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
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
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
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
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
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
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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A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com.