Peyton Manning(notes) had just done that voodoo that he does so well, leading the Indianapolis Colts to a comeback victory in a meaningless game against a rival that desperately needed it, when he stopped for a quick postgame interview with the NFL Network's Scott Hanson.
Standing on the Jacksonville Municipal Stadium field after the Colts' 35-31 victory over the Jaguars, which improved Indy's record to 14-0, Manning was asked if he'd lobby to play the next two games in an effort to make a run at an undefeated season.
The great quarterback gave an answer that was pretty close to perfect.
"Well, we're not gonna lobby because that's not what a football team's about," Manning said. "The head coach tells us what to do and we follow his orders. Certainly, players have their hopes and wishes, but it's just not set up that way. [Jim] Caldwell makes the call; we'll follow."
Manning's deference might have been a tad overdone: If any player could successfully sway his coach's thinking, it'd be the quarterback who once banned family members from the team hotel at Super Bowl XLI – convincing a rookie mentor who, having spent the previous seven seasons as the team's quarterbacks coach, is a longtime confidant.
The quarterback's point, however, is one that should be driven home to everyone who's yammering confidently about what the Colts and 13-0 New Orleans Saints should do as they close in on history: Unless you're the head coach of one of the teams in question, your opinion is irrelevant.
My advice to you is this: If Caldwell decides that winning a Super Bowl is all that matters and that preserving the fine china is paramount, embrace the sight of Manning in a ballcap. And if Sean Payton stays gung-ho and unleashes the full wrath of Drew Brees(notes) on New Orleans' remaining opponents, sit back and enjoy the Coach Gone Wild video.
Really. It's OK. The decision is a big one, and it's not up to you. And it shouldn't be. Caldwell and Payton are the people best positioned to make the call. There's a reason these guys make the big bucks – and shoulder a disproportionate share of the blame and credit for their teams' fortunes.
Yes, they're The Deciders. And contrary to popular opinion, there's not necessarily a right answer.
I've heard all the arguments, some reasoned and some ridiculous, about why teams such as Indy or New Orleans should or shouldn't rest their starters down the stretch. Just as Manning has his personal thoughts on the matter ("I hope we still play," he told Hanson), I have mine, and they err on the side of avoiding injuries which could impact a team's playoff fortunes.
For the record, I'm not necessarily saying I'm right. What I am sure about is that I'm tired of having any of the following alleged certitudes rammed down my throat:
• Lots of teams (XLIII, to be exact) have won the Super Bowl, but only the 1972 Miami Dolphins have done it while going undefeated. Thus teams in position to match (or technically exceed, given the 19-game schedule) them have an obligation to go after it.
• Because teams who have already clinched can impact the playoff fortunes of remaining opponents and those competing with the opponents in question for spots in the postseason – as with the Colts Thursday night – they owe it to the league to go all out to win.
• If a team doesn't play hard through the end of its season, even if (like Indy) it has clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and has no tangible incentive to do so, its starters will be rusty in the postseason and thus in severe danger of losing their playoff opener.
• It's not just about avoiding rust; it's about steering clear of the dreaded L-word. (No, not that one.) Because if a team loses its last game(s), it surrenders precious momentum.
I don't believe that any of these are absolute truths, or remotely close to them. While going undefeated would undoubtedly be cool, winning a championship is the unquestioned goal of most players – and I have yet to hear one complain about his team's regular-season record in the aftermath of a Super Bowl victory. The '08 Arizona Cardinals went 9-7 in the regular season and came within 35 seconds of a championship; had they pulled it off last February, the champagne wouldn't have tasted any less awesome than that which the '72 Dolphins routinely sample. (OK, bad example.)
Conversely, the unprecedented 16-0 regular season enjoyed by the '07 New England Patriots didn't take any of the sting out of their Super Bowl defeat – a game that New England tackle Matt Light(notes) joked he'd commemorate forevermore with a gravestone.
