Let’s do some comparing and contrasting of three NFL coaches: Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, and Tom Coughlin. We’ll begin with their reputations among most sports fans: Dungy is widely considered a class act, Belichick is considered a scrooge who’ll do anything to win, and as for Coughlin, well, everyone is wondering why this guy still has a job.
As far as all three of these coaches go, each of them had playoff positions locked up before the games of this last weekend. So, how did they respond?
If you watched Saturday night’s nationally simulcast game between Belichick’s Patriots and Coughlin’s Giants, you saw an amazing game. Everyone expected the Patriots to go as far as they had to go for the win, and the Giants forced them to go all four quarters. The Patriots were playing to complete their regular season undefeated, as well as to break a few scoring records, both team and individual. The Giants really had nothing to play for, and since they didn’t have the luxury of a bye week, most (including me) expected them to rest their stars and roll over on Saturday night. But Coughlin didn’t let them do that, and NFL fans nationwide should be thankful.
Let’s now jump to Sunday night’s nationally televised game between Tony Dungy’s Colts and the Tennessee Titans. This time, the game meant nothing to the Colts, and everything to the Titans. If Tennessee wins, they’re in the playoffs, if they lose, they’re out. Either way, the Colts have a bye week in the first round. So how did Dungy respond? He benched almost all of his offensive starters after one quarter of play. The Titans, playing against the second and third string Colts, barely survived, mustering a 16-10 victory. For any fan of the game (those of the Titan variety included), this was un-watchable football.
What’s worse is that Dungy had the nerve to do this in front of his home crowd. With only eight home games a year, you could say that Dungy “cheated” his fans out of a game.
What I really don’t understand is this: how does pulling all of your starters help your team in the long run? If a star player is nursing an injury, then having the luxury of resting him an extra week makes perfect sense. But as far as we know, Peyton Manning has had a very healthy season, and with a bye week locked up, does he really need a three week break between games? What happened to having a little pride in putting on your uniform and coming to play every week?
I’ve been using Dungy as a case study, but I know this sort of behavior is not limited to him. The Dallas Cowboys did the exact same thing on Sunday, as well as many teams who had no chance at a first round bye: Tampa Bay, Seattle, Jacksonville, and probably others I didn’t notice. It’s as if resting your starters is a luxury that NFL coaches can’t pass up. In fact, even the media is becoming obsessed with it. During the fourth quarter of the Washington-Dallas game on Sunday, the Redskins had a comfortable two possession lead, and a victory would send them to the playoffs. With about ten minutes left, the announcer suggested that the Redskins oughtta start resting their starters. Really? Is sitting out for two offensive possessions really going to make a difference at how well they play next week, especially if it means risking the lead you have right now?
Hopefully, what Bill Belichick and the Patriots are able to prove this postseason, is that there is a real benefit to taking every game seriously. This doesn’t mean running up the score, or leaving your star quarterback in the last series of a blowout – but it does mean taking every game as an opportunity to make your team better. And I don’t see how letting your third string lose a game for you accomplishes that.