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Caldwell better hope it ends well
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INDIANAPOLISJim Caldwell has asked Colts players to deflect media questions about what happened in Week 16 of the regular season.
That makes sense. There’s nothing for Indianapolis to gain by continuing to talk about the most controversial NFL coaching decision of 2009.
Besides, we’ll know whether Caldwell was right or wrong soon enough.
If the Colts win Saturday night’s first-round playoff game against visiting Baltimore, Caldwell will be vindicated for yanking his starters and ruining the chance for a perfect season during a 29-15 loss to the New York Jets.
Should Indianapolis fall, the stain on Caldwell’s coaching resume will never be erased.
The stakes are that high. For the past three weeks, fans and media have debated whether Caldwell was wise to protect key players from injury rather than try to sustain momentum from a 14-0 start heading into the postseason.
There is no conclusive proof that resting players late in the season has either a positive or negative effect on postseason play. But the outside response to Caldwell’s action was predominantly negative. The home crowd at the Jets game -- most of whom have experienced heartbreak from a recent history of early Colts playoff eliminations -- vigorously booed when Peyton Manning and Co. were pulled while leading New York in the third quarter.
Upset at what he considered a shot at the league’s integrity, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he will seek offseason changes to make sure all future games remain “competitive” even if they don’t affect one team’s postseason status like the Colts-Jets contest. Caldwell also may have cost himself NFL Coach of the Year votes from media selectors unhappy with how the situation was handled.
But if there is any second-guessing on Caldwell’s part, he didn’t show it during a Thursday news conference.
“All in all, we have to do what we think is in the best interest of the team,” said Caldwell, whose choice was made in conjunction with Colts president Bill Polian. “Most important are the guys who play and putting them in the best position to have an opportunity to win it all.”
Caldwell said resting starters wasn’t even the toughest coaching decision he had this season. Releasing players was more difficult because “you’re not just seeing the individual as an employee. You’re looking at someone who has a family, someone who people depend on.”
It’s that kind of compassion and Indianapolis’ overall success in 2009 that has Colts players trusting their first-year head coach has done the smart thing.
“It could have been a (bad) situation for other teams, but with this team, we know what’s at stake and what we need to do,” Colts tight end Dallas Clark said. “We’re just trying to keep all our focus and energy on achieving our goals. Everything else is things we’re trying not to listen to or get into.
“We don’t have time or energy to make a statement of what we could have done, should have done, would have done and all that stuff.”
When Indianapolis defensive players check their list of victories during group meetings, Colts outside linebacker Clint Session admits it “kind of feels weird” to see two teams that aren’t crossed out. Session, though, says starters haven’t internally questioned being benched during the loss against the Jets and again vs. Buffalo in the regular-season finale.
“It’s funny that it’s an issue,” Session said. “Nobody had any differences (with Caldwell). We knew the plan (against the Jets) from the start. We know what our main goal was. We want to go to the Super Bowl. Whatever it takes for us to get there, we’re doing it. If it takes resting guys, that’s what it is.”
Until the Jets game, Caldwell had unquestionably made all the right moves. His promotion from offensive assistant to replace the retiring head coach Tony Dungy went seamlessly. Caldwell’s replacement of his predecessor’s defensive coordinator and special teams coach paid dividends.
And say what you will about the quality talent -- particularly at quarterback -- that Caldwell inherited. It shouldn’t diminish the fact Caldwell won his first 14 games when no rookie head coach in NFL history had ever strung together more than eight straight victories. The Colts finished the regular season with the NFL’s best record and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“When he first took over, he didn’t have a resume. He was just a good, solid assistant coach,” Session said. “But to see him make his own decisions, be adventurous and do his own thing with his own personality to it, it makes you buy into the system he has. You respect him so much you want to play for him because he means a lot to your success.”
A former head coach at Wake Forest, Caldwell says he attends offensive, defensive and special teams meetings but generally allows his assistants to formulate game plans. In that overseer role, Caldwell has carved time to form strong personal relationships with his players.
“Communicating is the biggest thing he does,” Colts defensive end and sack leader Dwight Freeney said. “He understands what’s going on from position to position and player to player. A lot of times, misunderstandings happen because there’s no communication. One guy thinks one thing, (the coach) thinks another and all of a sudden the guys have a problem. There is none of that because he communicates exactly what he wants, then personally comes up to guys from time to time and addresses whatever needs addressing. Sometimes, it’s just ‘How are you doing?’”
Caldwell’s players believe he deserves Coach of the Year honors -- “How could he not win? He went 14-2 in his first year,” Freeney said -- but you won’t hear him lobbying. The egoless Caldwell has his eyes on a bigger prize. And after what he labeled two outstanding weeks of practice during the bye, Caldwell believes his healthy, well-rested team is poised to make a championship run.
“The real key is what you do this time of year,” Caldwell said. “That’s how everybody is judged in this league. I’d like to be judged that exact same way. Can you get your team to the biggest game and vie for the most coveted trophy in professional team sports? And can you win it?”
The answers will help determine just how wise Caldwell’s judgment truly was.
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