As for the notion that teams who pull back after clinching are disgracing the principle of competitive honor, good luck with that load of crap. If the NFL's 32 franchises have anything in common, it's that when you really break it down, the men running them couldn't care at all about the fortunes of the other 31. In my mind, if you play or root for one of the teams competing for a playoff spot and are frustrated by the state of affairs (i.e., you wish a team that has already clinched would go all out against an opponent your team is trying to beat out), tough luck – you should have won more games to avoid that predicament.
Then there's the rust/momentum theorem, one popularized in recent years by the repeated playoff failures of the Colts (who've tended to pull back after clinching) and the unlikely triumph of the '07 Giants (who played hard through the end of the regular season and won a championship). As a result, it's now popular to suggest that playing hard to the finish ensures positive playoff outcomes, even though there's no tangible evidence that this is a global truth.
You won't see me write these words very often, but … I'm with Bill Polian on this issue.
Late last month, the Colts' president said on his weekly radio show that the notion of rust and lost momentum is pure fantasy. He also brought up an example of a key player who got hurt during a late-season push – linebacker Cornelius Bennett – negatively impacting the Colts' 1999 playoff fortunes.
One of these years, I'll do an exhaustive breakdown of teams' postseason performances relative to how they've approached seemingly meaningless games at the end of regular seasons. Until then, all I can offer you is an anecdotal assurance that in the two decades I've covered the NFL, I've seen it shake out all possible ways:
• I've seen teams like the 1988 San Francisco 49ers, who shamelessly tanked their regular-season finale (losing 38-16 to the Rams) before bludgeoning a pair of NFC foes and winning the Super Bowl.
• I've seen teams like the 2008 Tennessee Titans, who mailed in their last regular-season game (losing 23-0 to the Colts) after securing the top seed, then lost their playoff opener to the Baltimore Ravens.
• I've seen teams like the '01 Patriots close out the regular season with six consecutive victories and stay on a roll that lasted all the way through their epic Super Bowl XXXVI upset of the Rams.
• Yet I've also seen the opposite outcome: For all the talk about the '07 Giants being spurred to a title by head coach Tom Coughlin's decision to try to keep the Patriots from an undefeated regular season in the intensely contested finale, the other side of that equation is often ignored. The Pats, in their apparent zest to make history, seemed to expend an inordinate amount of mental and emotional energy down the stretch in going 16-0, and that may have cost them in the Super Bowl.
• And what about last year's Colts, who closed the season on a nine-game winning streak before dropping their playoff opener in San Diego? Did momentum or lack of rust help them against the Chargers?
Every year is different, and every team that clinches early has a right to approach its situation on its own terms. Ultimately, none of us can be completely sure what's best for the Colts and Saints down the stretch – and there may be two different answers, one for each franchise.
On Thursday, Caldwell had his team battle the Jags as though it were a normal regular-season game – the lone concession being that banged-up defensive ends Dwight Freeney(notes) and Robert Mathis(notes) were used sparingly. The Jags (7-7) had a late lead that was undone by Manning's fourth touchdown pass, and had another chance to win in the final minutes. But Indy prevailed, hampering the home team's playoff hopes.
Now the Colts get 10 days off before hosting the New York Jets, another AFC postseason aspirant. The Saints, who have clinched a first-round bye and have a two-game lead over the Minnesota Vikings for the NFC's No. 1 seed, host the Cowboys on Saturday night in a game crucial to Dallas' playoff hopes.
If New Orleans wins, will Payton pull back in the team's final two games against the Bucs and Panthers? Depending on the outcome of the game against the Jets, how will Caldwell approach the Colts' regular-season finale in Buffalo?
Those are coaching calls which will be dissected after the fact, but until we see how the postseason plays out, it's not worth questioning either man's decision.
