There are more than a few talking heads in the NFL right now discussing whether or not the Indianapolis Colts or the New Orleans Saints should keep chugging along in hopes of a perfect 16-0 regular season. The argument stripped to the bare essentials is the decision to either rest players now so they are fresh for the postseason; or play every game with your best players to maximize your chance of winning. The assumption is that the decision to rest players is giving up on the perfect season and accepting a loss or two down the stretch. From there the argument fragments into a variety of schools of logical and illogical thought.
Some will argue that every game is independent from the ones that precede it, thus there is no concern about resting players and losing a game or two. These folks will argue that having a healthy team for the playoff game maximizes the chances of winning. A Super Bowl victory is all that matters, scorn on those who pursue regular season glory at the expense of the ultimate prize! I can hear my logical friends and most NFL analysts out there cheering, “Here, here!” or “Jolly good old chap!” as they smoke their pipes and sip their port.
Others will argue about the ebbs and flows that come with team sports and the mythical impact of momentum gained and lost. They will caution against flipping off the switch and expecting an ability to flip it back on at a later date. This contingent will be able to throw out countless examples to support their point of view and ignore all evidence to the contrary. I will at this point admit that I fall into this group, but I will search out evidence to the contrary below. Readers be warned of my bias!
A third group will talk about the football gods and the scorn that shall cometh to those that do not give 100% dedication to winning every single week. Any team that refuses to make full efforts to win will undoubtedly be given improbable and painful losing at a later date. The Tuesday Morning Quarterback leads this group’s school of tenuous thought. I will now proclaim my belief in this school of thought just in case there are in fact football gods. Please gods, please help my Buffalo Bills! We humbly offer T.O. to thee oh football gods as a sacrifice.
The thing I find most amusing is how virtually all the talking heads on tv and in the print media are actually more like bobble heads, nodding at whatever the Colts and Saints say. Most seem to agree with the Colts rumoured decision to shut down their top players and wait to make a Super Bowl run in January, while the same experts nod in agreement at the Saints decision to chase after a perfect season because ‘that is what they want to do’. Huh? How can they both be correct at the same time? Why are your bosses paying you for your opinion? Somewhere Dikembe Mutombo is waggling his finger at you in disappointing disapproval.
My simpleton view of the situation is that the Colts ought to chase after a perfect season and it doesn’t much what the Saints decide to do. I guess that is why no one pays me for my opinion on the matter. My understanding of history is that the Colts have rested starters in the past and then subsequently lost their first playoff game. In 2006 they were forced to play everyone through week 17 and they won a Super Bowl. I’m quoting selective stats to prove my point just like I said I would! My take is that the Colts are experienced enough to handle the pressure that will coming with a pursuit of a perfect season and good enough to have a realistic shot at 19-0.
For the Saints, I do applaud their desire to go 16-0 and I really take no issue with the decision. My point with these guys is that they probably aren’t good enough to go 19-0 thus I don’t really care what they decide to do. They have been pretty lucky to have won their past two games and I’m starting to see the horseshoes dangling out from the collective hind ends.
The fundamental issue in my mind is whether or not a team can shut things down, put all of their momentum on the shelf and then flip the switch in 3-4 weeks and proceed to play outstanding football through early February? If the answer is ‘yes they can’, then I can get behind the Colts decision to rest up. If the answer is ‘no you can’t’, then I think the correct answer is to play every game to win with your best players.
But enough of my own talking head views of the world. What does history say? As history seems to repeat itself, predict the future and possibly condemn those who fail to study it, I thought I would look at all the teams that had home field wrapped up for the playoffs to see how they decided to play their remaining games. That turned out to be somewhat fruitless* so I instead focused on the records of Super Bowl participants over their final 5 games of the season and any win or loss streaks held going into the playoffs . My fingers are crossed it will give us some clues as to the ‘correct decision’ for the Colts and the Saints. In the interest of sanity, I’ve started with the 1995 San Francisco victory and looked at how teams fared from through last year. I just didn’t have the heart to revisit the four Buffalo losses…
* I know, I know. I gave up pretty easily. Why not complete a review at teams that had wrapped up a playoff spot and then look at what they did over the past couple of games? The challenge of this method is a) identifying which teams had nothing on the line at the end of the season and b) sifting through the game details to see how long starters played. That is a crazy amount of work and I think and hope that looking at how the Super Bowl participants fared down the stretch will tell us something about how to play the final games of the season.
