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A little more than seven years ago, I sat in a press box and watched then-Detroit Lions coach Marty Mornhinweg win an overtime coin toss and inexplicably take the wind rather than the football. The Lions lost, Mornhinweg was eventually fired, and I always believed I would never see a more defining in-game coaching mistake.
But after days of watching the Indianapolis Colts attempt to beat back the flames of fan discontent, I believe I have seen something worse. Now I'm starting to think the Colts' decision to bench key starters against the New York Jets – giving away a five-point lead and a shot at NFL immortality during an eventual 29-15 loss – might become a more defining, enduring low point.
It seems absurd to say that about a 14-1 team and a franchise that has been nothing less than stellar over the past decade. But by turning its back on potential history, it feels like Indianapolis is standing at a roulette wheel with all of its chips shoved onto 44: Super Bowl XLIV or broke. Anything less, and I'll remember the Colts' 2009 season with the same disappointed expression as the one Peyton Manning(notes) had watching the Jets win on Sunday.
And after seeing the vitriolic reaction in Indianapolis this week, I've got to believe most Colts fans will feel the same way. Clearly, their hopes and dreams had become leveraged on an undefeated season and immortality – to the point that even if the Colts win the Super Bowl, some of the fans will still debate how much sweeter it would have been doing it without a single blemish this season.
That is what has the potential to make Sunday's move so defining: It showcased in crystal clarity that a franchise and its fans will always be disconnected. Even in the most obvious of situations, teams may eschew what seems sensible and go their own way. And they'll defend it vigorously, much as Colts general manager Bill Polian and head coach Jim Caldwell have done this week. Make no mistake – Polian and Caldwell are being pretty frank in their defense, essentially telling fans, "Your goals and dreams for this team aren't necessarily our goals and dreams for this team."
One needed only to tune into Polian's appearance on the NFL Network on Tuesday to absorb that message. In what smacked of the league's propaganda machine doing its best to aid a member of its brotherhood in damage control, Polian didn't seem contrite. He didn't seem apologetic. He didn't seem fazed by the furious reaction of his own city.
"I thought we had made it clear that 16-0 was not a goal for us," he said.
In reality, the Colts made it quite clear. We just didn't believe them. The media didn't really buy it; the fans didn't buy it. Even other NFL players and coaches thought it was just a ploy to remove pressure from the franchise. And when the Colts did the unthinkable and proved they didn't care about claiming a place in history, our natural reaction was why? Why pass up a shot at something only one – one! – team has done in NFL history? Something so special that, 37 years later, it remains rooted as one of the unassailable records in professional sports.
So yeah, Polian and the Indianapolis brass will have to excuse us if we're all still a little mystified at what happened against the Jets. It's crushing enough for a team to get that close and lose. But to give it away willingly … that's not salt in the wound. It's battery acid. It's why fans flooded Polian's radio show on Monday, allegedly closing it down early (though the radio station denies it). It's why NFL columnists across the country have been hammered with emails from irate Colts fans. And it's why 14-1 suddenly feels like the badge of honor which simultaneously stabs at your heart.
And it's not helped by Polian's stated logic that "16-0 we did not feel was a historic achievement." If that's true, then Polian and the Colts have an odd perspective on what actually endures in the minds of NFL fans. He said on Tuesday that the Colts believe two other records were more important: having the most wins of any franchise this decade (currently 115), and holding the consecutive win mark for regular-season games (23). But while those are actually superb bullet points on a general manager's résumé, they will likely be broken or forgotten.
That is why Sunday's decision was defining – it made so little sense. It's nonsensical to embrace one form of history but not another. It makes no sense to set some goals predicated on winning but shun an opportunity that displays winning in its most pristine form.
You can't break perfection. But you can throw it away. The Colts proved it – and earned themselves a defining moment anyway.
Here are some of this week's other inconvenient truths …
The Patriots are in a precarious situation with Thomas
The New England Patriots may have put Adalius Thomas(notes) back in the starting lineup the past two weeks, but there are those who would still be shocked if he was back next season. Thomas has been diplomatic of late, but a former Baltimore Ravens teammate says the onetime star free-agent signee feels like he has been made a scapegoat for some of the Patriots' defensive struggles this season.