Caldwell and Payton will do what they feel is best for their respective teams, end of story. If Manning's cool with that concept, the rest of us should be, too.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
The Bills, who blew their opportunity to close out the Patriots in the season opener, will pull off the upset this time in front of their grateful fans Sunday. … The Titans will keep their ultra-slim playoff hopes alive with a hard-fought victory over the Dolphins. … The Redskins will keep the Giants from catching the Cowboys by outscoring them Monday night.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
San Diego, where I can watch the showdown between the Chargers and Bengals that will go a long way toward deciding the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC. This is obviously an emotional time for the Bengals, and I have no idea how the devastating news about Chris Henry will impact their performance. It should be a passionate, physical game between legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and if it gets chilly in the open-air press box at Qualcomm Stadium, I have the perfect article of clothing for the occasion. Hopefully, I'll do a better job of keeping track of it than I did last season.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. In an effort to bolster his case that the PGA Tour will remain successful with Tiger Woods on an indefinite leave of absence, commissioner Tim Finchem donned a wig, beard, glasses and fat suit and paid the surviving members of the Grateful Dead to back him on a cover of this mid-80s staple.
2. Frustrated after a certain Dolphins receiver ducked out of a proposed Ocean Drive match race last summer, Titans halfback Chris Johnson challenged Ted Ginn's entire family to a game of Clue (and won, correctly guessing Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with the lead pipe.)
MY BUDDIES' ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
If I hadn't just received a glossy holiday card from Y! Sports fantasy guru Brad Evans, his wife and their lovely children, I'd be tempted tell him about the not-so-secret admirer he has in sunny Southern California. "If Brad Evans gives the go-ahead," UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb said Thursday, "I will fly to Illinois and give him the best foot massage of his life."
Chalk it up to the aphrodisiac-like quality of a resounding fantasy playoff victory, an outcome enhanced by Evans' shrewd suggestion to pick up Redskins runner Quinton Ganther and play him ahead of stalwart Marion Barber. Twenty-one Yahoo! Fantasy points later, Gottlieb's sixth-seeded Harsh Reality was on its way to a 123-103 triumph over No. 3 seed The Punt Blockers, whose 31-point outburst from Andre Johnson was offset by the usual Chris Johnson points orgy (35) and a 21-point outburst from the Titans' defense. (I am now taking a bow … and waiting for Gottlieb to offer me a foot massage.)
So now it's on to the semis for a showdown with No. 2 seed Dear Meat, which trots out the following lineup: Peyton Manning, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ryan Grant, Cedric Benson, Donald Driver, Vincent Jackson, Brent Celek, Rob Bironas and the Chargers' defense. It's a very beefy (and legitimate) operation, which is why Gottlieb and I decided that this week calls for yet another bold course of action. Our moves: Picking up Texans running back Arian Foster – another Evans special – and playing him ahead of Ganther (and Barber) opposite Johnson; cutting one-week pickup David Garrard, a disappointment, and claiming Jason Campbell off the waiver wire – then playing Campbell (at home vs. the Giants on Monday night) ahead of season-long starter Carson Palmer (at Chargers); subbing the Broncos' defense (vs. Raiders) for the Titans' D (vs. Dolphins); giving up on season-long kicker Mason Crosby and taking a flier on the Jags' Josh Scobee; sticking with Vernon Davis (at Eagles) over Greg Olsen (at Ravens); and taking home-run swings on wideouts Chad Ochocinco (at Chargers), Terrell Owens (vs. Patriots) and Antonio Bryant (at Seahawks) at the expense of playing it safer with Greg Jennings (at Steelers) or Ganther. "I like that we're staying aggressive," Gottlieb says. "I've got a good feeling about this." Speaking of which … if a certain out-of-nowhere Texans halfback helps lead us into the finals, Evans' toes may start to tingle.
After Thursday night, we'll have our work cut out for us: Manning and Jones-Drew staked Dear Meat to a 53-9 lead, Scobee's game-opening 50-yard field goal notwithstanding. And Campbell had better outperform Garrard, or Gottlieb might opt for another act involving feet that does not feel so pleasurable.
