Colts' decision to rest starters may cost them more than perfection

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Yes, the Indianapolis Colts thing has already been wrestled to the ground and kicked a few times by now, but I want to point out some interesting work by brilliant blog reader Jonathan Joyce on the subject that might startle you. Well, "startle" might be an overstatement. I don't suppose I have been startled by football stats in a while.* The point is, it's good stuff.

*Actually this isn't true -- I was startled to learn that Ben Roethlisberger this year became the first Steelers quarterback ever to throw for 4,000 yards. I mean... three Kansas City Chiefs quarterbacks have thrown for 4,000 yards in a season (and you would have to be a real fan to know those three are Trent Green, Elvis Grbac and Bill Kenney). I mean... Jeff George, Jake Plummer, Scott Mitchell, Kerry Collins, Marc Bulger and Steve Beuerlein have thrown for 4,000 yards. Please.

Back to the Colts. First, I should probably say that watching the 14-0 Colts give up against the Jets was one of the odder and more conflicted sports viewing experiences of my life.

The reason is this: I am not particularly swept away by the perfection bug that seems to be sweeping American sports. Or, anyway, that's what I told myself. Sure, perfection was fun when they were giving Nadia Comeneci 10s back in '76. It's fun when a pitcher throws a perfect game*. And it's fun to play the board game Perfection.**

*I especially used to love the tradition of radio and television announcers refusing to say anything about a perfect game for fear of jinxing it. Sadly, this bit of voodoo mostly has gone away -- it seems we have become too sophisticated as a society to believe that, you know, an announcer calling a game 80 feet above the field of play can hex a pitcher and produce a hit by saying a few words that the players cannot hear. I miss it though -- miss the extraordinarily uncomfortable way announcers would try to talk around the story without actually MENTIONING the story. I always thought it would be fun to write a story about a perfect game without saying that it was a perfect game. But the only perfect game I ever saw was in Japan, a clinching game of the Japan Series, and it was thrown by two pitchers (yes, the starter was pulled during a perfect game), and it was just too odd a game to try my little trick.

**When you're into PerfectionKeep on your toes.You gotta be quickCause here's how it goes.

Pull the plunger down, set the timerFit the pieces in place, don't be slow.With Perfection, you've gotta move on fast(move on fast)or the pieces pop out before you put in the last.And that's Perfection!

That, friends, is the best ever commercial jingle that fully explained how a kid's game was played. Or at least I think so. I put the beginning of the jingle up on Twitter figuring FOR SURE that people would be climbing over each other to finish it. But, actually, no one responded. Not one person. Weird. Maybe I'm the only one who remembers the jingle.

But these days, there's just perfection overload. College football teams have to be perfect or the season is pretty much meaningless. And even if a team IS perfect, that's no guarantee that it will be playing in the meaningful bowl game.

If you watch any golf tournament, you are bombarded by announcers declaring "That drive was absolutely perfect" or "He hit the putt perfectly." "That chip was perfection." On and on. And none of these shots actually go in the hole. It is so overbearing that at some point I invented the word "Perquist" -- an homage to Verne Lundquist -- to describe "a golf shot that does not go into the hole and, as such, falls short of perfection... but it's still a really good shot." So far, the term has not caught on, and golfers keep on hitting perfect shots that do not go in.

A free throw that goes in might be called perfect. A serve that hits the line might be called perfect. A screen pass on a blitz might be the perfect call, and a fastball on the outside corner might be the perfect pitch, and a hitter can go a perfect three for three, and a cross that finds the head of a streaking teammate might be the perfect pass, and a defender who prevents a receiver from catching a ball was probably playing perfect coverage, and a bloop that drops in front of the outfielder is perfectly placed, and a triple lutz landed without a bobble will most definitely be called perfect. It just never occurred to me before that perfection was so easy to come by.

The New England Patriots a couple of years ago really heightened this perfect storm.* By going 16-0 during the regular season, they convinced America that there could be a larger purpose to this game of professional football -- and to sports in general. The Patriots were not just after the Super Bowl trophy. No, they were after history. They were after the ultimate. They wanted to fly close to the sun. They wanted this thing called perfection.

*See what I did there?

And they almost pulled it off -- the 19-0 season. They made it all the way to the Super Bowl, and they had the lead late in the game, and it took one of the more improbable throws and catches in football history for the Giants to win and turn the Patriots perfect season to stone. The '72 Dolphins players raised their glasses of champagne* like they do every year when the last team loses, and there was some talk about whether or not the perfect football season was, in fact, fool's gold.

*The 1972 Dolphins have been a target of our friend Michael Schur/Ken Tremendous, whose most recent Tweet on the subject was as follows: "Congrats to the 1972 Dolphins! Even though the 2006 Iowa State Cyclones could beat you by 40, you're still the best ever!!!!" Michael feels that the game has changed so much that the 1972 Dolphins could not stay on the field with today's bigger, stronger, faster players. I think that's a tough point to argue.

But I've come to find it oddly charming and funny that they toast each every year after the last team loses... hey, why not? I always think about the late and great Hank Bauer, who used to have the World Series hitting streak record. We called him up once when someone -- Marquis Grissom, I think -- was close to breaking it and asked him how he felt about it. We expected the usual "Records are made to be broken" tripe. Instead he said: "Hell no, I don't want my record broken." I thought that was a lot more human.

