To Play or Not to Play

December 27, 2008 | Brian Billick

The biggest question going into this week’s games, besides who will make the playoffs, is what team will play what players. With all that is on the line for a number of teams in the NFC, the game between the New York Giants and the Minnesota Vikings is a perfect “case study” for the coach’s dilemma.

If Minnesota loses and Chicago wins, the Bears will win the division and move on to the playoffs. If Minnesota wins and Chicago loses, the reverse is true. There are some other possibilities for both to get in but they are remote at best.

The New York Giants, on the other hand, have earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and are not affected in any way by the outcome of the game.

So what do you do? Do you play the game straight up, as they did last year against the New England Patriots, or do you rest your player this game and use the first-round bye to get healthy for your first game in the Divisional Round?

It talking with Tony Dungy two weeks ago, when I did their game vs. the Detroit Lions, he articulated the dilemma perfectly: “Its like every other decision we make as head coaches. There is no right answer, just the one that works.” If you don’t play your starters, in an effort to get healthy and be at your best in the playoffs, then you come out and are a little flat or rusty, the fans and media will roast you for handling it that way. If you play all your players and hope to keep the momentum you have established in making the playoffs, and one of you good players gets hurt and misses your first playoff game, you are crucified for having played them.

Peyton Manning said he had changed his mind on wanting to play or not based on watching Eli play the previous year and using that as a springboard for their run to the Super Bowl. Robert Mathis said the same thing. When I visited with Dungy he made it clear, “No way.” He just couldn’t justify in his own mind the risk-reward ratio of the player risking injury. If you are Indy, on a 7-game winning streak and primed for the playoffs and Peyton Manning gets hurt, you are done.

I have two problems with sitting a player down. First, how do you tell one player you are important enough that we don’t want to get you hurt in a meaningless game, but then tell the next player I want you to go out there and bust you butt to win the game? Secondly — and this is particularly true in the Giants case — if you do chose to sit Eli Manning down, and you have a bye like the Giants do, that means your quarterback will not take a substantive snap in three weeks.

The players will tell you, for the most part, that they want to play, but will rely on the Head Coach to cover his ass and tell him he can’t. That way he can save face with his teammates, media and fans.

We had the same dilemma in our Super Bowl season when we were facing the New York Jets in our final game. Our playoff status was set and the outcome of the game would have no bearing on it. The Jets, however, needed a win to make the playoffs. We were on a six game winning streak and I don’t think I could have gotten the players to sit even if I wanted to. It ended up being an emotional night with Chris McAlister returning a 90-yard interception for a touchdown and Jermaine Lewis returning two kicks for scores to win the game. I believe that win was a major part of our going into the playoffs on an emotional high and eventually on to the Super Bowl.