Colts' Coach Caldwell Fumbles Away Team's Season

Will JeffersonCorrespondent IDecember 28, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 27: Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts leaves the field following the game against the New York Jets at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 27, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Jets handed the Colts their first loss of the season, 29-15. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Jim Caldwell's decision to pull Colts starters from Sunday's game against the Jets will surely go down as one of the worst coaching decisions in history.

Indeed, Caldwell took away a great chance for the Colts to do something unprecedented in history. There are 43 Superbowl Champion teams, including these same Colts three years ago. There is no team that has finished a season 19-0.

If there was ever a year it would happen, this had to be it. The attention-- and pressure-- wasn't nearly the same as during the Patriots valiant try in 2007.

Already 14-0, the Colts had only 5 victories to go, and no one else at their level. 

Early in the season, the strongest threats looked to be the Giants and the Steelers. Victimized by costly losing streaks and inconsistent play, neither will even qualify for the playoffs. 

Most of the remaining threats (PatriotsSaints, Vikings) have gone somewhat south after strong starts.

Not the Colts. Not until now, anyway.

Judging by the sideline expression of Peyton Manning and other starters pulled by Caldwell, the decision was a stab in the back to the morale of this team.

Athletes are fiercely competitive. Their hatred of losing is part of what propels them to play, not to mention make it all the way to the top of the NFL. To essentially let yourself lose on purpose? Completely unpalatable. With a 14-0 perfect season on the line, in front of your home fans? Completely unimaginable.

During the game, Manning, a perfectionist by nature, along with other starters sidelined as the game slipped away, looked dejected to say the least.

After the game, Manning spoke in uncharacteristically strong fashion. He talked about the need for players to back the coach's decisions. He criticized player mistakes during the game, but not the coach. I would suggest these comments by Manning are clear signs of a locker-room newly divided-- by Caldwell's shocking move.

This unnecessary loss will also take away some of the intimidation factor the Colts' would have had if they remained unbeaten. That intimidation factor certainly worked in the Colts' favor earlier in the season when Bill Belichick tried his desperate fourth-down gamble against them, and handed the Colts victory from the jaws of defeat. If Belichick was intimidated, who wouldn't be intimidated by a Colts team 15-0 and counting?

In 2007, Giants coach Tom Coughlin took heat for playing his starters in a meaningless Week 17 game against the Patriots. Coughlin fiercely defended his decision, saying players must remain game-ready. Not only did the Giants win the next three weeks on the road to reach the Superbowl, but the confidence they had gained from their close-defeat to the Patriots playing all-out in Week 17 boosted their belief they could win, and laid the groundwork for the most improbable of upsets in that Superbowl.

Don't be surprised if the Jets' defeat of the Colts on Sunday has a similar-- or worse effect. Not only will it raise the confidence of challengers, but it will surely deflate the confidence of the Colts to see their team utterly collapse after the removal of Manning and a handful of other starters, against the Jets on Sunday.

There is also the issue of momentum in football. Just ask the Chargers, whose late-season winning-streaks the last few seasons have carried-over to the playoffs and helped them twice defeat these same Colts. Or the Saints, who one week removed from being 13-0, followed up their first loss of the season with another loss-- to the lowly Bucs.

As Coughlin showed, even the idea of resting starters is open to question. The Steelers are further proof. In 2007, the Steelers rested starters in their season finale, and were promptly upset by Jacksonville. Last year, Mike Tomlin said he had learned a lesson from that, and would never again rest his starters. The Steelers won the Superbowl.

This year, with the Colts having a first-round bye, resting starters as early as the second-last week of the season, as Caldwell did, means by the time their first playoff game arrives, it will have been four weeks since Manning and company played a full-game. That's a lot of time to develop rust and kinks in the machinery of complex 11-man units-- at least as big a threat as the threat of injury from playing.

I suspect this decision will come back to haunt the Colts. The most fitting irony would be if, like the 2007 Giants and Patriots, the Jets wind up playing the Colts again, and beat them.

But even if the Colts cruise to a Superbowl win, it will only add to the shame of what could have been, had Caldwell not turned his back on the spirit of sports by essentially purposefully letting his team lose.

Besides the obvious beneficiary of Caldwell's decision, Rex Ryan of the Jets, the only other coach I imagine would support Caldwell's decision is Don Shula, coach of the  1972 Miami Dolphins who finished 17-0. Prior to the game, no doubt Shula and his players had to be thinking this year's Colts were likely to eclipse their feat in the history books. This year, their rumored annual toast is surely being given to Jim Caldwell.