On Sunday, the 2009 Indianapolis Colts guaranteed themselves a place in NFL history that will be remembered as clearly as the 1972 Miami Dolphins' magical 17-0 season.
But for the wrong reason.
The Colts were less than six quarters from completing a likely 16-0 regular season, an accomplishment that only one other NFL team in the history of the game--the New England Patriots--had achieved.
But Colts management shrugged their shoulders at the notion that their franchise and the players could become the first team in the history of the NFL to go 19-0 en route to becoming Super Bowl Champions. Head coach Jim Caldwell benched many of his starters, including quarterback Peyton Manning, with a few minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Colts clinging to a narrow lead. The Jets took full advantage of the situation, scoring 19 unanswered points while Indianapolis treated the balance of the game like a preseason contest.
Fans booed. Players looked frustrated and resigned on the sidelines.
With that single decision, Colts management--Caldwell, Colts president Bill Polian and team owner Jim Irsay-- consciously deprived their players, their own fans and NFL fans across the world of the experience of watching a team strive for true perfection all the way through the Super Bowl.
The voices of the fans and the players were ignored by Colts management.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
They showed that even in tough economic times they don't care about their customers--the fans who buy tickets and merchandise--callously overlooking the emotional bond between those customers and their brand that results in a level of loyalty that most other businesses will never enjoy from their customer base.
For a company that is usually very astute in how it runs it's business, they bungled this decision badly. All you have to do is check fan polls, Colts message boards and blogs to see how deeply this decision impacted their fans.
And if management doesn't believe that they deflated their players and left them with a "what if" feeling that will gnaw at them the rest of their lives, they are delusional. I can't imagine any other sports team that would do what the Colts organization just did to its players.
The Colts are now in a no-win situation. If Indianapolis wins the Super Bowl, the players will certainly be ecstatic. But the win won't prove that the decision to throw away the perfect season helped the team get there. While the players will look down at the Super Bowl rings they earned with immense pride, those same rings will also be a haunting reminder that the players were deprived of knowing if they were the best team to ever play the game--rather than the best to play that season. And if the Colts fail to claim the trophy and the rings, questions will abound that could cause a rift in trust and confidence between the players and management--if it hasn't already happened.
But if you listen to Colts president Bill Polian, that's simply not the case.
"The perfect season was never an issue with us. We've said it time and time and time again. It's somebody else's issue, not ours. That was of no concern," he said through the team's official website, Colts.com.
Polian is right to a degree. The pursuit of perfection is someone else's issue. It's hugely important to the fans who dig into their wallets and provide revenue that helps allow the Colts and the NFL to exist. So the Colts president seems to imply that what the fans want really isn't a concern. I can understand that if you're talking about which player to draft or which plays to call. But to blatantly throw in the towel when the team--and through an emotional bond, it's fans--are so close to an achievement that clearly declares them as the best of all time, it's an act of infamy.
And if Polian truly believes he's talking for the players when he says that going undefeated isn't their "issue" and was of no concern to them, he's not paying attention. Their faces on the sidelines and the phrases that were woven into their "company line" responses as quoted at a variety of media sites appeared to indicate that this was a huge issue in their hearts and minds.
Until he was benched, Reggie Wayne was doing all he could to secure the 15th win.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
"Doesn't everybody want to be a part of history? Not a season goes by that you don't hear about the '72 Dolphins," said wide receiver Reggie Wayne.
"I guess there's a bigger picture," he said. "We all wanted to play, but the big dog (Caldwell) made a decision and we have to roll with that decision. We came out after halftime and felt like we were starting to roll and could score some points, but the manager took us off the mound."
I "guess" there's a bigger picture? By inserting that one word into the sentence, the Pro Bowl receiver subtly pointed out a disconnect between the his outlook and the organization's take. It appears that he doesn't fully understand why the Super Bowl goal and the undefeated season had to be mutually exclusive. And he made it clear that the players wanted to play and believed that they were going to win until the coach took away that opportunity.
"Every time you go out there and compete, you want to go out there and get a win. You want to make history," safety Antoine Bethea said. "But Coach Caldwell made a decision and we rolled with that. He's been leading us all year and he has been a great head coach."
You want to win. You want to make history. But...
"Our job is to win every game, so whatever it is, we need to win every game. That's what I come here to do, that's what I come here to play like and we didn't win, so whatever anybody says about goals, my goal every week is to come out and win, and we didn't win," said center Jeff Saturday.
Obviously there's some level of disagreement between what "someone" is saying about goals and the primary one that Jeff Saturday evidently clings to. And my guess is that deep down, more players personally align themselves with the philosophy of trying to win every game despite what they may say during a press conference or interview to keep management off their backs and the appearance of solidarity.
"We want everybody healthy. We're a little upset, but we have to get ready to win that Super Bowl, that's our goal," said defensive lineman Raheem Brock.
We're a little upset.
I'll bet they are.
Even Caldwell was honest enough to acknowledge that his players might have some issue with the decision to take a seat during an undefeated season.
With his appreciation for NFL history, the lost opportunity for an undefeated season had to be tough for Peyton Manning.
AP Photo/AJ Mast
"Every guy out there, if you ask them, they want to go and they want to go the distance. It's up to us to make the decision, so we did," he said.
