In case you haven't heard, the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints are undefeated heading into Week 15, and the talk of the NFL right now is focused almost exclusively on how each of those teams should handle their charges for the rest of the season. Should they keep playing their starters to chase perfection? Or is it more important to rest key players so they are fresh for the games that really matter?
But what if there are other options? I would argue that there are, so let's flesh out the pros and cons of the two scenarios you've heard about the most and two others that I would consider, going from the most likely to the least likely option.
1. We're playing. Call this the Saints mentality, although to be fair, they need to win at least one more game and maybe more to clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs anyway. The fans absolutely love this mentality and will support it 100 percent. Until, of course, one of the team's best players gets injured in a meaningless game. Then the coach and management will be characterized as absolute buffoons for hurting or ruining the team's Super Bowl hopes by risking one of the marquee players.
That's why I am not a big fan of a team, any team, continuing to play its veteran starters and stars once home-field advantage has been clinched. Especially for the entire game. The only way a team really looks stupid, in my opinion, is if a guy like Drew Brees or Dwight Freeney gets injured in a game that has zero impact on the playoff seeding. How sick would a coach or teammate feel to see Dallas Clark or Marques Colston get tackled awkwardly in Week 17 and then have to watch the postseason from the sidelines in street clothes?
I have heard all of the dialogue recently about how important it is to play your regulars for them to stay on a roll and maintain continuity. Maybe, maybe not. Some of the Colts have bought into that, including middle linebacker Gary Brackett, who said immediately after Sunday's victory over the Broncos that he and several other players were going to try to convince head coach Jim Caldwell to let them keep playing. That was eye-opening to me because it's extremely rare for veteran starters to eschew additional rest, especially at this time of year, when every player has at least something that is bothering him physically.
2. We're resting. This is definitely the safer, more conservative move. It has been criticized because even though the Colts rested their players, they still lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2005 and 2007. Plus the 2007 Super Bowl run by the New York Giants was fueled in part, if certain people are to be believed, by their decision to go toe-to-toe with the New England Patriots in a season finale that could do nothing to improve their standing.
But to me, that thinking is flawed. There is no way of knowing how much impact the resting or not resting of players has on future games. Maybe the Patriots would have won their fourth Super Bowl of the decade if Bill Belichick had rested his guys instead of going for perfection. It is possible the Giants would have never had the confidence or the belief that they could beat New England in the Super Bowl were it not for them taking the Pats down to the wire in the regular season. And maybe the Colts would have still lost those playoff games if they had played their best guys all the way.
The only thing I know for sure is that I would 100 percent prefer feeling healthy and rested heading into a game as opposed to being beat up in any way. The NFL is tough enough as it is, so sign me up for the rest if I were a Colts lineman. Besides, it is not like these teams are going to give these players off for a month so that they can head to Cancun. They will still be practicing, watching film and doing all of the other things they normally do. They just won't be exposed to risk on game day.
3. We're going halfsies. Maybe there is some type of compromise solution that could be worked out. Surely the players could still feel like they were in a groove or at the top of their games if they played a full half of football. The problem is the limitations that are placed on a team by the condensed gameday roster. Since only 45 players are eligible to play, most teams only suit up seven offensive linemen. That means, at most, two of the regulars could sit out the second half, and that is usually determined by the health, age and relative importance of the players.
The other way to do it would be to rotate games. Using the Colts as an example, maybe center Jeff Saturday and right tackle Ryan Diem, the elder statesmen on the Colts roster, are inactive and sit out Week 15 against Jacksonville and Week 17 at Buffalo but play in Week 16 against the New York Jets. Then in Week 16, other veteran starters like left guard Ryan Lilja and left tackle Charlie Johnson could get the week off. Unlikely to be sure, but it is an outside-the-box idea that would help navigate the difficulties presented by the realities of the 45-man roster.
4. You choose. This option is probably ever more unlikely than No. 3. One of the inherent problems I see with players like Brackett and others lobbying the coaching staff to let them keep playing down the stretch is that I highly doubt all of the players really feel that way. I can guarantee there are players in the Colts locker room who are playing through injuries that will require offseason surgery. Happens every year. I find it hard to believe those players want to continue to subject their bodies to further damage in games that have no real relevance.
With that being the case, maybe the best option is to let the players choose. Individually. There is no doubt there would be some peer pressure involved, especially among certain position groups. But at least this scenario allows the players, who know their own bodies and preferences better than anyone else, to make their own decision. The guys who prefer to stay in the groove of playing every week can continue to do that while the others that really feel like rest is the most important ingredient for postseason success can do that.
The point is there are myriad possibilities for teams like the Saints and Colts as they head towards perfection. The only way we will know if their strategy has been successful is by the end result.