By: Bob George/
December 29, 2009

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Most people outside the Hoosier State don't care if Bill Polian and his horsies ever get it. In this case, "it" means how to correctly prepare a team for a postseason run.

The Colts have a weird history despite boasting two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history to wear their blue and white uniforms. Greatness is attached mostly to Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning, the only two quarterbacks to have won NFL titles for the Colts (yes, we know Earl Morrall played in Super Bowl V, but Unitas was the main man back then). The high water mark in franchise history remains the 1958 NFL Championship Game victory over the Giants in overtime. They won again in 1959, but their two Super Bowl wins were marred by turnovers (V) and a driving rainstorm (XLI). They are more celebrated for their loss in Super Bowl III than they are for the two that they won.

The Colt weirdness starts with the Irsay family, and as the old saying goes, defecation (or some other colorful word you can think of) runs downhill. Counterbalancing the greatness achieved by Unitas and Manning are the bungling ways of the late Bob Irsay, who took over the Colts in 1972 after buying the Rams and swapping franchises with Carroll Rosenbloom. Irsay was an erratic personality given to outlandish behavior and lousy treatment of the people in the Colt organization. It should be said, in fairness to Irsay, that anyone who has to endure the death of a child and the retardation of another (thanks, Wikipedia) should be somewhat excused for emotionally appropriate reactions based upon such tragedies, but Irsay, who among other things was given to drinking binges, was not a good owner and truly had no right to be owning a sports franchise.

Irsay lobbied to get a new stadium in Baltimore, and when such efforts failed, snuck the team out of Baltimore in 15 moving vans in the middle of the night back on March 28, 1984 and moved the Colts to Indianapolis. This whole scenario involved a bunch of lies to city officials and the people of Baltimore, and the move was done in the middle of the night to beat a possible court order to keep the team in Baltimore under eminent domain. Irsay broke the hearts of the people of Baltimore in doing so, but Baltimore regained an NFL team eleven years later when, ironically, Art Modell did to Cleveland what Irsay did to Baltimore.

The Irsay family, still in power to this day in the form of son Jim, is mentioned only because of their role in shaping the Colt image that remains to this day. The Colts are more famous for adverse moments than positive moments, more famous for losing than for winning (sounds like a baseball team you might know pre-2004). The Colts of today are managed by general manager Bill Polian, and have been so since 1998. The first thing Polian did was to draft Manning with the top pick in that year's draft. Polian's Colts have done well for the most part, having racked up the most regular season wins of any NFL team in the 2000s.

In the postseason, it has been quite another story. Polian was the architect of the great Buffalo Bills teams of the 1990s, but historians cannot ignore that the common thread that binds those Bills teams was the fact that the Bills are the only team in history to lose four consecutive Super Bowls. Granted, it took a great deal of skill to get the team to win four AFC titles in a row and things might have been different had Scott Norwood made that field goal in Super Bowl XXV, but Polian has seen similar postseason maladies in Indianapolis, only they have been worse here than in Buffalo.

In Buffalo, those Bills teams at least made it to the Big Show those four straight times. In Indianapolis, the Colts have become famous for having great regular season teams which choke in the postseason. Much has been made of the fact that Indianapolis has lost four of its last seven postseason openers. Two of those losses, in 2005 and 2007, are particularly galling to Colt fans as the team went a combined 27-5 in those regular seasons but gagged at the finish. Two of those four losses were to the San Diego Chargers, who just happen to be the two seed in 2009 and could eventually be playing the Colts for the chance to go to Super Bowl XLIV.

Since 2004, the Colts have followed a set pattern in every year. Rest the starters, especially Manning, when all things have been clinched and save them for the postseason. The Colts still do not understand that this strategy does not work, and the one year they couldn't do it this way, 2006, they won the Super Bowl.

In 2004, Manning rested in the season finale at Denver, then two weeks later suffered a 20-3 playoff loss at Foxborough. In 2005, the Colts went to 13-0, lost at home to San Diego, then mailed in the last two games. They lost their subsequent playoff game at home to eventual champion Pittsburgh, 21-18. In 2007, the Colts mailed in the last game against Tennessee, then gagged at home against San Diego in the playoffs, 28-24. And in 2008, the Colts again mailed in the finale against Tennessee, then went out to San Diego and lost in the playoff opener, 23-17.

Now we have 2009, and possibly the most dastardly thing the Colts have done since sneaking out of Baltimore in 1984. The Colts stood at 14-0 last Sunday with two winnable games left on their schedule, having a chance to duplicate what the 2007 Patriots did in the regular season, and then complete what those Patriots could not do by going 19-0 for the whole deal. Leading the Jets 15-10 in the third quarter, rookie head coach Jim Caldwell took Manning, Reggie Wayne and a ton of other starters out of the game. The Jets scored the last 19 points to win, 29-15. Colt fans at Lucas Oil Stadium seethed and booed their team incessantly as they took their chance at immortality and flushed it down the toilet (being almost completely ignored is that the loss also ended the Colts' regular season win streak record at 23, breaking the record 21 that the Patriots had previously held).

