Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Jim Caldwell deserves coach of the year-- for losing a game

It is pretty clear after this week's games that the NFL head coach of the year should be Indianapolis rookie head coach Jim Caldwell.

What? Caldwell after all is not only a first year coach but he took over a program that if you told anyone they'd be 14-1 heading into the final week of the season no one would be surprised. He inherited a team which had been coached by a legend, and a team for which any outcome short of a Super Bowl ring would not be a successful season. And this year we've seen some amazing performances in traditional NFL backwaters like New Orleans and Cincinnati that are certainly deserving of coach of the year honors.

All of that is conceded. But Caldwell deserves it. And the best argument could be made this week. He lost a game. Almost threw it, in fact, pulling out Peyton Manning and other key starters while leading the New York Jets 15-10 at home and going on to lose 26-15.

Caldwell is no fool. He knows that two years ago Bill Belichick took a team into the Super Bowl on the cusp of a perfect season, only to be done in by a combination of the pressure of perfection and maybe reading their own press clippings. Not to take anything away from the New York Giants, who certainly deserved to win that game, but there is no doubt that the Patriots showed that they were not immune from the pressure.

Don Shula and the 1972 Miami Dolphins did something that no one has done since, but the fact is that trying to replicate it only adds to the pressure heading into the playoffs. Caldwell knows that, so when he saw that the Jets were playing well enough to stay in the game, he went ahead and got rid of the pressure by essentially losing on purpose (though he can't say that.) The Colts already have home field for the playoffs sewn up so at least in terms of the Colts (more on this below) the game had zero playoff implication. And Caldwell is well aware that there is at least one team in the AFC playing very good football right now that is very capable of coming into Indianapolis and stealing a win. San Diego proved that a week ago when they withstood the best shot of a Cincinnati Bengals team that was trying to get the number 2 seed in the playoffs and was playing inspired football following the tragic death of receiver Chris Henry. So Caldwell decided he'd rather lose a (to his team) meaningless game against the Jets than risk losing in the playoffs to the Chargers, or in the Super Bowl.

It is certainly true that in doing so he broke one of the unwritten rules of the NFL. Teams playing in games with playoff implications late in the season are expected to put their best professional effort on the field. So for example, a late season game between two teams that are already out of the playoff picture may feature a lot of non-starters that they want to get a look at heading into the offseason and draft day. But for example, with playoff seeding in the NFC on the line, Tampa Bay put their best professional effort on the field against the Saints Sunday and the Chicago Bears put theirs on the field against the Vikings last night, and both came away with victories. The philosophy is simple-- nobody backs into a playoff in the NFL, you have to earn your way in or to where you stand in the pecking order.

And that would be true of the Colts heading into the playoffs too. If they were playing a game that didn't matter fewer people would question Caldwell's move. But this game only didn't matter to them. By unofficially handing the game to the Jets (though the Jets did show by hanging tough in the first half that they were playing hard, to be sure) Caldwell certainly threw a joker into the AFC wildcard race. The Jets join the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Denver Broncos as one of five 8-7 teams in the AFC fighting over the last two playoff spots heading into the final week of the season. Certainly if the Jets grab one of the wild card spots there will be some disappointed fans in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston or Denver who will be furious with Caldwell. In fact, if the Bengals, who may have the number three playoff seeding locked in by the time they play the Jets on Sunday night follow Caldwell's lead and keep their A-team off the field it's entirely possible that New York could sneak into the playoffs ahead of one of those teams purely by the luck of playing what should have been two of their toughest games of the year in the last two weeks.

But so what? He's the coach of the Colts, not of the Steelers, Ravens, Texans or Broncos. By breaking the unwritten code, he made a gutsy decision, recognizing that he is in it for his team and with his team. A great coach is supposed to be able to think outside the box, and he did it Sunday. And for that, he does deserve coach of the year honors.

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