Monday, December 28, 2009

Thanks for tanking: Why the Colts were right, and why the NFL is happy

Bill Polian has fed the beast while also poking it with a stick.

Please pretend it is neither here nor there that punting on a chance at history means the Indianapolis Colts have Curtis Painter-ed themselves into a corner, where the only way out is winning the Super Bowl. (Like it wasn't already when everyone believes your robo-quarterback is a choke artist.) Polian's choice works on a practical level, as Polian noted: "The perfect season was never an issue with us. We’ve said it time and time and time again. It is somebody else’s issue, not ours. That was of no concern."

It was brilliant beyond that, though. For one, it gives the NFL its mother's milk — a talking point to beat into the ground from here to next year. It also skewered the we're-all-experts illusion which makes following pro football great. That is why all the armchair-quarterback apoplexy over the Colts tanking rings false. It was the right move.

The second part is more important, from a fan perspective. As much as you love the NFL, you don't need to sacrifice your better judgment and get carried along by its never-ending stream of contrived controversies, which keep the league at the top of the conversation. (Chuck Klosterman's essay, "Football," in Eating The Dinosaur provides a pretty good explanation.)

It is impossible to be aloof from it, even at Advanced NFL Stats or Football Outsiders. People buy into it, but also get blinded into playing expert, instead of accepting the Tao of Lloyd Dobler, knowing they don't know.

The truth with following the NFL is it's great, for the most part, to follow a league where people are very well-familiarized with the game. A joke about Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid's clock-management skills does not have to be explained too much.

This is double-edged. It lends to oversimplification. Observers start to expect the observed to act the way they would. It feel likes Polian and Jim Caldwell — all together: worst 14-1 coach ever! — were reamed for not going along with the popular whim and shooting for the Holy Grail 19-0 season. What, the Colts were supposed to proceed accordingly because of what fans wanted?

The NFL is entertainment, but it does not work that way (yet). It is nice when a team does something in line with what fans would do — like going for a game-winning two-point conversion in the final minute instead kicking the extra point and going to overtime — but that is rare. Teams want to keep their players healthy and fresh for the playoffs. To hell with people who expect sports to take away their cynicism instead of it having it reflected back at them (Jeff Pearlman, whom I would run through a wall for: "Now the Colts will walk a similarly worn path. Yet another team winning another Super Bowl. Meh.").

You are better off to accept that and try to see through the game the league runs. Better yet, develop a more flexible memory. Perhaps Indianapolis saw 16-0 for what it was worth: Sweet F.A. Did people forget during the first 10, 12 weeks of the season, all the talk was about the dearth of parity across the league. There was speculation two teams might finish the regular season 16-0, remember that?

Perhaps pissing on history, as sportswriters conceive of it, is a necessary good. It has always been a laugh and a half that the 1972 Miami Dolphins who went 17-0 are viewed as immortal. True, Miami is the only NFL team to run the table, as if 35 years of advances in coaching, scouting, player development, free agency, weight training, nutrition and game-planning should not enter into the equation.

The beauty of our era is we enjoy the benefit of readily available info which provides more context than win-loss records. For starters, the '72 Dolphins weren't even the best single-season team of the 1970s, much less of the past 60 years. The 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers fare better under Simple Ranking System.

The '72 Dolphins, playing in an era of a 26-team NFL, played more than half their regular-season games (8-of-14) in a five-team AFC East division where the second-place team went 7-7. The '75 Steelers, who went 12-2, were in a division where the third-place team was 10-4 (and they had two less divisional games, since the AFC Central had only four teams).

It also entirely possible that as pro football evolves — particularly if the salary cap is abolished — a 16-0 season might become more scalable, maybe even commonplace. (A commenter on Stampede Blue noted, "As the league becomes more and more unbalanced, it will become easier every year to feast on the Browns, Lions, and Rams of the league and more and more teams will be capable of going 16-0.")

The NFL is not college football. There's no benefit to being undefeated. So, we're mad at the Colts for doing something which is completely condoned by the rules?

Nowhere does it say a GM and coach are supposed to make decisions based on what would please the majority of fans. The Colts once traded away Hall of Fame halfback Marshall Faulk to speed up the rebuilding of a 3-13 team. The New England Patriots have jettisoned popular players — remember Bill Belichick cutting strong safety Lawyer Milloy on the eve of the 2003 season? — to stay lean and mean.

