View Full Version : Who's playing? Who's sitting? Who benefits?

01-03-2010, 10:28 AM
On the Steelers: Who's playing? Who's sitting? Who benefits?
There's trouble brewing for the NFL and it's not meaningless.
Sunday, January 03, 2010
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The most important word to any professional sports league is "integrity.'' The NFL strives to maintain the trust and honesty in its games, even suing states that tried to install legal betting on the outcomes.

Yet every season at this time of year, integrity flies out of NFL stadiums and the league office and commissioner seem powerless to stop it. They are the "meaningless" games played by teams that already have locked up their playoff spots.

Often, it occurs on the final week of the season when playoff-bound teams try to keep some of their players -- most of them quarterbacks -- out of harm's way by resting them, especially when they open the playoffs the following week. And quite often that conflicts with the doctrine of fairness because the playoff fates of other teams hinge on the outcome of that "meaningless" game.

The Steelers have been on both sides of it. They needed help from teams in 1976, '77 and '89 on the final week and got it. They needed help in 2000 and did not get it. They also were in position to help other teams and came through on some but did not on others.

In 1995, they lost in Green Bay and that kept the Detroit Lions out of the playoffs. Conversely, in 2004 they rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, halfback Jerome Bettis and others but still knocked the Buffalo Bills out of the playoffs with a win. Yet other playoff contenders in 2004 could have screamed "conspiracy" when the Steelers benched Roethlisberger and others because Mike Mularkey coached the Bills and Mularkey was coach Bill Cowher's former offensive coordinator with the Steelers.

Now the Steelers need help from Cincinnati and New England today and there is little incentive for either team to go all out. Neither division champion has a bye so both teams must open the playoffs next week.

Last week, the Indianapolis Colts truly showed what "meaningless" means when they pulled Peyton Manning from their game in the third quarter and practically handed a victory to the New York Jets because of it. There is a belief in some circles that the Colts threw the game to manipulate who they would play in the postseason.

The Jets could thus become one of the most fortunate playoff teams in the game's history. After even their coach gave up two weeks ago, the Jets will benefit from not one but two games against playoff-bound teams that have nothing to play for when they follow with their game against the Bengals tonight.

The Colts' situation turned ugly and it could become a large distraction for them. Instead of their fans and the city celebrating what might be a perfect season, they turned on the Colts last week when Manning was pulled from the game at home. It has been one big negative in Indianapolis all week. And if the Colts do not go on to win the Super Bowl, people will point forever to the game they "threw" against the Jets.

Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley predicted both the Bengals and Patriots would "lay down" today in order to keep the Steelers out of the playoffs. I do not believe that to be true, but you can bet others are thinking that way as well. And what is the difference between "laying down" and "throwing" a game?

The NFL has no rules against laying down, although they certainly do against throwing games.

The league needs to adopt some. Commissioner Roger Goodell has it in his power to do it. He punishes players before they are convicted of crimes. He fined the owner of the Tennessee Titans $250,000 this season for making an obscene gesture during a game. He certainly could punish teams if he felt they were not doing their competitive best each Sunday, which strikes more at the heart of the game than an owner flipping the bird.

The league could stop this in its tracks if it truly wanted to do so. Fine a team, oh, $2 million if it benches a quarterback or other significant players with the game still on the line, barring an injury that can be proven. And make the head coach pay half of it. That practice would end forever.
Is the season half-full or half-empty?

An amazing part of this season is that the Steelers never put a team away and never were put away. Their biggest win by point spread was 27-14 against Cleveland at home, but that was not sealed until they scored midway through the fourth quarter for a 10-point lead. Same for their game against San Diego, when they blew a 28-0 lead and won out, 38-28, a game that was in doubt until late. Even in Detroit, they needed a defensive stand at the end to preserve an eight-point win.

The other was their 10-point victory against Minnesota, a game much in doubt until two long touchdown returns in the final 6 1/2 minutes. The score was 20-17 until Keyaron Fox returned an interception 82 yards for a touchdown with one minute left and the Vikings driving.

It was a year in which they lost five games by three points, two of those games in overtime, and another by six points. Their biggest loss came by seven points to ... the Cleveland Browns. All seven losses were by a touchdown or less.

They won two games by three points, one in overtime, and one by one point. Thus, they were 3-7 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

It's popular to point to the close games a team lost. However, bad teams usually lose the close games more often than good teams do -- and that might be what separates the two.

The Steelers won those games last season and were Super Bowl champions. They lost them this season, which is likely to end today in Miami.

Does management look at this and believe they are only a player or two away (such as the return of Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith)? Or do they see it as the beginning of a troubling aspect of the team?

It is difficult to determine. Similar things happened in 2006 and they bounced back with a division title in 2007 and a Super Bowl in 2008. Yet in 1998, they were 7-9 and lost three games by five points or less after going 11-5 and reaching the AFC title game the previous season. In 1999 they tumbled to one of their two worst seasons under Cowher, 6-10.

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