As for my buddy Malibu and his star-crossed team, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, let's just say life at the bottom has never been crueler. All you need to know is that Sabbath had a chance to win its consolation game against 11th-place Team 420 with an average Kurt Warner performance on Monday night – and the Cardinals' QB put up 2.4 points. Enough of Malibu – I'll now turn my attention to his son, A-Man, whose top-seeded team, Man Up Willis U … has a semifinal showdown with fifth-seeded Slobber Knockers (Aaron Rodgers, Frank Gore, Tim Hightower, Ganther, Brandon Marshall, Kenny Britt, DeSean Jackson, Kevin Boss, Vikings defense, Rob Bironas). He'd already been rejected on a waiver claim for Foster, so I gave him the best advice I could: Play the Jets' defense (vs. Falcons) over the Packers' (at Steelers); go with Bryant over Pierre Garcon; and stick with Fred Davis (over Bo Scaife) and Laurence Maroney (over Fred Jackson and Leonard Weaver). The rest of his lineup: Donovan McNabb, Chris Johnson, Ochocinco, Eli Manning, Nate Kaeding and Randy Moss. Yes, Moss. And now you can count A-Man among the people (along with Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, Robert Kraft and Merrill Hoge) who've stood up to defend the wideout in the wake of last Sunday's dubious effort. Well, kind of &helip; "I think he takes himself too seriously and needs to suck it up sometimes, but that was the first time he really dogged it since he was on the Raiders," A-Man says. "I think he'll come through." A-Man's season may depend on it.
What does Evans say about all of this?
It's not often an esteemed Division I basketball coach offers an obnoxious fake games writer a bunion massage. We've fantasized for years Illinois' Bruce Weber would utter similar words. If A-Man generously proffered to knead my tight thighs (I routinely squat bottles of cabernet to keep my lower body, and liver, in tip-top shape) then maybe he too would receive fortuitous advice.
As suggested repeatedly in this space, it's important to think aggressively this time each year. Taking advantage of potentially gratifying clashes is imperative. Employing upstart Foster over an established veteran like Barber is the essence of such a philosophy. Timidity is for the weak. Risk takers win championships.
Because Gary Kubiak graduated cum laude from the Mike Shanahan School of Shadiness, Foster is a questionable commodity. Most pundits wouldn't recommend a rusher entrenched in a fuzzy RBBC no matter how accommodating the matchup. Their viewpoint is understandable. But the St. Louis Rams are a giving defense. No unit has been friendlier to backs over the past five weeks. They've surrendered 5.0 yards per carry, 174.6 total yards per game and nine touchdowns to rushers. The team's swine flu infestation only intensifies their wretchedness. Practice squaders could be pressed into action. Since Foster was designated by Kubiak to be the Texans' featured back, the risk, albeit enhanced, is worth it. Ganther – the sole reason why Coach Gottlieb reached Round 2 – exhibited a similar profit potential prior to last week.
Many would assume Da Coach, matched against several popular brand names, is destined to exit stage left. But based on her superb matchups, Harsh Reality might just emulate N.C. State, class of '83.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
It's truly touching how many people are going out of their way to envelop Randy Moss in a cocoon of affection after the veteran wideout was criticized for giving up in last Sunday's 20-10 Patriots victory over the Panthers. As part of this effort to make Moss feel loved, New England coach Bill Belichick, in a shot at the Carolina defensive backs who called Moss' motivation into question, told reporters Monday, "That's a lot of conversation coming from a team that just lost another game." And suddenly, that became a rallying cry for Moss' defenders: Those guys had no credibility, because they lost. Many would also argue that people like me aren't in a position to judge Moss' effort because, you know, I don't actually play the game. So how about we hear from Cris Carter, who called his former teammate's behavior "pathetic" and said he was shocked that it occurred? Or maybe we should ask Jerry Rice(notes), who said of Moss on the Monday Night Football pregame show, "He didn't have any effort at all"? Really, though, what do those two guys know about playing the position?
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Chris Henry, who died Thursday morning from injuries sustained in an automobile accident the day before. As I recalled Thursday, the Bengals wideout went into this season hoping to continue his personal growth – and to help spark his team's revival – and seemed to accomplish both. Please extend your thoughts and prayers to Henry's family, especially his three young children.