All of this is just a long-winded way to say that I really was prepared to not care when the Colts pulled their starters against the New York Jets on Sunday. So what? The Super Bowl is the thing, right? They don't give you a bigger trophy for being perfect, right? Getting a key player hurt in Week 15 against the Jets while chasing some sort of bland form of perfection to me would be the height of narcissism. And that's another point: Is this really all it takes to be "perfect" Just don't lose? If the Patriots get an extra six inches on fourth down, the Colts lose. The Dolphins thoroughly outplayed the Colts in Week 2 and lost on a Peyton Manning rally. The Ravens could not punch it in from the 1-yard line and they threw an interception late or they probably would have won. Jacksonville -- not exactly a powerhouse -- scored on every drive for the first three quarters against Indy and then blew up late. And so on. Understand, this is not to downplay the brilliance of the Colts -- they had won their first 14 games, and that's what matters, and it was a magnificent thing. But perfect?

The point, again, is I was prepared to not care at all if the Colts rested their starters in order to prepare for the playoffs. I felt sure that I was burned out on perfection.

And then they pulled Manning and the first-team guys, and a funny thing happened. Suddenly, inexplicably, I was furious. I yelled at the television. All of those feelings I had so clearly drawn up in my mind went out the window. It was one thing, in theory, to say that the Colts owed it to themselves to play it smart and do what they felt they had to do in order to make a Super Bowl run.

But it was quite another thing to watch an undefeated team pull its starters and throw a game against the New York Jets. I know what I WANTED to feel. But what I DID feel was that the Colts had spit in the eye of history. What I DID feel was that that Colts had cheated their fans and football fans. What I DID feel was that the Colts had cheated themselves.

You could see it on the faces of the players, too. They did not want to lost their undefeated streak this way. They KNEW that it was wrong to lose from the sidelines -- they just knew it. Football players only have so many games. Football teams only have so many chances to do something memorable. Everyone in football only has so many shots at writing sports history. Laugh at the '72 Dolphins if you like, but here they are, 37 years later, and you know who they are, you know they went undefeated. They are men in later life who once a year get the chance to toast... themselves.

I mentioned at the start a bit of research down by brilliant blog reader Jonathan. He wanted to see if momentum exists in the NFL playoffs -- that is, if it actually matters if a team loses apparently meaningless games at the end of the year.

What he found was... yeah, momentum actually might matter. Well, sure, you can read the data any way you like, and I'm sure there's plenty of counter-data. But here's what I took out of Jonathan's work:

1. Only three of the past 15 Super Bowl winners lost their last regular-season game -- none went into the playoffs with a two-game losing streak.

2. Only four of the past 15 Super Bowl LOSERS lost their last regular-season game -- and only the 2005 Philadelphia Eagles lost two going into the playoffs.

3. Every Super Bowl winner or loser the last 15 years, except one, went into the playoffs with a winning record in its last five games. Nine of the 30 were 5-0 going into the playoffs. The one exception: You got it, the 2007 Indianapolis Colts, who were 2-3 in their final five games.

4. There is some anecdotal evidence that losing the last game of the season -- even if that game seems meaningless -- might not be a great plan. Just in the last 10 years...

• Last year the Tennessee Titans had the best record in football at 13-3. They rested their starters in a 23-0 loss to Indy in the final week of the season. They lost their first playoff game.

• Last year the New York Giants tied for the best record in the NFC and were defending Super Bowl champs. They rested their starters late and lost to Minnesota in the final week. They were bludgeoned by Philadelphia in their first playoff game.

• In 2007 the Dallas Cowboys tied for the best record in the NFC at 13-3. They rested starters in the final week, a 27-6 humiliation at the hands of rival Washington. The Cowboys lost their first playoff game.

• In 2000 the Minnesota Vikings were 11-2 and considered perhaps the best team in football. They lost their last three games of the season. They did win a playoff game against the Saints. But they were promptly obliterated 41-0 in New York -- I had the misfortune of being at that game. I have never seen a team give so little in a game that mattered.

• In 1999, the Indianapolis Colts were 13-2 going into the final week of the season, and they got demolished 31-6 in Buffalo (hey, aren't the Colts going to Buffalo this week?). The Colts lost their first playoff game to Tennessee (a team that won its last four regular-season games and went all the way to the Super Bowl).

And so on. Now, look, this doesn't prove anything at all. I could point out that the 1997 Kansas City Chiefs, with the AFC's best record, won their last six games of the season and still lost their first playoff game. Meanwhile, the 2006 Chicago Bears rested their starters in the last week of the season, got crushed, and still went to the Super Bowl. There are no hard rules here. All of this searching for momentum might be mumbo jumbo.

But there might be something to it, too. Football, I think, is the most emotional of big-time American team sports. The emotional gap between winning and losing, I think, is much wider than in baseball or basketball or hockey. It is that way for the fans, and it is that way for the coaches, and it is that way for the players. The game is painful to play. The game is excruciating to coach. The game is emotional to watch. All of it is violent beyond words. And to give so much of yourself and LOSE, well, as football players have been saying for decades now -- the bruises and cracked ribs and twisted limbs hurt a hell of a lot more when you lose.

So I think it's logical that a team that goes into the playoffs winning feels more confident, more focused and more alive. The Colts' story has not been written yet. They might roll right through the playoffs, win the Super Bowl, and leave everyone to admit that, yeah, maybe it was a good decision to rest the starters. Or maybe they win the Super Bowl and leave everyone to wonder if they could have gone undefeated had they shown the backbone. Or maybe they will lose before they even get to the Super Bowl, leaving everyone to wonder if they were just victims of their own bad karma.

I don't know the right answer. I don't even know that it was wrong to do what Jim Caldwell and the Colts did. I can definitely see the other side. I only know that when I saw Peyton Manning stewing on the sideline while the Colts' undefeated season was flushed away, that it FELT wrong. Because, I guess, at the end of the day, if you're not trying to be perfect... what are you trying to be?