The words coming out of Tony Dungy’s mouth are not the words you want to hear — if you have much appreciation of history, that is. After his Colts dispensed with the Jaguars on Sunday to go to 13-0, Dungy said a perfect regular season record, now three games away, “would be a nice footnote.” But let’s not forget, he added, that the team’s “ultimate goal” is winning Super Bowl XL.
Nice footnote. Since when is a 16-0 regular season — the first in NFL history — a mere footnote? Would the Patriots’ record 21-game winning streak in ‘03 and ‘04 have been a mere footnote if they hadn’t hoisted the Lombardi Trophy again last February? I tend to doubt it. (Though Dungy’s Destroyers could top it early next year if they keep racking up the W’s.)
And as far as ultimate goals are concerned, what could be more “ultimate” than outdoing the ‘72 Dolphins and finishing 19-0? In terms of team accomplishments — in a single season, at least — that would have to be Mount Everest. (And the fact that the Colts are playing in the tougher of the two conferences would make it even more impressive.)
But this, of course, is football, where bones break and brains get concussed. Does it really make sense, Dungy wonders, to continue to play my key guys now that we’ve locked up home-field advantage in the playoffs? What if Peyton Manning or Dwight Freeney gets hurt — and we don’t win it all? Wouldn’t I go down in history as the dumbest coach of all time?
No (it says here), he’d go down in history as a coach who seized the moment, who was intelligent enough to understand that an opportunity like this comes along … well, the Dolphins went undefeated 33 years ago, and the Bears made it through the regular season unscathed 30 years before that. So that pretty much fixes it — every 30 or so years.
People talk about this being a “tough decision” for Dungy, but I just don’t see it. It’s a decision that might involve a certain amount of risk, sure, but every time the Colts suit up, even for practice, danger lurks. To me, it’s an easy decision — if you’re a fatalist and not a hysteric. Indy has a chance to do something great, something far greater than just win the Super Bowl, and to not Go For It would be like Chuck Yeager saying, “Nah, I think I’ll let some other fella break the sound barrier.”
I wouldn’t call it cowardice, this type of behavior. More like insufferable pragmatism.
But the NFL didn’t become the NFL by playing it safe. “Reckless abandon” — isn’t that, as much as anything, what the league is selling? I certainly don’t want Mike Holmgren keeping Shaun Alexander from breaking the touchdown record (he’s four shy of Priest Holmes’ 27 in ‘03) because the Seahawks can afford to power down the last few weeks of the season. Holmgren owes it to his back to let him take a crack at it — just as Dungy owes it to the Colts.
Think about it: A year ago, Dungy benched Manning after just one series in the season finale to “save” him for the postseason. But would he have done the same thing if Peyton hadn’t already thrown his 49th TD pass to surpass Dan Marino?
If so — and if membership in the Nervous Nellie Club continues to grow in the coaching ranks — then breaking season records will become even harder for players. They’ll have to do it in 15 games, perhaps even 14, to avoid getting sat down for “the good of the team.” And how ridiculous would that be? Aside from the death struggles for playoff berths, the best part of December is the record chasing that goes on.
Fortunately, Brian Billick understood this when Jamal Lewis was closing in on Eric Dickerson’s rushing mark in ‘03. The final game was meaningless for the Ravens; they had already clinched the division title. But Lewis needed 154 yards to break Dickerson’s record of 2,105, so Billick let him carry the ball 27 times against the Steelers’ always physical defense. (Alas, he came up 40 yards short.) Lewis probably would have been fresher for the playoff game a week later if he’d taken it easier that night, but history took precedence over practicality.
“What I’ll probably do … is what I do in every big decision I try to make for the team,” Dungy said last week. “I’ll pray about it, try to get some wisdom from the Lord as to what to do. If we decide to play our guys, which I’m sure they’ll all want to play, I’ll pray that they don’t get hurt and we can go out and keep winning.”
Here’s hoping Dungy does his praying to “Touchdown Jesus.” (Is there any doubt which way He’s leaning on the issue?) Oh, and just a reminder, Tony: Super Bowl XL would indeed be Extra Large — maybe the biggest ever — if the Colts arrived there 18-0.