The Error of Jim Caldwell

February 11, 2010 at 12:30 am | Posted in NFL | Leave a comment
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I had been wondering for about a month whether Jim Caldwell’s decision to rest his starters in week 16 of the regular season was going to come back and bite him. Many football pundits did, too. Would the Indianapolis Colts regret not going for perfection in December? They were 14-0, and while they weren’t blowing opponents out, they weren’t making mistakes and allowing opponents opportunities. Peyton Manning’s play had been a revelation this year. He was showing the world that he could outplay his positional rival who had bested him the majority of his career: the New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady. He was also showing the world that he could outthink his intellectual rival who had bested him the majority of his career: the New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick.

The Colts had already bested the Patriots in terms of most regular season wins this decade, eventually beating them 115-112 (although the Patriots win 126-122 when playoff wins are included; more on that shortly). The only thing they had left to play for was for the vaunted 16-0 mark. But they saw what happened two years ago to their aforementioned arch-nemesis.

They were 18-0, and wound up 18-1.

It hurt to watch. To have come so close to immortality, just to have had it snatched away by upstarts who barely made the playoffs in the first place. Watching the ’72 Miami Dolphins (the only undefeated team in the Super Bowl era) dance on their proverbial grave didn’t help, either.

Jim Caldwell, one of the most successful rookie coaches in NFL history, likely made his decision in the 15th game of the season with that image in mind. He would rather win a Super Bowl with an imperfect regular season record than lose a Super Bowl with a perfect regular season record.

The logic was sound, on the surface.

But losing to the New York Jets in that 15th game when losing itself was unnecessary begs the question: do the Colts have a losing mentality?

Think about it. The only time the Colts have won the Super Bowl in the Peyton Manning era was in the only season that they didn’t rest their starters in the final few weeks of the regular season. The Colts are perennially in the playoffs, boasting 12-4, 13-3, 14-2 records, and with one glaring exception, they choked every time.

Conversely, while the Patriots have not been dominant in the last two years, they have been tenacious every year since the Belichick/Brady era began. More so than every other team, it can be argued. They play a different type of football than the Colts. They don’t hold back. They don’t play dirty, but they don’t hold back. Their mentality is “every game might as well be the Super Bowl,” and so thet play it that way. They don’t rest starters until it’s absolutely necessary.

Peyton Manning is almost never touched in the pocket; his O-line is one of the best, if not THE best, in football. His sack totals are usually the lowest every year. The chances of his being injured were far lower than the average quarterback this past year, and yet he was benched. Along with Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, and a lot of difference makers. One can make the argument that Caldwell was trying to give the back-ups some playing time. This logic too was sound, on the surface. But you don’t play to have everyone touch the ball. To quote the quotable Herm Edwards: “you play to win the game!

And yet, to many, the Patriots are the bad guys of the NFL. Why?

They cheated (or, to be more precise, they were caught cheating; you’re naïve if you think that the Patriots were the only ones performing these illegal taping activities).

Bill Belichick is curt (to the media; in private I hear he’s a real jokester).

Tom Brady is a womanizer (if you count two women, then yes).

It comes down to this: people hate winners. People hate them because they aren’t the ones winning, and they have to sit around and watch it happen. It’s human nature. And when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl to New York, the collective feeling of schadenfreude across the football watching world was overwhelming. But when the Colts lost the Super Bowl to New Orleans this week, there was a nary a bad word.

Why? Because people aren’t used to the Colts winning. They’re just like everyone else; they lose more times than they win. That’s what we tell ourselves. But if the Colts had won, I’m pretty sure people were going to start to feel the same way they feel about New England.

It might go like this:

One Super Bowl – congratulations! You earned it!

Two Super Bowls – alright, you’re dominant. Pass it around now, please.

Three Super Bowls – okay, it’s getting annoying.

Four Super Bowls – now I’m rooting against you just because you win too much.

Five Super Bowls – gross. I’m done with football until other teams are let in.

That’s a rough sketch, but I don’t think I’m too far off.

Jim Caldwell uses his predecessor Tony Dungy’s mentality of not over-exerting his players. Bill Belichick uses his predecessor Bill Parcells’ mentality of pushing your players to their breaking points for victory. Which mentality do you think is popular? And which mentality do you think wins?

And the end of every decade, there is a rather trite award-less title given to what is considered the Team of the Decade. In the 1960’s, it was the Green Bay Packers. The 70’s belonged to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the 80’s belonged to the San Francisco 49ers, and the 90’s was the decade of the Dallas Cowboys. The Colts had a shot at wrestling the title of Team of the 2000’s away from the Patriots, but their mentality sealed their fate as the ‘also-ran’ of this decade.

Do you remember the ‘also-rans’ from the other decades?

Exactly.

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