Clearly, if Thomas is cut, it will be because he hasn't meshed well – both within the framework of the defense, and the expectation that he would toe the line through his own struggles. Thomas hasn't shown the ability to be a natural pass rusher and has flirted with criticizing head coach Bill Belichick more than once. And word around the campfire was that when the Belichick sent four players home for showing up late to a meeting three weeks ago, his No. 1 target was Thomas.
Adalius Thomas is in his third season with the Patriots.
(Geoff Burke/US Presswire)
"They're not used to that type of guy and they're not going to put up with that type of guy," said Thomas' former Ravens teammate. "They want you to be quiet and be a good little soldier. Then Bill [Belichick] can play his mind games and you can't chime in on it or say anything about it. [Adalius is] frustrated. … They never should have moved him to inside linebacker when he got there. That messed everything up. Why try to make him that? He never played that, and you try to make him that because that's what [Bill] saw for him."
The former teammate said that, despite Thomas' solid numbers, he believes the initial juggling at middle linebacker – combined with last year's season-ending injury – took Thomas out of his groove as a pass rusher and contributed to problems this season. More troubling to the Patriots, he believes that if Thomas is released this offseason, he will sign with the New York Jets and reunite with Rex Ryan, whom Thomas thrived under when Ryan was the defensive coordinator with the Ravens.
"He'll be a great fit [with the Jets]," Thomas' former teammate said. "He's still got a lot of juice in that body. He'll be great. If anybody knows how to use him – who got 20 sacks from him in two years – it's Rex. That's the man who really created him. The Patriots have the ultimate weapon but they don't know how to use him."
One thing is clear: Whatever happens with Thomas won't be strictly about money. The Patriots already paid out almost $24 million in Thomas' first three seasons. And while his $4.9 million base salary in 2010 isn't peanuts, it's not so astronomical that he would be cut if he were playing at a high level this season.
Zorn is being humiliated by Snyder
How hard is Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder on his head coaches? His next hire will be the team's sixth (or seventh, if you want to count interim Terry Robiskie) in Snyder's 11-plus years of ownership. And of that batch, more than a few still have a bad taste in their mouths regarding Snyder. However, none endured the absolute indignity being heaped upon Zorn.
The decision to strip Zorn of his play-calling duties in the middle of the season wasn't pleasant but, at the very least, it could be argued as a tactical necessity. Since then, Snyder has shown a staggering amount of disrespect by reportedly interviewing one of Zorn's own assistants – secondary coach Jerry Gray – for Zorn's job. That's about as taboo as it gets in the NFL's coaching ranks. Not only is it a shock that Gray would actually agree to such an interview (and he has been ambiguous and contradictory when talking about whether he actually did) but it's disappointing that any owner would undermine his head coach so completely. Yes, Zorn is on his way out, but Snyder is essentially whacking him in the shins with a shovel as he heads to the door.
And none of this even speaks to what happened at the NFL owners' meetings in March, when – according to a report by Fox's Jay Glazer – Snyder called over former Denver Broncos safety John Lynch(notes) and questioned him about Mike Shanahan in front of Zorn. According to Glazer, who now works alongside Lynch as a Fox analyst, Lynch and Zorn actually made eye contact during the awkward moment. It doesn't get more brutal than having your owner vetting your potential successor right in front of you … unless Snyder conducted the Gray interview inside Zorn's office. Considering the sleaziness of all of this, I wouldn't rule that out.
The bottom line: Zorn is already getting fired and taking his lumps at every turn. He doesn't deserve to be emasculated along the way. Undoubtedly, future candidates are seeing this. Indeed, new Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren already came out and criticized how Snyder has treated Zorn. You can bet he's not the only one watching from afar. If Shanahan is indeed the next coach of the Redskins, Snyder better pray the brain trust of the former Broncos coach and new general manager Bruce Allen get the job done. Because his treatment of Zorn could have a chilling effect on upper-tier candidates down the line.