Unfortunately, it was a bad one. And it could be disastrous to the long-term psyche of this club. Imagine being a Colts player--or even one that's drafted by the Colts next year--and realizing that no matter how hard you work and how perfect your team plays, you won't be able to prove that you and your teammates were the best of all time unless another team forces management's hand by nipping at your heels through Week 17.
The Colts organization has sent the wrong message to its players and to everyone who competes in sports. Evidently, competing isn't about striving for perfection and doing your best and winning. It's about just doing enough to be better than the other guy. That has to particularly go against the grain of players like Manning, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark who work tirelessly even after practice to further perfect their trade and improve their timing and precision. The Colts carefully select hard-working, all-business types of players who strive for perfection, but then when they are actually on the path to achieving it, they pulled the rug out from under them.
Some of Caldwell's other statements didn't seem to pass the logic test, and they won't with the players either.
"The most important thing for us is obviously to make sure we're operating on all cylinders come the playoffs," Caldwell said.
Well, if that's the case, he shouldn't have pulled his starters in the third quarter, at least not on the offensive side of the ball.
While the defense had limited the Jets to just three points in the first half, the offense had scored only nine points. The Colts had converted just 29 percent of their third down chances, had gained just 42 yards rushing, had a number of potential big plays miss the receivers' fingertips by inches or a yard. Following the Jacksonville game, Peyton Manning said that he felt thyet e team still had plenty of things to work on--and that was reflected again on Sunday as they played a 7-7 team with a rookie quarterback. The Colts offense clearly wasn't clicking at the level that will be necessary to win a Lombardi Trophy. Caldwell even acknowledged as much during a halftime interview at Colts.com as he left the field for the locker room.
Fans were hopeful that Caldwell would continue his approach of only resting injured players.
AP Photo/Darron Cummings
"We missed some opportunities," he said. "I think we're playing solid, but we're certainly not able to finish a couple drives like we'd like to."
And when asked about his first-team's performance during his Monday press conference, he said, "We would have liked to have put more points on the board."
Well, that might have been possible if he had let that first-team unit continue to work out those kinks. That group clearly wasn't "clicking on all cylinders" when they were pulled out of the game.
Colts management has also said they want the team to be healthy heading into the playoffs. That's a sensible goal. But it conflicts to a degree with what they've been telling the team for years with their "next man up" philosophy. When Colts players would get injured, the team was told not to worry because the next man on the depth chart was expected to be ready to step in and play at the same level. And they often did.
That's a really convenient technique to keep your players thinking in a positive and fearless manner when they lose a Bob Sanders or Anthony Gonzalez early in the season, but if it's a true and reasonable expectation, why doesn't it apply later in the season? Why suddenly become so paranoid about injuries if you truly have confidence in your depth chart?
Colts management is rightfully putting plenty of emphasis on winning the Super Bowl, but even if the team wins its second of the decade, it'll still be dwarfed by New England's three during that span. And if winning a single Super Bowl is so much more important an undefeated Super Bowl championship, why is it that most fans know that it was the Dolphins who went undefeated 37 years ago, but would struggle to name the team that claimed the Lombardi Trophy five years ago?
Two years ago, the New York Giants had locked up their playoff position and were faced with a tough decision with the undefeated New England Patriots rolling in, trying to secure their perfect 16-0 season. The Giants players wanted the opportunity to compete and make sure that the Patriots earned that final win in what was an otherwise meaningless game for New York. They were willing to risk injuries that could have hurt their chances of winning a Super Bowl.
To their credit, Giants management looked beyond their own walls, realizing not only what it would mean to their players, but to Giants fans and the entire NFL to play the game with their starters. It was simply the right thing to do for the good of the game, its players and its fans.
The buzz for the league and the two franchises leading up to the game was unbelievable. The broadcast drew over 107 million viewers--83 percent of all people watching television during the time slot--and became the most-watched television broadcast in history as of that date. Think about that, not the most-watched NFL game, the most watched broadcast, period. The game was nearly as memorable as the Super Bowl--and arguably gave the Giants the extra push and confidence that allowed them to claim the World Championship against those same Patriots a few weeks later. How much enthusiasm for the NFL--which usually translates into dollars--do you think was generated thanks to that one grand decision by the Giants?
The Colts and the NFL could have been the buzz of the sports world for all the right reasons in the coming weeks while Indianapolis continued a courageous march towards achieving an undefeated season--and for decades to come if they had succeeded. Instead, they've become the buzz of the sports world for the wrong reason--for a selfish choice that showed a total disregard for their fans and the NFL.
No matter what the Colts accomplish from this day forward, they'll now also be remembered as the only 14-0 team in the history of the NFL to willingly deny it's players, it's fans and all NFL fans the opportunity to see if they could have been the best team to ever play the game for a single season. And that decision will follow them like the foul stench of arrogance and selfishness from which it was born.
While Colts management may be thinking that all will be forgiven and forgotten if they win the Super Bowl in a few weeks, that accomplishment will only provide this year's players and their fans with the quick satisfaction of a piece of candy, not the long-lasting and satisfying feeling of a good meal.
But maybe they don't care what the fans and the players think or feel at this point--as long as the corporate goal was achieved.
Either way, they should be ashamed of themselves for being so short-sighted.
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