Here was the saddest picture of the football season. Peyton Manning, Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne and other starters for the Indianapolis Colts, standing on the sidelines, arms folded, like kids locked out of gym, watching their perfect season come to an end.
It was sad and bad and wrong on a thousand levels. Sad because it was avoidable. Bad because it was deliberate. Wrong because it went against everything we teach about sports: that you try your hardest, that you give your all. The Colts did none of that. They reached a designated point in the game – third quarter, five-point lead – and then they pulled the battery pack. Yanked the tablecloth. Out came the stars. In came the subs.
And almost that fast, there went the game, the perfect season, and any reason to root for the Colts to win the Super Bowl.
“The perfect season was never an issue with us,” Colts president Bill Polian told the media after Sunday’s game had been lost, 29-15, the Colts unable to score a point once the starters left. “It’s somebody else’s issue, but not ours.”
Hmm. Who would that “somebody else” be? The fans who deserve – and wanted – to see their team’s best effort? The players who deserve – and wanted – a chance to finish what they started?
Take away the players and the fans, who’s left? Oh, right. Management. Well, yay, let’s make sure they’re happy. No masterpiece off the bench
Do you know how hard it is to go 14-0 in the NFL? The Colts already had done that. They were on a record 23-game regular-season winning streak. That is da Vinci-like in the world of pro football. The kind of stuff that lasts long beyond this season.
The Colts were clearly capable of going 15-0, given the way they were handling the Jets, and that would have left them only one more game, on the road against lowly Buffalo, for perfection. A perfect regular season, something achieved only twice before in modern NFL history. You don’t think that’s a good way to enter the playoffs? You don’t think players want to be a part of that?
“I feel like this was kind of the organizational philosophy that we stuck with,” Manning told the media. That’s a pretty lame endorsement. Manning’s face on the sideline told a truer story: He looked like a man forced to chew razor blades. Especially when he watched his substitute, a rookie named Curtis Painter, make his NFL debut against the league’s top-ranked defense.
Painter looked like, well, a painter – more than he did a quarterback, anyhow. Before long he’d fumbled a ball away that was picked up and returned for a touchdown. He threw an interception. He finished with a quarterback rating of 11.2.
The Colts basically had no chance once he came onto the field. And if that’s not the same as throwing the game, you’ll have to explain it to me. Who gets their money back?
Colts coach Jim Caldwell told reporters the whole thing was “a delicate balancing act between keeping ourselves sharp and making certain the guys are healthy.”
And, yes, everyone knows about trying to keep your guys from getting hurt. But if health is the issue, then why play the starters at all? Why play them this Sunday? You can get hurt in the first quarter as easily as in the fourth.
And if you’re trying to stay sharp, I suggest winning is the thing that most gives you the edge. It’s a rhythm. It’s a pattern. Look no further than New England two years ago. The Patriots clearly wanted a perfect season. They battled the Giants in an epic game in the regular-season finale – even though neither team needed the win for the playoffs – finally winning, 38-35. It didn’t hurt them. On the contrary, they made it to the last 2 minutes of the Super Bowl before losing to those same Giants on a miracle play.
Winning is its own momentum. You don’t mess with it. You always go for it. It’s the same reason the bad teams – like the Lions – shouldn’t try to lose to get a better draft pick. That’s not sports.
The Colts turned Week 16 into the exhibition season, and this weekend will be more of the same. What do you say to people who bought tickets expecting to see the best players and best effort? Do you offer them a refund?
You should, because they deserve something more than this. So do the players.
And so does the game.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.