NFL End of Season Dilemma


The NFL universe is buzzing about the Indianapolis Colts resting their players in Week 16 and completely sacrificing the chance to go finish an undefeated season. Bill Polian and coach Jim Caldwell are completely right to say: the goal is to win the Super Bowl and the best thing to do at season’s end is to try to keep their starters as healthy as possible.

The fans were livid. Not only do they want their team to take a shot at being the team that goes 20-0 and by extension a team that becomes the best of all time, if they had tickets for schedule weeks 16 or 17, they got to see Painter instead of Manning. They only have to look at the Patriots, who played starters until Wes Welker blew out his knee and Tom Brady’s go to safety valve WR went from being a guy with league leading 123 receptions to a capable rookie Julian Edelman. I am sure Patriots coach Bill Belichick would have rather had Welker and Edelman to help out Brady and Randy Moss going into this weekends AFC divisional round.

I was in New York the Tuesday (Dec. 28th I believe) after Welker went down for 6 months, and after the Jets had played the Colts’ backups for one of two wins they needed to get to the playoffs and a cabbie was tuned in to sports talk radio as I rode in a taxi from Penn Station to the East Side. The hosts were calling the Jets illegitimate and though the hosts could be wrong, the point was made that the Jets were being man handled by the Colts before Peyton Manning was benched. All of this, along with many other Week 17 duds, left NFL commissioner Goodell with a bad taste in his mouth.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is thinking about creating a special incentive for teams to play their starters in every game of the year even if the last few games of the season cannot change the playoff picture for this team. While NFL starters clamor to not play in pre-season games, are pulled during “garbage time” and an injured starter can be the difference between a team being a playoff contender and missing the playoffs completely (see Brady, McNabb and Palmer season ending knee injuries), he wants to find an incentive to make playoff teams play players in meaningless regular season finales. I doubt he can offer enough money and or resources to make it worth the teams’ or players’ sacrifice. The goal of the regular season is to make the playoffs and the goal of the playoffs is to make the Super Bowl. There is nothing Goodell can do that would be fair and enough to motivate teams to go all out in garbage time.

A quick and dirty way to attempt to create a more meaningful last two weeks of the season matter is to make the last two weeks “rivalry weeks” or only intra-division play. So a typical NFC EAST end of season would be:

  • Week 16: Redskins at Eagles, Cowboys at Giants
  • Week 17: Giants at Redskins, Eagles at Cowboys

As of week 16, 3 of those teams were in the running for a playoff spot, and I believe all three had to win out for the divisional crown. As it turned out in Week 17, the Eagles could have been 2nd or 6th seed in the NFC, the Cowboys could have been 3rd or 6th. We know how that turned out. It may not have changed the Colts situation, but it may created more meaningful match ups in week 17.

The second reason I think divisional play is good at the end of a season, is that misery loves company. The Browns were the loss that took the Steelers playoff destiny completely out of their own hands. Browns WR/KR/Wildcat QB Josh Cribbs was interviewed after the game and intimated that even though the Browns had a bad record, beating the arch rival Steelers was the next best thing to going to the playoffs for his fans.

Another reason Goodell may be especially pissed is that this makes his plan to extend the regular season look especially stupid. Welker and Charles Grant, a dominating defensive end for the NFC 1st seed New Orleans Saints, went down in meaningless football games in week 17. One less game and both of these teams have these players for the 2009-10 playoffs. One more game tacked on to a long brutal season, who else would have been hurt in a game that didn’t matter?