Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell has been saying for weeks that going undefeated was "a secondary goal" for his team. On Sunday he showed he meant it.
With his 14-0 Colts holding a five-point lead over the visiting New York Jets late in the third quarter, the first-year coach pulled Peyton Manning(notes) in favor of rookie Curtis Painter(notes). It was the football equivalent of waving the white flag. New York would go on to score 19 unanswered points, thus handing Indianapolis its first loss of 2009.
In theory, the benching of Manning wasn't a surprise. Caldwell had foreshadowed such an event for weeks. But you always got the sense that if it was going to happen, the coach would have done so at halftime or when the Colts had a big lead or small deficit. Taking the presumptive NFL MVP out of the game with a five-point lead in the middle of the third quarter felt strange. It felt like Jim Caldwell wanted to lose.
Painter was the 201st pick of the 2009 NFL draft and entered the season as Indy's emergency quarterback. An injury to longtime Manning backup Jim Sorgi(notes) bumped Painter up a spot on the depth chart and he saw his first NFL action today. The odds that Painter was going to hold a lead against a stout Jets defense were slim. (Check out Doug Farrar's post about Painter for more.)
If the Colts lose in the playoffs next month, some will look back on today's decision as the catalyst for said loss. And if Indy runs the table and wins the Super Bowl, some will claim that it was Caldwell's Week 16 decision that spurred the championship. Those will be equally dubious claims. It's doubtful that whatever happened today will have an effect on a game played 28 days from now.
But, for this afternoon at least, I think it was the wrong call. The benefit of resting Peyton for four series isn't enough to outweigh the historic implications of going 16-0. Caldwell is right when he says going undefeated is secondary. You play to win the Super Bowl. But how does throwing away a winnable game bring that ultimate goal any closer to fruition? Peyton Manning has never missed a game due to injury. What were the odds he'd get hurt in the final 22 minutes today? They were probably about the same as Curtis Painter holding the lead.