There is a widespread belief in Indianapolis, one that is held by my co-host, that had the Colts played their starters in meaningless games late in the regular season, perhaps they would’ve won more than the one Super Bowl. IndyStar columnist Bob Kravitz agreed with that sentiment in today’s column, blaming several of the Colts’ playoff losses in the 2000s on the decision to rest starters with everything wrapped up.
While I wouldn’t say that I am “pro” resting players, I can’t find any concrete evidence that resting starters has always caused the Colts (or any other team) to flop in the postseason.
As always, any time I think of a good idea for a Colts’ blog, Nate Dunlevy has already beaten me to it. Before the Week 16 debacle against the Jets in 2009, Nate looked at the Colts’ playoff history when they rested, and when they didn’t rest, their starters. He went all the way back to 1999, but I chose to look at the more recent examples from 2005-present:
2010 (PLAYED): Lost in the Wild Card Round to NY Jets, 17-16.
Indianapolis split their first twelve games, and then rallied to win their final four, including a 23-20 victory over Tennessee in Week 17. Peyton Manning and the starters played throughout that game, even though the Colts had wrapped up the AFC South and the #4 seed in the playoffs a week prior.
Despite going into the postseason with the “momentum” of a four-game win streak, the Colts inability to contain LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene (152 rush yards combined), and a huge Special Teams gaffe (Antonio Cromartie’s 47-yard kick return after Adam Vinatieri’s go-ahead field goal in the final minute) helped the Jets secure a 17-16 win.
Verdict: Playing the starters in Week 17 didn’t help.
2009 (REST): Lost in the Super Bowl to New Orleans, 31-17.
This is probably the most infamous of examples. We all know about the Colts’ decision to pull the plug in their Week 16 home finale against the Jets, and the fallout from an unhappy fanbase. However, despite falling to 14-2 after season-ending losses to the Jets and Bills, the Colts kicked it back into gear after the bye.
Indianapolis was barely challenged in a dominating 20-3 win over the Ravens, which saw the Colts force four Baltimore turnovers. Indy came out a bit flat in the AFC Championship Game, falling behind 17-6 before scoring the final 24 points in a 30-17 win. It was possibly Peyton Manning’s best playoff performance, as he completed 26 of 39 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns. The Colts then jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the Super Bowl against the Saints before Pierre Garcon's drop Hank Baskett Tracy Porter jumping a route karma for punting the perfect season! conservative playcalling torpedoed them in a 31-17 loss.
Does Peyton look rusty to you in this game?
Verdict: I think I could argue that resting may have actually helped.
2008 (REST): Lost in the Wild Card Round to San Diego, 23-17
Peyton Manning and most of the regulars played just one offensive series in the regular season finale against Tennessee, but it didn’t matter as the Colts cruised to a 23-0 win. The victory was Indy’s ninth straight, making them the hottest team in the NFL heading into the Wild Card Round against the Chargers.
In San Diego, the Colts ran into a bit of a buzz saw. All six of Mike Scifries’ punts pinned the Colts inside their own twenty yard-line, and on five of those possessions, the Colts started from inside their own ten. Darren Sproles did the rest of the work offensively, accounting for 256 all-purpose yards (106 return, 105 rush, 45 receive) and two touchdowns, including the game-winner.
Indianapolis scored first, and had the lead for most of the game. I doubt that resting players in Week 17 had anything to do with an overtime road loss, on the other side of the country, to a team that historically had given the Colts fits.
Verdict: Did not help nor hurt.
2007 (DIDN'T REST THEN RESTED): Lost in the Divisional Round to San Diego, 28-24.
This is the squad that I still believe – I’m in the minority here – was the best Colts’ team of the Indianapolis era. Despite having the #2 seed, the division, and a first-round bye already wrapped up after fifteen weeks, the Colts blitzed the Texans 38-15 behind three Manning touchdown passes in their penultimate regular season game. Indy then laid down their arms in a 16-10 Week 17 loss to Tennessee.
The injury-riddled Colts entered as a 10 ½ point home favorite against the Chargers, in what ended up being their final contest at the RCA Dome. It was a back-and-forth game which the Colts led for the entire first quarter (after going 76 yards in nine plays on their opening drive), and at halftime. It wasn’t until Billy Volek captained a 78-yard touchdown drive with 4:50 left that the Chargers took the lead for good.
Were the Colts flat? Manning threw for 402 yards, and the Indy offense racked up 29 First Downs and nearly 500 yards of offense. That doesn’t scream “flat” to me. With Dwight Freeney sidelined due to injury, the Colts generated zero pass rush, and allowed the combination of Philip Rivers and Volek (combined 17-23 passing, sacked zero times) to pick them apart.
Verdict: Did not help nor hurt.
2006 (DIDN'T REST): Won Super Bowl over Chicago, 29-17.
People point to ’06 as an example of how resting helped, but in this case, there wasn’t a decision to be made. The Colts had to beat the Dolphins in the regular season finale in order to wrap-up the third seed in the AFC. Manning played every series in the victory, and the Colts went on to beat the Chiefs, Ravens, Patriots, and Bears to win their only Super Bowl title in Indianapolis.
Verdict: There was no other decision to be made.
2005 (RESTED): Lost in the Divisional Round to Pittsburgh, 21-18
After San Diego handed the Colts their first loss of the season in Week 14, Indianapolis essentially decided to pull the plug on their final two games. The fightin' Jim Sorgis were beaten up in a 28-13 loss in Seattle, but did defeat Arizona on the strength of a goalline stand in the regular season finale to finish 14-2.
In the only playoff game where I truly felt the Colts were rusty, the Steelers dominated the first half and thwarted a late Colts’ rally to hold on for a 21-18 win. Indy only had three first-half points, and went three-and-out on three of their five offensive drives.
Unfortunately, the impact of resting players is tough to gauge given what the franchise was going through in the weeks leading up to the Pittsburgh loss. The tragic death of Tony Dungy’s son, James, just days before Christmas shook the entire organization. Could that have played a part? Certainly it could’ve. But, overall, taking the foot off of the gas for the entire final month probably cost the Colts more than anything else.
Verdict: Resting hurt.
All of this said, I believe the Colts are making the right decision to play their starters against Houston this Sunday – a game that has zero playoff implications for Indy. Chuck Pagano returns, and it would shortchange him, his players, and Colts’ fans to lay down in what is sure to be an emotional afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium. There is an element of risk, especially with Andrew Luck being knocked around more than any quarterback in the league this year. But, Kravitz and I agree that it is a risk worth taking, given the circumstances surrounding the regular season finale.
When we believe a team has underperformed, we try to make excuses (i.e. “Peyton isn’t clutch!” “The Colts can’t win in the cold!” “They were rusty from resting!”). As you can see from the facts, the claims of resting starters causing damage to the Colts’ playoff chances are largely unfounded.