You might say that personnel decisions are different than in-game decisions, which is true. However, keep in mind that an organization's strength is often its weakness. The qualities which help the Colts be in the Super Bowl mix year in-year out might fail them when it comes to optics. The execution of the plan — why not do it at halftime, or wait until the team had more than a five-point lead — was sloppy. It will come out in the wash, and who isn't going to be fascinated to see whether the team which tanked can win the Super Bowl?

The Colts have given us a spur to thought. Give them that much. They will never going to hear the end of it and granted, there is The Hater Nation argument, "Now, going 15-1 or 14-2, bowing out in the first round will seem like every other Colts playoff collapse."

It would be nice if Indy still had a shot at going 19-0. It would be nicer if sports arguments weren't born out of people playing expert and expecting the sports world to indulge their fantasies. Besides, no one knows what this does for Indy's Super Bowl chances. For all we know, they might not have even been the favourite to win the AFC before Sunday (see Chargers, San Diego).

Meantime, the NFL loooooves it that a team quit mid-game and might still win the Super Bowl. It's perfect manufactured outrage. The NFL wins, again.


Anonymous said...

Dear Colt Fans:

Get over yourselves.
Try to see the big picture.
So what if the Colts tanked a home game, just to save Manning and Co. for the post season?
So what if you people paid beaucoup bucks to witness essentially a pre season game in late December?
Polian is right...undefeated seasons don't mean squat.
We can't imagine why you fans get all bent out of shape over this.
It's no big deal, it's just not that important.
So cool it and stop making such an issue out of nothing.

Gleefully yours
The old farts known as the 1972 Miami Dolphins

Ron Rollins said...

I think the Patriots and the Mariners both proved it doesn't matter how many games you win in the regular season if you can't win the big one.

Seasonal records are nice for a team. But they're supposed to play for a championship, not an inch of type in a book somewhere.

Good move by the Colts.

Ron Rollins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I don't think the Colt faithful are so much pissed off with the fact their team lost as much as HOW they they lost.
Basically, the Colts gave up.
They gave up like Roberto mas.
It was as blatant a tank job as I have ever seen.
Teams do this kind of stuff in the preseason.
But this wasn't preseason.
And it wasn't some warm late August evening, either.
It was a shitty late December afternoon, in the middle of one of the crappiest winters on record, the Colt faithful showed up to watch their team compete.
And they did...for about 35 minutes.
Then they pulled the old bait and switch.
The official party line is that Manning and Co. are down with this call, but one only had to look at the expression on Manning's face and the body language of his team mates to see it wasn't necessarily so.
Manning looked both embarrassed and frustrated, watching helplessly as the game unravelled as seldom used back ups
The Colts bench look demoralized.
After all, they spent 14 weeks busting nut to build this record only to piss it away on a "stategic move".
The NFL is looking to expand the schedule to 18 games.
Boy I can't wait.
The more games, the more 'meaningless' late season tilts for runaway division leaders, the more scenarios like this one.
The fans won't be happy.
Vegas will go crazy.
The networks will have dog games where they should have had marquis features.
This sucks on so many levels.

Jason Cormier said...

This might have made sense if a) the Colts had not won the Superbowl yet with Manning; b) Manning was injury prone; and c) an undefeated season + Superbowl would not have given them bragging rights over the much hated rivals from New England.

In this case, it was a dumb decision. How exactly are the Colts' chances of winning the Superbowl better with this decision?

If one is going to argue chance of injury then why was Manning used at all in the game...or in any game after they clinched home field for the playoffs?

sager said...


Good points, as always ... the best counter I can offer is it makes their chances no better or no worse. If you had asked me Sunday for a Super Bowl matchup, I would have said San Diego-Philadelphia, and I'd still say that now.

They probably realized there was a marginal rate of return in keeping Manning in the game ... they just jumped the gun and did it 10 minutes too soon. And maybe it should not have been done against a team still in the playoff race.

Anonymous said...

And maybe they shouldn't have done it at all during a home game.
Maybe Colts management doesn't put any stock in an unbeaten season, but the fans sure do.
And it's never a good idea to mess around with your fans, especially for a franchise which screwed their fans in another city a long long time ago.
Make no mistake, this move has harmed the Colts far more than it did them any good.
Their fan base feels cheated and betrayed.
Don't be too surprised if there is a group of angry Colt supporters filing a class action suit against the team.
The Colts have painted themselves in a corner, for sure.
40 years ago, Joe Namath guaranteed a Super Bowl win.
The Colts pretty much have to deliver a Super Bowl this season or there will be hell to pay.