I thought hard about one of sport's most meaningful quotes as I watched the Indianapolis Colts' improbable last second victory Thursday night over the Houston Texans. Stuck in my head was former New York Jets coach Herman Edwards’ unforgettable mantra: “You play to win the game.” Playing to win is the very essence of sports.
Two years ago, the Colts were on the verge of an undefeated regular season. But coaches and management opted to rest certain players so they would be healthy for the playoff run. As a result the Colts lost the last two games to finish the regular season 14-2. Indianapolis fans have never forgiven Colts’ management for not trying to win every game in 2009.
The Colts did win two playoff games and they went to the Super Bowl, but they would lose a close hard fought game to the New Orleans Saints.
Many have come to believe that the Colts are still suffering from the karmic consequences of a season spoiling decision.
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning’s career is in doubt because of three neck surgeries in 19 months. Manning has not played a game this year and the Colts have had one of the worst seasons in team history.
But there was one ironically shining light in all of this. Two weeks ago the Colts were 0-13 and were leading by a couple of laps in the race to get the first pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Once rabid Colts fans have even been cheering for the team to lose in order to ensure the Colts get to draft first.
But some would say a remarkable thing happened this week—with two straight wins, the Colts are on a winning streak, yet may have run out of Luck.
Two wins in five days would normally be reason to celebrate, but many Colts fans now worry that the chance to secure Peyton Manning’s future replacement—Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck—has been jeopardized. Draft experts say Luck is destined to be the NFL’s next great quarterback. But things are not always what they seem. Andrew Luck has not taken a snap in an NFL uniform or thrown an NFL touchdown pass.
Through the years, there is a long line of “can’t miss” players who have in fact missed badly. But history also registers a fair number of formerly unheralded quarterbacks like Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana and Tom Brady, who defied the odds against them to become legendary NFL icons.
Yes, the Indianapolis Colts will soon have to make a decision about Peyton Manning’s future. And it might be a painful one that may force him to retire or move on to another team. Or they may decide he still has great games left and keep him. But that decision is for another day. Sports are best enjoyed in the moment. What I witnessed Thursday night during and after the game reinforces that opinion.
I saw an injured Peyton Manning on the sideline passionately encouraging his struggling teammates to persevere even though he could not be on the field with them.
I saw journeyman quarterback Dan Orlovsky execute the most important two-minute drive of his career, capped off by the game-winning touchdown.
I saw veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who may have suited up for his last home game for the Colts, play like the star he always has been and catch Orlovsky’s game clinching TD pass.
I saw players and fans joyously relieved to see that their team is not nearly as bad as the 2-13 record seems to indicate.
The Colts played with heart and effort to beat the Texans. And their often motley defense actually looked strong throughout much of the game.
Playing to win is always the right thing to do, even if it risks injury to valued players, and even if it risks the loss of a top draft pick. Winning and honest effort cures a lot of ills. Teams turn around quickly in the NFL.
The point is, resting players to try to keep them injury free is almost always a bad strategy, just as fans hoping their team loses games to guarantee a chance at a top draft pick is equally bad form and probably bad karma.