This certainly wasn't Manning's idea. It's a good chance it wasn't Caldwell's either, him being a first year head coach. It was most likely Polian's, who remains scared to death that Manning will get hurt in a meaningless game. While it is true that the Colts would have problems with the Detroit Lions and the St. Louis Rams if you were to subtract Manning (based upon what you saw on Sunday when Curtis Painter went into the game), Polian's continued overreactions are costing his team Super Bowl appearances, if not Super Bowl wins.

Look at the 2006 Colts and the 2007 Patriots. In 2006 the Colts were 12-4 but wound up the three seed because Baltimore (13-3) and San Diego (14-2) did better. This forced the Colts to have to play hard up to the very end. The result was postseason wins over Kansas City, Baltimore and New England segueing into a win over Chicago in the Super Bowl in rainy Miami. The 2007 Patriots decided to go for 16-0 against the Giants in a meaningless season finale, won a tough game, then came within a lucky David Tyree catch of completing the first 19-0 season in history. By going for 16-0 like they did, the Patriots averted a possible Divisional Game loss at home to Jacksonville, where Tom Brady needed to be perfect against David Garrard and a Jaguar team which played them incredibly tough.

If Polian was indeed responsible for making the decision to tank the game against the Jets, he did a gross disservice to the Colt fan base, the Colt organization and to the league in general. It's hard to make the case that "this chance may never come again" when it was just two years ago the Patriots were making a run at 19-0. But to cheat the Colt fans out of being able to brag that they were the first 19-0 team in history was wrong. To deprive Manning and his teammates those same bragging rights was even more wrong. On a personal level, for all that Manning has meant to that franchise, especially given how great his father Archie was despite playing on terrible New Orleans and Houston teams, to have that chance at football immortality taken away from him the way it was had to be simply gut wrenching for Manning.

As for the league, cheating or perverting history is never in the league's best interests. The one and only undefeated team remains the 1972 Miami Dolphins, but they did it in a 14-game season against largely substandard opponents (nobody heard of strength of victory in 1972). The chance at the NFL finally having a 19-0 team being literally tossed in the garbage can cannot possibly sit well with Roger Goodell, never mind how Colt Nation feels. Whether or not Goodell does or can do anything about it is another story, but the commissioner cannot possibly be happy with the integrity of the game being compromised over an obvious lack of impetus on the part of the Colts to win the game. AFC teams competing for the final two Wild Card slots whose playoff chances were damaged with a Jet win would probably love to corner Polian and Caldwell in a dark alley right now.

You the Patriot fan may correctly despise Manning for all his overexposure and his rivalry with Tom Brady. But you saw this week a level of professionalism from Manning which you cannot help but stand up and cheer for. He held the company line all along, saying all the right things, and maintaining his status as the face of the franchise with the same grace and honor he always does, though you do get a bit sick of the saturation coverage and exposure of Manning wherever you go. But you could see the anguish written all over his face on Sunday as the chance at history was slipping away and there was nothing he could do about it. It may be a feeling he never forgets to the day he dies, unless he actually does get to pull it off some time in the future.

Should the Colts fail to win the Super Bowl, or even worse, fail to make it to the Super Bowl, they will never live this game down. Caldwell will probably take most of the blame, but Polian should be made to answer as well. All along, the Colts maintained that their goal was to win the Super Bowl, not to go 19-0. If it is proved that the best way for the Colts to win Super Bowl XLIV was to make the push at 19-0, it will be something that neither Polian nor Caldwell will ever be able to put behind them. The acrimony from their fan base is bad right now. Combine that with the cranky sportswriters in that area who are sick and tired of writing about one postseason failure after another, and Polian could become to Indianapolis what Steve Bartman became to Chicago and Cub fans worldwide.

The 2007 Patriots at least tried to go 19-0, and came up a game short because of a superhuman effort from the underdog Giants in the Super Bowl in Phoenix. Bill Belichick may regurgitate the Patriot party line better than anyone else, but it was clear that he wanted his place in NFL history as well as for Bob Kraft and the rest of the team. While the Patriots did tank a game in 2005 to bring a more beatable opponent to Foxborough for the Wild Card round, they did no such thing in 2007 with the one seed secured. To watch the Patriots lie down and tank the 2007 season finale at the Meadowlands would have driven half of Patriot Nation to jump off the Tobin Bridge.

So now the Colts don't have to worry about what the Patriots did two years ago. They can shuffle off to Buffalo on Sunday, bring back guys like Jim Mutscheller, Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, John Mackey, Mike Curtis and Bubba Smith and rest every single second stringer as well as every starter. They can let the Bills win something like 83-0, sit back and laugh and listen to Donovan's ridiculously funny stories, then take their week off and get ready for a home date with maybe the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals will be driven to win by the memory of their fallen comrade Chris Henry. The Bengals battled San Diego on the road in the game following Henry's death and lost on a 52-yard field goal as time expired. That sort of effort could get them a win at Lucas Oil Stadium in two weeks.

If past form holds true, the Colts may have a better chance of advancing in the postseason with Donovan and Marchetti and that crowd rather than the current guys.