By Joseph Kellard
Should the Indianapolis Colts have pulled quarterback Peyton Manning and their other starters in their game against the New York Jets, which in effect greatly diminished their chances to maintain their perfect, undefeated season? The Colts ended up losing the game they otherwise had a good shot to win. Here's my basic thoughts on the issue:
No regular season game, no matter if the team in question has already clinched a playoff spot or even the top seed in their division, is meaningless. If that were true, then there would be no debate about whether the Colts' coach should have pulled Manning & Co.
While it’s true that you should always play to win the game, this goal is subordinate to the fact that you primarily play for the top prize, the championship, the Super Bowl.
And if a coach deems that that goal requires giving his team less than its best chance to win, as the Colts coach did when he pulled the incomparable Manning for an inexperienced quarterback, then so be it. Even though you’ve greatly diminished your chance to win the game, you still give all your effort to win it.
This is recognition of the fact that not all games are of equal weight, that in certain (winning) circumstances, it’s not necessary to give all your effort in each and every game. You play to win, yes, but not at the price of jeopardizing the ultimate goal: a championship.
Some coaches allow their starters play throughout the season, no matter the circumstance, as the Patriots did two seasons ago when they had an unbeaten record and were chasing perfection. The Colts had that chance, too, this season, but unlike the 2007 Patriots they are opting not to pursue a perfect season. Instead, they are focusing on doing what they believe they need to do, and that is to win a championship. The Patriots had that goal to, and they played all their starters the whole year, and none got hurt—and then they lost in the Super Bowl to the Giants. Some members of that team, such as Rodney Harrison, said that the pressure of going undefeated definitely got to them.
What one sports radio personality here in New York said is that the teams that pursue perfection are pursuing immortality. Everyone who knows the game well knows that only one team has had a perfect season and went on to win the Super Bowl: the 1972 Miami Dolphins. They are an immortal team because of that record. And that is what teams like the 2007 Patriots were pursuing. But, remember, the goal is not to win immortality – that is, recognition in the eyes of others – but the satisfaction and pride of winning a championship, first and foremost. All else, including immortality, should be subordinate to this goal.
Ultimately, the goal is to win a championship, and sometimes within the context of a season that does not necessarily mean that you have to try your best or give your team its best chance to win every game. You should always play to win the game, but that doesn't mean that you have to give yourself the best chance to win every game, if doing so (i.e. keeping your irreplaceable players in the game) may jeopardize the top goal: winning a championship.
The mantra shouldn’t be: you play to win the game—because a single game is just a stepping stone among others toward the ultimate stone, the Super Bowl. You play to win a championship, and everything else must be subordinate to that goal.