite the potential injury risk and possible benefit of losing. 

The Jaguars are a young team carrying a decade of baggage as sad sacks, coming off a tough road loss to the 49ers. Marrone and Coughlin need to send the kind of message to their players that Tomlin doesn't have to send. The veterans in the Steelers locker room won't be crippled by self-doubt if Landry Jones coughs up a game to the Browns, but the Jaguars are just learning what playoff football is all about.

That's what makes McVay's decision so interesting. The Rams are the NFC's version of the Jaguars. McVay's youth makes him an easy coach to second-guess. There's safety in conventional wisdomthat's practically the NFL coaching credoso soldiering on in to appease the gods of momentum would earn him nods from the coaching establishment.

But McVay became the NFL's wunderkind and got the Rams to the playoffs by turning conventional wisdom on its head. Risking injuries in the Rams' situation is a lousy percentage play, even factoring in their playoff inexperience and other intangibles, and he isn't afraid to talk about it. And in a season dominated by devastating injuries, established coaches like Tomlin are also getting the message.

If the Rams rest starters Sunday, they'll be steamrolled by the Jimmy Garoppolo Experience (formerly the San Francisco 49ers). They will then be rested and ready for wild-card visitors like the Seahawks, Falcons or Saints, all of whom were forced to play at full steam in Week 17.

A win in the wild-card round will likely put the Rams in position to face the top-seeded Eagles, a team that lost MVP candidate (and Goff contemporary) Carson Wentz a few weeks ago and spent Christmas night looking like an overhyped version of the Ravens against a bad opponent. The Eagles are the most vulnerable No. 1 playoff seed in recent memory, which likely factors into McVay's decision.

There are many variables to consider when deciding whether to rest starters in a game that still impacts tiebreaker technicalities, from future matchups to nagging ailments which never quite made the injury report. 

McVay gets it. And the next generation of coaches will follow his lead.

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