How Will Jim Caldwell Deal with Perfection?
As the Colts travel down to Jacksonville for a Thursday night showdown with the playoff-hungry Jaguars, the debate over who should rest and who should play the remaining three games on the schedule will rage on around the NFL.
The home win over the Broncos on Sunday, of course, secured home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs for Indianapolis, who's been in this situation twice before (2005 and 2007) under Tony Dungy. But never has Jim Caldwell experienced the chase for perfection and been forced to make such a critical decision as the head man.
Caldwell, who has the NFL record for most consecutive wins by a rookie head coach to start a season, will face burning questions in the following weeks over how he's going to deal with his star quarterback, Peyton Manning, and other key starters.
For a team that clinches that covete home field advantage, it becomes a delicate balance between resting players to prevent or heal injuries and playing starters to keep sharp. The wave of momentum that 22 straight victories has produced for the Colts also weighs heavily in the decision.
In the two previous season, Indy's shown a strong tendency to sit players in favor of rest for the playoffs. In both 2005 and 2007, however, the choice by Dungy resulted in early exits with gut-wrenching losses at home to Pittsburgh and San Diego, respectively.
With Caldwell now calling the shots as the new head man, the franchise ought to have learned from its past experiences.
Given that there'll be a month break between now and their first playoff bout, the Colts have to give starters quality game action down the stretch—at the very least a half for the likes of Manning—to prevent the rust that's burned the Colts on two occasions.
Two years ago, when the Patriots were chasing perfection, head coach Bill Belichick, you would have to say, took an unconventional approach to the stretch drive and it seemed to pay off, despite the fact New England lost in the most important game of the year.
When there was a serious chance his team would run the table and post the unprecedented 16-0 mark, Belichick played all his starters. He desperately wanted to etch his place in NFL history as the only coach to lead his team to a perfect record under the 16-game schedule.
The decision didn't result in any significant injuries and only put New England's potent offense in the record books for most points in a single season (589) and most TD passes. In the season finale against the Giants, Brady threw his 50th touchdown of the 2007 season to Randy Moss, who fittingly caught his record-breaking 23rd TD reception on the same play.
To the contrary, Indianapolis has historically taken the more conventional path of resting players, especially with a more conservative coach in Dungy at the helm.
In 2005, the Colts jumped out to an identical 13-0 record, clinching home field throughout the same week after a 26-14 victory in Jacksonville, coincidentally.
While Dungy elected to play most of his starters against San Diego the following Sunday, they dropped their first game of the season at the old RCA Dome.
The weight of the perfect season subsided, and the Colts' head coach made the executive decision of benching most of his starters in a Christmas Eve showdown with Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. Indianapolis lost its second in a row against the Super Bowl-bound Seahawks and were reeling after winning the first 13 contests.
A win over Arizona closed out an impressive 14-2 regular season mark, but Manning was only under center for the first possession.
By the time the Colts faced a meaningful game—a divisional matchup with the sixth-ranked Pittsburgh Steelers—Manning hadn't played a full game for over three weeks, since the Chargers defeat. It showed in the divisional playoff game at home, as Indy disappointed the home crowd with the 21-18 upset loss.
Two years after the debacle—and only a season removed from the franchise's first Super Bowl title—the Colts conducted business in an eerily similar fashion after a quick 7-0 start.
They won six of their last seven games to finish 13-3 and secured a first-round bye, and while Dungy chose not to sit out players until the season finale against Tennessee, the same result ensued. Indy was once again ousted in the divisional round by a red-hot Chargers team that won in the last-ever game played at the RCA Dome.
A trend that's seen the Indianapolis clinch home field every two seasons has come to light in 2009. This season, it's now Caldwell, as a first-year NFL head coach, who has the dubious task of choosing whether to sit or play his starting quarterback as well as other key starters on the Colts' roster.
He will likely go down the path of his predecessor, Dungy, but has said this week he'll field "healthy" starters on Thursday against the Jaguars. It's a philosophy that's foreign to the Colts organization, but one that'll be crucial to a deep playoff run in January. Recent history tell us that Manning should be taking snaps the rest of the season—because nothing compares to strapping up the pads and playing at game speed every Sunday.
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