I can't read Jim Caldwell's mind, and could only give a rough opinion on why he pulled Peyton Manning and several other starters in second half of the Indianapolis Colts' loss to the New York Jets on Sunday.
If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say he either wanted to take measures against an injury in the last twenty-plus minutes of play, or, perhaps, he wanted to prevent showing any potential playoff opponents a chink in the Colts' armor.
His team, which had scored 27 or more points in ten of its first 14 games, was being held reasonably in check by arguably the best overall defense in the NFL.
Why give Bill Belichick or Norv Turner or Marvin Lewis another quarter-plus of game tape that could give them an idea for slowing your team down in the playoffs?
Colts fans, now that the sting of not going undefeated is hopefully wearing off, should hope for one thing this Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, though: four full—or very close to full—quarters of all the starters, especially Peyton Manning.
Let's take a look at the last ten Super Bowl winners, and what the coach did to rest his starting quarterback in Week 17.
2006 Colts: Peyton Manning was not rested in Week 17.
2005 Steelers: Roethlisberger was not rested in Week 17.
2003 Patriots: Brady was not rested in Week 17.
2002 Buccaneers: Brad Johnson did not play in Week 17.
2001 Patriots: Brady was not rested in Week 17.
2000 Ravens: Trent Dilfer was not rested in Week 17.
Of ten Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks in the past decade, then, only one was fully rested in the last game of the regular season and two were rested for one half. The rest were on full-time duty until the final whistle of the regular season.
And one could argue that Brad Johnson, the only one fully rested in the final game of the season, was the most ineffectual of any of those Super Bowl champion quarterbacks.
Love him, hate him, or indifferent (possible?), Bill Belichick has this figured out.
Three Super Bowl wins in four trips with Tom Brady at the helm, and he seems never to have given the slightest thought to resting Brady to preserve him for a playoff run.
There could be a handful of reasons for the starters playing all the way through.
Eli Manning, for example, was pushing for a playoff spot that Saturday night in Giants Stadium in 2007. Regardless of the reasoning behind the coach's decision in each individual situation, though, the result remains the same.
In recent history, ninety percent of starting Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks play at least half of Week 17.
We see a similar, if a little less definitive result, when we look at the best regular-season teams over the same time frame.
Following are the teams who finished the season with the best regular-season record, any rest given the starting QB in Week 17, and their playoff result. (Note that in 2002 three teams tied for the best record in the NFL and all are listed.)
2008 Titans: Kerry Collins rested almost all of Week 17. The Titans had a Round 1 bye and lost their first playoff game in the Division Round.
2007 Patriots: Brady was not rested. The Patriots lost the Super Bowl.
2006 Chargers: Phillip Rivers was not rested. The Chargers had a Round 1 bye and lost their first playoff game in the Division Round.
2005 Colts: Peyton Manning was rested most of Week 16 and almost all of Week 17. The Colts had a Round 1 bye and lost their first playoff game in the Division Round.
2004 Steelers: Roethlisberger did not play Week 17. The Steelers lost the Conference Championship Game.
2003 Patriots: Brady was not rested. The Patriots won the Super Bowl.
2002 Buccaneers: Brad Johnson did not play in Week 17. The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.
2001 Rams: Kurt Warner was not rested. The Rams lost the Super Bowl.
2000 Titans: Steve McNair was rested the last half of Week 17. The Titans had a Round 1 bye and lost their first playoff game in the Division Round.
1999 Jaguars: Mark Brunell did not play Week 17. The Jaguars lost the Conference Championship Game.
Again, I'll ignore what reason a team may or may not have had for granting their starting quarterback rest at the end of the regular season and focus on the result.
Also note that the three teams with the best record in 2002 were in the same conference, which will skew the results since only two of them can reach the Conference Championship Game and only one of the three can reach the Super Bowl.
In those twelve examples, only four of the best regular-season teams chose to not rest their starting quarterback in Week 17.
Two of them went to the Super Bowl and lost, one went to the Super Bowl and won, and only one, Rivers in 2006, failed to reach the Conference Championship Game.
Only one quarterback in the past decade—again, the relatively ineffectual Brad Johnson—won the Super Bowl after resting Week 17 on a team with the best regular season record.
Of the four starting QBs whose teams had first round byes and lost their first playoff game, three were rested in Week 17.
The most extreme case of rest is Peyton Manning sitting most of Weeks 16 and 17 in 2005, then having a bye for the Wild Card round.
After being given most of three weeks off, his Colts were defeated 21-18 by the Steelers in a game that was not as close as the score indicated, and in which the Colts offense sputtered until the fourth quarter, when they scored 15 of their 18 points.
There's nothing I can see in the recent history of the NFL that suggests resting a starting quarterback maximizes the chances of an exceptional regular season team in the playoffs.
If we apply the above only to the Colts during the six completed years of the terrific seven-season run they are on, here's what we find.
2003: Manning plays all of Week 17. The Colts lose the Conference Championship Game.
2004: Manning plays enough of Week 17 to keep his games-started streak alive and sits most of the game. Colts win their Wild Card round game, lose in the Division round.
2005: Manning rests most of Week 16 and plays enough of Week 17 to keep his games-started streak alive and sits most of the game. The Colts have a bye in Round 1, and lose their first playoff game in the Division round.
2006: Manning is not rested. The Colts win the Super Bowl.
2007: Manning is rested for half of Week 17. The Colts have a bye in Round 1, and lose their first playoff game in the Division round.
2008: Manning plays enough of Week 17 to keep his games-started streak alive and sits most of the game. The Colts lose the Wild Card round game.
Manning played all of Week 17 twice in this great regular-season run the Colts have been on 2003 and 2006. These are the only two instances of the Colts going to the Conference Championship Game or further in that run.
When he has sat in Week 17, or Weeks 16 and 17, Indianapolis has been eliminated shy of their potential based on regular season success and the quality of the team "on paper."
I'd love to chalk all this up to some strange coincidence, or say it's a result of a small sample size.
So I went back ten more years, and did not find a single Super Bowl-winning starting quarterback who was rested for all of Week 17 from 1989-1998.
Several played the first half and sat the second, several played all of the final week, but none were sat for all or most of a regular season finale.
Above I noted that 90 percent of winning Super Bowl quarterbacks this decade played at least half of their team's final regular season game.
Roll it back another decade, and the percentage increases to 95 percent.
To an extent, I can understand rest for a player in a sport in which timing with a teammate is not an integral part of their game.
Tiger Woods, perhaps, or Tim Lincecum, who typically plays only one in five games while maintaining a routine between starts to prep for that fifth day.
For them, their own personal mechanics are the most important thing.
But for a player whose success does rely on a perfectly-timed backdoor cut through the lane, centering pass or slant route, the benefit of rest can be outweighed by the potential pitfalls that stem from a lack of repeating those plays with the others who compose them.
For anyone who would cry, "But our starting quarterback could get hurt in a meaningless game!" I say this: The last time Peyton Manning did not start an Indianapolis Colts game (December 21, 1997), wasn't because Manning was hurt, it's because he was prepping for the Orange Bowl.
The interruption of his rhythm this season is not worth the lightning-strike chance that the Buffalo Bills will injure one of the toughest players in the NFL this weekend, if they are fortunate enough to get to him in the first place.
The well-oiled machine should remain oiled, all the way through the end of Sunday's game against Buffalo.
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