Below is the table of the past 15 years of Super Bowl results, along with how each participant fared in its last 5 games. I’ve also noted how each team ended the year in terms of consecutive wins or losses.1 – Titans and Giants both lost last game of season when meaningless. Both lost their first playoff game. 2 – Cowboys lost last game of season with nothing on the line and were bumped in their first playoff game against Giants. 3 – Bears lost last game of season with nothing on line and made it to Super Bowl. 4 – Seahawks lost last game of season with nothing on line and made it to Super Bowl. 5 – Vikings lost 3 down the stretch with division wrapped up. Vikings lost Conference Championship 41-0. 6 – Colts were 13-3, but lost last game of the season. Colts then lost divisional game to Titans. 7 – Denver went 13-3, but stumbled down the stretch before regrouping in the playoffs. 8 – Denver went 13-3, but lost last game. Denver then lost Divisional Playoff to Jacksonville. 9 – Chiefs went 13-3, but 3-2 down stretch. KC then lost Divisional Playoff 10-7 to Colts.
Looking at the table, a few interesting things stand out:
· 80% (12 of the last 15) Super Bowl winners won at least their last game of the regular season.
· 73% (11 of the last 15) Super Bowl losers won at least their last game of the regular season.
· 63% (19 of the last 30) of Super Bowl participants ended the season on what I will call a hot streak, defined as at least 4-1 in their final five games.
· Only 1 team won the Super Bowl having gone 2-3 in their last five games.
· Only 1 other team made it to the Super Bowl having gone 2-3 in their last five games.
The notes to the table above come from my having looked from 1972 through 2009 attempting to identify teams that might not have had anything on the line at the end of the year. From 1972 through the late 1990’s I was hard pressed to find a top tier team who appeared to have shut down big chunks of their team at the end of the year. Perhaps these teams were so good that their second stringers were able to win games or it might be that the idea of not playing your best players every game is a new phenomenon. I will leave that question to someone with a much better understanding of the game’s history than I.
The notes show a couple examples of success and more than a couple examples of failure after resting players at the end of the season. Interestingly, Denver seems to be the only team I could find that actually won the Super Bowl after resting players, though it was their second straight win. This suggests to me that the strategy of resting players can only work with a veteran team with Super Bowl experience and it is still no guarantee of success. I am about ready to conclude that the Saints are correct in their desire to play for a perfect season, thus play all their regulars. Whether or not they achieve a perfect season is beside the point. They must continue to play hard if they hope to have a chance at winning the Super Bowl.
My ‘few interesting things’ comments seem to support those of us who feel that momentum plays a big part in a team’s success. There are some instances of teams who have managed to flip the switch back on, but by and large the teams who play for the Super Bowl are those who are successful at the end of the season. This makes great intuitive sense. The teams playing the best football at the end of the season are most likely to win it all.
I have to admit I am surprised at how few teams that lost their last game of the season made it to the Super Bowl. Again, momentum reigns supreme. A team that loses focuses on trying to win and adjustments, while a team that wins focuses on executing a game plan. Sometimes the more you try to win, the worse you play.
Which brings me to my advice for Indianapolis, which differs from my pre-research advice. The Colts can rest up this week if you want, but be ready to ramp things back up in week 16 and certainly week 17. You guys want to go at least 3-2 in your last 5 and you certainly want to win your last game of the season. Recent history has shown that this is your best strategy in preparing for the playoffs.