You Play to Win the Game

Brett CooperContributor IDecember 27, 2008

Memo to the head coaches of the Colts, Titans, Giants, Steelers, and Cardinals, do not rest your players. Instead give your opponents your teams’ all and try to get a win and gain momentum into the playoffs. While conventional wisdom is to try to rest your players, to avoid injury and speed up the recovery process this is a model that has proved to be ineffective. Need convincing?

It was at exactly this time last season when the 2007 New York Giants improbable Super Bowl season took a turn for the better. Already having a Wild Card seed locked up and without anything to play for except pride, Giants coach Tom Coughlin ignored the common approach and decided to give the 15-0 New England Patriots all they had.

While the game ultimately ended in a loss, this was a game that the Giants played extremely well in and actually dominated at times, as evidenced by a 12 point lead with 19 minutes left in the game.

This impressive performance by the Giants and Eli Manning (22-32 for 251 yards with 4 touchdowns), gave them confidence that if they could play to the wire with the previously invincible Patriots; that they can play with anyone. You all know the rest of the story, the Giants than proceeded to beat the Buccaneers, Cowboys, and Packers, all on the road, and than went to Arizona where they were victorious against the previously undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.

This was a team that from one week and one game to the next, starting with the Week 17 loss against the Patriots, gained a confidence and swagger before our very eyes, and where a player (Manning) went from a question mark and possible goat into a hero and Super Bowl MVP.
To take off Week 17 when you have nothing to play for, and prepare for the playoffs is a tactic that can be characterized as both cowardly and unsuccessful. Of the past ten Super Bowl champions, only the 2007 New York Giants and 1999 St. Louis Rams lost in Week 17. A victory in the final game of the regular season will make your team feel good about themselves and as in the Giants’ case, maybe learn something about themselves that they didn’t know previously, which can propel them into a place in NFL lore. 

Championship teams do not rest players for fear of injury, instead they must have a mentality that if they lose a player or two in battle, the rest of the team, or their reserves can pick them up. This is a mentality the 2008 Giants have possessed ever since Plaxico Burress has been absent due to legal issues and injury.

It remains to be seen whether this team will be champions but one thing is for certain that they have a “champions” attitude, which began with that Week 17 game against the Pats. An attitude where they weren’t scared of injury or failure but instead were hungry to perform. This state of mind is one that Giants players bought in to and is a mentality that has made previously criticized coach Coughlin successful, and revered by both players and the media.

According to my theory, the Arizona Cardinals have already eliminated themselves from the playoffs. As I watched last week’s game in New England all I thought was how big a step-back the Cardinals have taken from earlier in the season when they looked like contenders.

Instead the Cardinals decided to rest their best player, Anquan Boldin (according to the Associated Press with the snow falling and already having the division clinched, the Cardinals decided to not play him) and pretty much put up a goose egg against the Patriots in a game that they were absolutely dominated and humiliated in. Could you see the Cardinals going into New England in bad conditions and beating them in the playoffs? No chance after that performance.

Not only do casual observers think they would have zero shot at a win like that, but the players start to doubt themselves after such a beatdown. 

A team that once looked like a possible Super Bowl team now looks like a probable first-round loser, all because they clinched a spot in the playoffs early and became too complacent, rather than striving to be as good as possible, and maintaining a mentality where they want to give New England everything they have.

They need to turn this attitude around anyway they can; Ken Whisenhunt, take my advice do whatever you can to right the ship, if it means keeping Kurt Warner in with your team up 30 points in the fourth quarter, than so be it. Do it!

In the words of Herm Edwards “You play to win the game”, this is a statement which is both obvious and direct but holds great meaning, a team should not play to not get injured or to rest up, but rather play to win, regardless of the circumstances. While my advice will probably not be taken seriously by Super Bowl contending coaches such as Tony Dungy, Jeff Fisher, Mike Tomlin, and possibly even Tom Coughlin (different circumstances than last year), it should be.

Momentum is such an underrated factor in a run to the Super Bowl, did you know that of the past eight Super Bowl champs only one was a No. 1 seed? This is evidence that regular season excellence is not overly important instead momentum and confidence is what it takes to win a championship.

Keep in mind the Steelers, the 2006 champs, were a No. 6 seed in the playoffs, after riding a wave of four straight wins on their way into the playoffs. So my word of advice for contenders, even if up big, you should keep your foot on the gas pedal, you never know when doubt can creep into your team, even a late touchdown against your second team defense versus the lowly Browns may not seem like much, but its possible it could have ramifications in the future. 

And if you don’t want to listen to me, than listen to Tom Coughlin who created the blueprint for how to turn around an under-achieving team into Super Bowl champions.