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COLUMN

Colts forsake perfect season

History, fans cheated as team plays it safe

Monday, December 28, 2009 - 10:23 am

INDIANAPOLIS - The Indianapolis Colts had a chance to do something special and they threw it away.

They took their unbeaten season, labeled it irrelevant and chucked it in the trash.

They insulted Colts fans who paid hundreds of dollars for tickets. They scoffed at the ideal of competitive spirit in sports. And they cheated other NFL teams fighting for a playoff spot by handing a win to the New York Jets.

But enough sugarcoating.

The Colts' 29-15 loss to the Jets on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium was disgraceful and unnecessary.

They lost their first game of the season, lost their chance at a perfect season and left the field to their own fans booing.

“I don't blame them a bit, man,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said. “I probably would have booed, too. I don't blame them. They pay to come see us win games, and we didn't get it done. I don't blame them a bit.”

Saturday said he hoped the fans weren't booing backup quarterback Curtis Painter. Painter, who hadn't taken a snap in a game since he played at Purdue, was blindsided and fumbled on the play that put the Jets ahead for good.

The fans weren't booing Painter. He was thrown into a no-win situation.

The booing, wholly justified, should continue and be directed at the play-it-safe mind-set that emanates from team President Bill Polian and is put into practice by coach Jim Caldwell.

Polian said it was Caldwell's decision to remove quarterback Peyton Manning and several starters with a 15-10 lead and 5:36 left in the third quarter. I doubt Caldwell acted alone. Polian is a notch higher in the Colts' hierarchy, and there's no question where he stands.

Manning called the decision an “organizational philosophy.” That's much closer to the truth.

It's Polian's direction, which is often superb in many aspects, that determines the Colts' organizational philosophy.

“The perfect season was never an issue for us,” Polian said. “I've said it time and time again. That's somebody else's issue. That was of no concern to us.”

You bet it was somebody else's issue: It's the issue of the fans who spend their money supporting the team by buying tickets, merchandise, etc. The Colts essentially told their fans, “We don't care what you think.”

Polian later reiterated his stance that trying for an undefeated championship season - which has been accomplished only by the 1972 Miami Dolphins - was not among the Colts' priorities.

“I think we made it pretty clear that our first priority was to make sure we got enough work to stay sharp,” Polian said.

“But I'll repeat myself: I think we made it pretty clear about how we felt about 16-0. That's not a goal, it never was a goal, it isn't a goal now. Our goal is later on. Who knows how that will come out, but we want to give ourselves the best shot.”

Here's my problem with that viewpoint: Even if they go on to win the Super Bowl, this season will have a “What if?” aspect to it that can't be erased. The fans won't be the only ones looking back and wondering if the Colts could have posted the greatest season in NFL history.

Who willingly tosses that chance aside?

That's a rhetorical question. We know the literal answer.

Manning looked visibly irritated when Caldwell took him out of the game, although he told reporters to “be careful analyzing my facial expressions.”

The timing was odd. The Jets had taken a 10-9 lead with a kickoff-return touchdown by Brad Smith to open the second half. Manning answered the way he always does, driving the Colts 81 yards in nine plays to take a 15-10 lead.

The next time the Colts' offense had the ball, Painter was sent into the game.

“I was not surprised,” Manning said. “I knew potentially that was part of the plan. There was not a head coach-quarterback argument of any sort. I'm on the same page as Coach Caldwell. I was told before the game to be flexible and go out and score as many points as we could. I'm disappointed we didn't score more.”

The Colts lost the lead when Painter was hit by an unblocked Calvin Pace deep in his own territory and lost the ball. Jets tackle Marques Douglas recovered in the end zone. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez hit Dustin Keller for the two-point conversion and an 18-15 lead with 1:29 left in the third.

The Jets later scored on a field goal and a 79-yard touchdown drive to seal the win.

Colts players understood the fans' frustrations, even as they toed the company line in support of the decision to roll over and play Painter.

“It seemed like the angriest people in the stadium might be the fans,” wide receiver Reggie Wayne said. “…(If) we take care of business in the playoffs and go on to win the Super Bowl, I think a lot of this stuff will be forgotten.”

Can the Colts still win the Super Bowl? It's possible. Could they have finished this season 19-0 with a Super Bowl win? We'll never know because the Colts didn't keep the players on the field to find out.

As former NFL coach Herm Edwards once said, “You play to win the game.”

Unless you're the 14-0 Colts.

Make that the 14-1 Colts.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.