8 reasons why Caldwell’s decision was the right one.
1. Consistency. The decision was consistent with everything that Coach Caldwell and Bill Polian had previously stated regarding the matter and it showed that they were not going to bow to outside pressure and change their strategy.
2. Leadership. Similarly, by sticking to his guns, Caldwell demonstrated that he is the unquestioned leader of this team and that he will do everything in his power to keep this team on track to the Super Bowl.
3. Priorities. This team’s first priority is the Super Bowl. Undeniably lesser goals, like securing a place in history by going 16 (or 19) - 0, giving paying ticket-holders’ their money’s worth, and respecting competition and the other teams vying for a playoff spot are all very nice. And it would have been a bonus to get all of those things through a victory on Sunday. But it is undeniable that leaving Peyton, Reggie, Dwight, Dallas, etc. on the field and exposing them to potential injury weakens the Colts’ chances for a ring. Even if the chances of Peyton & Co. getting hurt were slim to none, the chances are still greater than they are if Peyton & Co. are sitting on the bench. (See Garcon’s hand injury in the Jacksonville game.) That’s an important point to recognize because it shows why Caldwell did not pursue the other (lesser) goals. By pulling the starters when he did, Caldwell is letting everyone know that he only has one priority – winning the Super Bowl. Nothing else matters. If you think that playing for history, respecting some amorphous notion of competition, or providing Joe Shmoe the ticket holder with his moneys’ worth is more important, then you will never understand Caldwell’s decision.
3(a). Peyton & Co. played for enough time needed to maintain rhythm and no more. The corollary to point #3 is that Caldwell clearly recognizes the need to maintain the offense’s rhythm heading into the playoffs and he allowed Peyton & Co. to play enough to maintain that. The first argument anyone makes against the Colts resting is that the Colts will lose momentum/rhythm by sitting their stars. Caldwell clearly recognizes this concern because he played all of the (healthy) starters for a full game in Jacksonville, and he played them for 2.5 quarters against the Jets. But Caldwell has also decided that that’s all they playing time they need to maintain that rhythm (plus whatever time they will play against the Bills). And frankly, what would 20 more minutes of playing time have done for the sake of rhythm?
It’s worth debating whether the amount of playing time needed for the offense to maintain its rhythm is more or less than Caldwell thinks, and the proponents of more playing time can always point to the 2005 playoff loss to the Steelers as evidence in support of their point. But the reality is that we’re not talking about 2005 vs. 2009, we’re talking about the last 20 minutes of a meaningless game in which the Colts’ offense looked pretty good going against the NFL’s top-ranked defense for the first 40 minutes.
3(b). Protecting them as much as possible. The second corollary to point #3 is that Caldwell is clearly protecting Peyton & Co only as much as he can. Detractors have argued that Caldwell shouldn’t have rested Peyton & Co. at the end of the game (or any game) because he can’t protect them anyway – i.e., they could just as easily get hurt in practice. But no one is arguing that the Colts shouldn’t practice and/or play as much time as they need to stay in rhythm. The argument is that they shouldn’t play or practice any more than is necessary. Caldwell let them play for all the reasons that letting them play helps this team’s chances of winning the ring, and I’m sure he’ll handle practice the same way. If they get hurt when they’re on the field in a game or in practice when that time on the field is necessary, then so be it. But if they get hurt during garbage time, then Caldwell will have failed to protect Peyton & Co. as much as possible.
4. The Colts Remained "Unbeaten." For 40 minutes, the Colts’ A-team beat the Jets (actually, it was the A-team minus a few key players like Mathis, Powers, and Garcon). For the last 20 minutes, with Peyton & Co. on the sidelines, the Jets beat Indy’s B-team. The A-team has and will remain "unbeaten" and that’s a powerful thing for the players. By setting them up that way, Caldwell ensured that the "unbeaten" feeling will continue into the playoffs.
5. Practice for Painter. Painter, for better or worse, is the Colts’ backup QB. He’s also a rookie who had never played in a regular season game before yesterday. It goes without saying that he desperately needs the reps. Say what you will about the Colts’ title-hopes being sunk no matter who backs up Peyton should (God forbid) he goes down, they are at least marginally better with an experienced Painter under center than they would be if Painter never sees the light of game day.
6. The Steelers. The Steelers have struggled mightily this year without Troy Polamalu in the lineup. But if the Steelers make the playoffs, Troy’s likely to return. If that happens, they will undoubtedly be the most dangerous Wildcard team anyone faces and could easily knock off the Bengals or the Patriots (the 3 and 4 seeds). If that happens, it’s likely the Steelers would come to Indy. I, for one, do not want to replay 2005. Because the Colts lost to the Jets on Sunday, it is now very unlikely that the Steelers will make the playoffs. The Steelers’ hopes ride on a combination of a Houston loss/tie with either a Baltimore loss/tie (playing Oakland) or a Jets loss/tie (playing Cincinnati, who will have nothing riding on the game if NE beats Houston). They can also get in if NY, Baltimore, and Denver (playing the Chiefs) all lose or tie. If, on the other hand, the Colts would have beaten the Jets, the Steelers would have had a much easier road to the playoffs, needing only to win and have Houston lose (because the Steelers own a tie-breaker against Denver). Caldwell likely knew this when he made the decision to pull Peyton & Co. because Philly was killing Denver (20-7 at the half and 27-10 mid-way through the 3rd) at the time and Pitt/Baltimore/Houston games had already finished. I’m not saying that this factored into his decision. But if it did, I wouldn’t be upset.
7. The Media Maelstrom. The intense and heated fall out from the media and the fans following this game may actually make it easier for Caldwell to get the Colts’ focused on winning the Super Bowl. With all of the second-guessing going on, anyone who pays attention to the press is likely to be confused. Caldwell can make the locker-room the calm, eye of the storm. And by removing any pressure related to 16-0 or 19-0, the players having nothing to focus on but winning in the playoffs. And if you disagree and think that the current media-attention will only be distracting, the alternative (remaining undefeated) would not have been any better. I’m sure that the decision to prematurely pull Peyton & Co from the Jets game will cause the media to hold up the first playoff game as a one-game verdict on the Colts’ end-of-season strategy, but that’s all lot better than a locker-room full of press asking about undefeated seasons after each and every game from here on out.
8. Caldwell did the right thing by not telegraphing his decision. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of Caldwell because he didn’t tell the media, the fans, or event his players about his decision before it happened, other than to tell Peyton "to remain flexible." But I don’t agree. First, as for the media/fans, Peyton Manning was the first whom I heard say that n no one outside the team has any right to know how the Colts are going to play every game. If there’s a competitive advantage (either in the present game or in future games in the playoffs) to be had from not telling the world the Colts’ intentions, then it’s the Colts’ right to take advantage. As for not letting the players know, Caldwell is the coach and it’s their job merely to follow his orders. We’ve heard as much from the leaders of the team, Peyton and Brackett, and Caldwell’s decision not to tell them ahead of time only furthers the point. The players need to know that their coach answers to no one – not the fans, not the media, and certainly not the players. If he needed to tell certain players or all of them in order to get their buy in to his decision, then he’s already lost the locker room. And it is really only speculation on our part to claim we know how Caldwell’s decision affected the players’ individual psyches. Caldwell has been around this team for a long time, and I trust his decision over anyone else’s.