The playoffs may be upon us, but this year, there is a regular season white elephant in the room that refuses to go away:
Should a playoff-bound team—with its seeding already decided—rest its starters during late season, "meaningless" games?
Normally, the issue is merely an eye roll-inducing annoyance. Here's a typical Sunday conversation in late December:
Throw in the fact that the New England Patriots—a non-perfect team who still had their playoff destiny decided—lost star wide receiver Wes Welker for the year (when he could have sat), and well, there are arguments aplenty from coaches, players and fans alike.
In a sense, there are two sides to the topic.
On the one hand, there's the issue of perfection and whether or not it's worth risking injury to attain.
On the other hand, there's the question of competitive balance and whether or not it's kosher for the 12-3 teams to lay down for games that don't affect their big-picture playoff aspirations.
Here is a look at both sides. There is no clear cut answer; this article is mainly meant to spark the dialogue and debate.
Just how important is a perfect 16-0 regular season record?
Very, given that it's only happened twice. However, the poignancy of the accomplishment is somewhat diminished if the team doesn't go on to win the Super Bowl.
When Colts coach Jim Caldwell decided to bench his starters against the Jets a few weeks ago, the folks in Indy were as mad as if he'd have gone 1-15.
His logic, of course, was that a Lombardi Trophy in February was more important.
Of course, the poster boys for his argument are the 2007 Patriots.
Their three Super Bowl rings?
Or their 16-0 regular season that ultimately produced no championship hardware of note?
The answer is obvious.
Then again, continuity and momentum are potentially sacrificed when the star players are essentially put on a preseason routine.
Will the Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne of the divisional playoff round be the same crisp guys who ravaged defenses up until Week 15? Or will there be rust?
The question is rhetorical; in this case, the answer is not obvious.
Perfection aside—it's not every year that two teams burst out of the gate at 13-0—there's also the age-old issue of competitive balance.
In many ways, this is a very ambiguous concept.
Most would agree that a team that has locked up their playoff logistics shouldn't have to play their starters just because the competition committee decided that Joe Sixpack in section 335 deserves good football in December.
However, it could be argued that he does.
See, the NFL is not unlike the rock/pop star business model in that it is essentially the fans who make it the grand spectacle that it is.
Without them, it's a blase, semi-pro purgatory.
The other side of the argument, however, is perhaps best described by, yet again, those unfortunate Patriots.
Last week, with their playoff destiny decided, coach Belichick decided to play his starters, regardless.
The result? Wes Welker, arguably the MVP of the team, went down for the year with torn ACL's and MCL's, greatly weakening their shot at a return trip to the Super Bowl.
A revealing and ironic tidbit should be noted, however.
As mentioned, fans in Indy were up in arms over Caldwells' decision to bench his stars. However, most fans don't seem to be that upset of the needless injury to Welker.
Perhaps there is a noble grain of truth to playing hard all 16 games.
At any rate, the NFL's competition committee, as mentioned, review the issue this offseason.
What will they decide is anyone's guess.