LOS ANGELES, December 30, 2012 — This is what football is all about. The last week of the regular season is do or die. Break out the John Randall megaphone. This…is…when…the…big…dogs…come…out.
Week 16 of the NFL 2012 season is in the books.
The point spreads for Week 17 are set.
Then the regular season is done. The real intensity is just beginning.
Winners make the playoffs, and losers get to spend the next seven months wondering what went wrong. The AFC and NFC playoff pictures will be completely fleshed out by late Sunday night. All 16 games are played on Sunday. Of those games, 12 are played early in the day, followed by three more, and climaxing with the final game of the year, a bitter rivalry between Dallas and Washington for their division crown.
Yet some of the games will not have any intensity. When both teams are eliminated from the playoffs, the only motivating factor is pride. Players on bad teams are playing for their jobs, and in many cases the jobs of their coaches and general managers. Outside of the owner, nobody is safe on a bad team.
There is a third type of game that will be played, and it sparks the same unresolved argument every year. This year it involves the Atlanta Falcons. At 13-2, they have the best record in football. They have clinched home field throughout the playoffs as long as they are in it. Whether they win this Sunday and go 14-2 or lose to fall to 13-3, nothing changes. For the Falcons, this game does not matter. The question has already been asked, but never truly answered.
Should the star players play or take the day off? This is the battle of rest vs rust.
The players always want to play, but the decision belongs to Head Coach Mike Smith. The players get paid either way, but the considerations run far deeper.
The ultimate goal is not to have the best record during the regular season. The purpose of the National Football League is to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy on the first Sunday in February. There is winning the Super Bowl, and nothing else. As Lombardi himself said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Nobody remembers who had the best regular season record. They remember who won the Super Bowl.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones, tight end Tony Gonzalez, and many other stars want to play. Yet every play in football is a potential injury. If any of the stars get injured in a meaningless game, they risk not being available for the playoffs.
The other side of the coin is losing the intensity necessary to win football games. The Falcons already have the first week of the playoffs off. Taking this week off means it will be three weeks before their players see meaningful action. Their opponent will have played the week earlier. The Falcons will be healthier. They will have the rest. Yet they may also have the rust.
Every year there are examples of why either strategy makes sense. Last year the Green Bay Packers went 15-1, had a week off, and had to face a New York Giants team that barely made the playoffs at 9-7. Yet the tired Giants went into Green Bay and throttled the rested Packers. The Indianapolis Colts lost several times after resting starters, winning the Super Bowl after a 2006 season where the starters had to stay in.
Yet the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles and the 2009 Colts both had home field wrapped up with two regular season games to go. The Eagles were 13-1 while the Colts were 14-0. Both teams rested starters and lost their last two games. Both teams made the Super Bowl anyway.
So what does a coach do? Bench everybody.
There is no reason to risk injury to a star in a meaningless game. Take the star quarterback and teach him how to hold a clipboard. Steal his helmet if necessary, but he does not belong on that field. If he truly has burning competitive desire, that will fuel him to play the following week.
The best team does not win the Super Bowl. The best healthiest team wins it. Besides, forcing star players to sit on the bench is good for a coach. Inserting second tier players allows the coach to evaluate those players. It gives them valuable playing time in case a starter does get injured during the playoffs.
The only thing worse than a star player going down in the playoffs is a backup player with no experience. Practice is not the same as live action, and backups do not even get the same quality practice experience as the starters.
Watching a game from the sidelines even benefits the stars. It forces them to watch the game, where they can learn new things from an outside point of view. This gives them insight into what the coaches are doing during the game and how the players respond. As for rust, these men are professionals. Professionals cannot allow themselves to get complacent. Complacency can be guarded against. Injuries cannot.
Two years ago the Falcons went 13-3, had the top seed in the playoffs and got blasted at home by a Green Bay team that had no rest and plenty of injuries. Yet perhaps Green Bay was simply the better team. Mike Smith will be questioned no matter what he does if the Falcons lose. The right decision is what wins.
Yet take it from an armchair quarterback. I never scored four touchdowns in one high school game like Al Bundy, but I did win three championships playing coed-touch football. As a man approaching 40 with teammates in their 20s, every ounce of rest between games was appreciated.
Give the stars baseball caps and headsets. Sit them down. Save them for the games that matter. Those games will be approaching soon enough.
Brooklyn born, Long Island raised, and now living in Los Angeles, Eric Golub is a columnist, blogger, author, public speaker, satirist and comedian who is obsessed with the National Football League. There is no offseason. Every February he pretends to care about other sports while sobbing uncontrollably each Sunday until September. Eric is the author of the book trilogy “Ideological Bigotry, “Ideological Violence,” and “Ideological Idiocy.” When not watching football, his only other hobby is Republican, Jewish women. Republican, Jewish women, you may contact Eric above.
Follow Eric on Twitter @TYGRRRREXPRESS Eric Golub is an independent writer for the Communities. Read more from Eric at his TYGRRRR EXPRESS blog.
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