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT THE CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
While Cal sophomore kicker David Seawright finishes finals and prepares for the Golden Bears' clash with Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl next Wednesday in San Diego, I'm going to seize this opportunity to brag about the world's greatest academic institution. First of all, behold our latest place in the brainiac polls: No. 3 in the world, according to the Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. Our media buzz isn't too shabby, either. (I'm obviously doing all I can to help the cause.) Back to sports: Congratulations to the Cal volleyball team, which reached the Elite Eight, and two of its top performers: senior outside hitter Hana Cutura, who was honored as the Pac-10 Player of the Year and earned first-team All-America honors, and junior setter Carli Lloyd, a second-team All-American for the second consecutive year. Also, the great Diane Ninemire – Cal's all-time leader in coaching victories – was inducted last Friday into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame in Nashville. I look forward to celebrating with Ninemire and her loaded softball team next May and June in Oklahoma City when she takes the Bears back to the Women's College World Series. Finally, one of our professors just discovered a 4.4 million-year-old hominid skeleton, which I believe was making the "We're No. 1" sign. How you like us now?
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Well, that was abrupt – but I kind of like it. In a move that shows that the poor results of recent weeks simply won't be tolerated, the Reading Football Club's board announced Wednesday that manager Brendan Rodgers had "agreed by mutual consent" to leave his position after only six months on the job. Or, in proper English: He was sacked. I dig the impatience, too. Three seasons ago, the Royals finished ninth in the Premiership, a single point away from qualifying for Champions League competition. Two years ago they were sent down to the Football League Championship division, and last year they lost a playoff that could have earned them promotion back to the big show. And now? Twenty-one games into the 46-game season, they have won just five times and sit in 21st place, one spot clear of the relegation zone. Last Saturday, in what turned out to be Rodgers' final game, they failed to win for the 10th time in 11 home matches at Madejski Stadium, blowing a late lead against Scunthorpe and managing only a 1-1 draw. Following the shakeup, Reading will be led by chief scout Brian McDermott on an interim basis, beginning with Saturday's game at Bristol City. Speculation around a permanent replacement centers on former Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson (reportedly the club's top choice for the job that ultimately went to Rodgers last June; they were denied permission to speak with him at the time). There is also talk that the board might go after former Middlesbrough boss Gareth Southgate. And there are even some rumblings that ex-Royals manager Steve Coppell, who guided the club to the Premiership but resigned following last season's disappointing playoff defeat, could be persuaded to return. That would be sweeeeeeeet. In the meantime, a word to Raheem Morris, Steve Spagnuolo, Eric Mangini, Todd Haley, Jimmy Mora and Jim Schwartz: Be very glad that you're coaching American football.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
In a perfect world, Mike Singletary would have an old-school offense that relies on a power running attack to pound opponents into submission. In San Francisco, however, the 49ers' second-year coach has a back-from-the-scrap-heap starting quarterback, Alex Smith, who, as in his college days, seems to succeed only when he stands several yards behind the line of scrimmage and surveys receivers across a spread formation. To Singletary's credit, he's adapting, at least for now. Maybe his quarterback did some backstage lobbying, complete with hair bleach, to make this odd marriage work. (To the tune of Billy Idol's "White Wedding.")
Hey Singletary why must you run?
Hey Singletary who's the chosen one?
Hey Singletary who's your superman?
Hey Singletary who's the quarterback?
Hey Singletary shotgun!
It's a nice day to start again
It's a nice day for a spread offense
It's a nice day to start again
Hey Scot McCloughan what have you done?
You and Mike Nolan picked me No. 1
I've been away for so long (so long)
I stunk it up for so long (so long)
I let you down for so long
It's a nice day to start again (come on)
It's a nice day for a spread offense
It's a nice day to start again
Throw it up
Off my back foot, yeah
There is nothin' fair in this world
It could be Aaron Rodgers'(notes) world
And while to Frank Gore(notes) you'd defer
You're just such a bore – let me hurl
Pull your pants down, give it a whirl
It's a nice day for a spread offense
It's a nice day to start again
It's a nice day to start again
It's a nice day to start again …