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The Score - Anthony Schoettle

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Sports Business

Colts season already leaving questions to ponder

December 31, 2009
KEYWORDS Sports Business

There are still a number of questions surrounding the Indianapolis Colts decision not to go for the perfect undefeated season. And there is no shortage of conspiracy theorists among the ranks of Colts fans (and former Colts fans).

Some question why the Colts didn’t start to rest and protect their players during the Jacksonville Jaguars game the week before the N.Y. Jets game. It, too, was meaningless in terms of playoff seeding.

Some have theorized that because the game was on the NFL Network, and because that cable channel is owned in equal parts by the 32 NFL owners, Colts owner Jim Irsay was implored by NFL brass and other owners not to tank the game, and to put on a good show so the channel could have solid viewer ratings.

These marquee games after all, are the biggest ratings scores for the NFL Network. And ratings are particularly important for a fledgling cable channel still trying to broker deals and maintain premium payments with as many distributors as possible.
 
Irsay told me yesterday that the decision to play the starters such as quarterback Peyton Manning and tight end Dallas Clark for the entire Jaguars game was a “gut decision,” explaining that there’s a fine line between resting and protecting players from injury and keeping them sharp for the playoffs.

Others have asked why the Colts coaches and management simply didn’t state their plan earlier in the week before the Jets game. It’s not like the Jets were going to heavily scout Curtis Painter and the Colts’ third-string tight end.

Again, theories abound for why there was no such pronouncement. Some fans think that not divulging the plan kept more popcorn-, soda- and beer-buying fans in their seats for much longer than would have been the case had the plan been previously announced. Others theorists have surmised the prime time game would have seen a massive TV ratings nose dive, which could hurt in-stadium sponsors, including Lucas Oil Co., the title sponsor paying the Colts $121.5 million to put its name on the team’s home venue.

If the Colts had simply stated their intentions beforehand, I’m guessing fans wouldn’t have felt like this was a bait-and-switch routine. And nobody likes to play the fool.

I must admit, I wondered after Painter’s first two drives if Manning wouldn be re-inserted to save the game. Heck, he even had his helmet on and looked like he was ready to report for duty.

When was the last time you saw a QB yanked that didn’t almost immediately trade his helmet for a ball cap? Maybe Manning, too, was in the dark. Or, who knows, maybe he was in on the conspiracy to keep fans guessing. OK, even I admit, that sounds ridiculous. Or does it?

Some have even theorized that the NFL as a whole has a vested interest in seeing the large-market Jets make the playoffs, thus cheered the Colts' laying down of arms. Personally, I don't think that theory holds much water. Nothing is going to drive more media and fan attention than a team going for the perfect season. But who knows?

This much I do know. In 20-plus years as a professional journalist, I’ve come to this uncomfortable conclusion: As journalists, we don’t always print the truth. We print what people say.

When Irsay tells me everything that has been done to this point in the season has been done solely with the aim of giving this team the best chance to win the Super Bowl, I’m apt to believe him. I’m surprised by his admission that the ultimate goal is to win three consecutive Super Bowls in a row, but I believe him when he says that, too.

When Irsay tells me the very last word on how to handle the final games of this season was his, and that he, Bill Polian, the coaches and players are in lock step, I take him at his word.

But here’s the deal. You can control what people say just as long as you’re writing the paychecks. And listening to the Colts players in the hours and days following the Jets game, I think the team has done a good job of controlling its rank and file. And as a person who understands corporate governance, I applaud that. Everyone is marching to and singing the same tune.

But once that bond between team and player—employee and employer—is broken, I think the yapping about what went down in the days before and the hours during that Jets game will begin anew.
 
When the likes of Manning, Clark and some of the other Colts starters on this team either retire or leave due to free agency, what they say I think could change.
 
And the truth—as we know it—will change as well.

To read more about Irsay's take on this season, click here.
 

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