INDIANAPOLIS – Ten years, nine starting quarterbacks and two regime changes later, it’s still a decision that confounds a fan base — one no other NFL team has had to wrestle with since.
The Indianapolis Colts were 14-0 and had wrapped up home-field advantage in the playoffs after a fourth-quarter touchdown gave them a 35-31 victory in Jacksonville on that Thursday night, Dec. 17, 2009.
Undefeated season preserved, it appeared. Two years after their fiercest rival posted a 16-0 regular season only to suffer a massive upset in the Super Bowl, it looked as if Jim Irsay, team president Bill Polian, coach Jim Caldwell, Peyton Manning and the rest of the Colts were on a path to do what the New England Patriots couldn't.
Until Curtis Painter trotted onto the field at Lucas Oil Stadium with 5:36 left in the third quarter Dec. 27, holding a 15-10 lead against the New York Jets. Colts fans expected to see their Hall of Fame starter. If you were even a casual NFL fan then, you know how that story ends.
A 19-point flurry in a matter of minutes. Two back-breaking turnovers from Manning’s replacement resulted in 29-15 loss.
The Colts would lose the next week as well, then fall one half short of the franchise's second Super Bowl in four years. It's a season now more a trivia answer instead of the history it could have been.
A decade later, team president Bill Polian still doesn’t regret the choice that fans, local columnists and national media members publicly roared against.
“I would do it over again 100 times,” Polian recently told IndyStar about the front office’s decision to pull big-name starters midway through that Jets game in 2009 and all but wave the white flag on a perfect regular season. “You try to make sure the guys who are the linchpins or who may be a little bit nicked get to the games that really count and get your team there in the best possible shape you can.
“It’s about winning.”
In 2009, most of the locker room stood behind Polian — or at least didn't publicly challenge the decision.
"This was our organizational philosophy that we stuck with," Manning said at the time. "We still had a chance to win the game. Until a player in here is the head coach, as a player, you follow them with all your heart."
Multiple players -- including Ryan Diem, Marlin Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jeff Saturday -- were reached out to for this story and didn't return multiple requests for comment. But what some other players say now has changed.
“As a player, personally, I would have preferred to play all of them," defensive end Dwight Freeney told IndyStar. "I wasn’t a guy that wanted to rest any games or whatever. I wanted to go out there every single Sunday. But there’s other things they’ve got to think about, and they made that decision to rest some guys.
“In the beginning of the year, you never say, ‘Oh, let’s be an undefeated team.' But obviously, you want to be undefeated because you want to win every game."
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Polian had a different vision of winning when he made his decision to rest key players. It wasn't the "win every time you step on the field" fire that drives most players. It was based on the mindset Polian used in making all decisions during his Hall of Fame career: Win Super Bowls.
That mindset, he says, was forged during his four-year streak of losing Super Bowls with Buffalo. It was also the result of watching game-changing players suffer season-altering injuries late in the season: Cornelius Bennett (in a 1999 Week 17 loss to the Bills with home-field advantage up for grabs) and Dwight Freeney (in the 2009 AFC Championship Game win over the Jets). It was devastating to see those injuries happen in games with something on the line; Polian wasn't going to have it happen in games that didn't have an impact on the postseason.
Each preseason camp, he says, players new and old were ingrained with the notion that making and winning the Super Bowl was the goal, and everything was done with that in mind. Winning the division. Clinching a bye. Home-field advantage. Playoff victories.
To Polian, an undefeated regular season did not rise to this level.
“16-0 we did not feel was a historic achievement,” he said on the "Rich Eisen Show" days after his team’s loss to the Jets. “Since it had been done before, it wasn’t as historic a milestone.”
This, however, is open to debate. Yes, the 2007 Patriots went 16-0. But they failed to win the Super Bowl. Yes, the 1972 Miami Dolphins had a perfect season. But they could only go 14-0 in the regular season. The 2009 Colts sacrificed the opportunity to be the first team in NFL history to go 19-0.
Polian counters that the Colts were still trying to win and still cared about winning those games. He just wasn't willing to risk certain players in pursuit of games he didn't believe would significantly contribute to winning the Super Bowl.
“Losing (to the Jets) isn’t what you talk about, or even think about,” he said. “The issue is no different than holding a player out of practice when he’s nicked or injured. It’s what’s best for the player because what’s best for the player is, in the long run, what’s best for the team.
“You try to win every game, but removing players like Dwight Freeney or Peyton Manning or Robert Mathis or Jeff Saturday … has nothing to do with winning or losing. It’s, ‘How do we get our players to the games that really count in the best possible shape?’”
A handful of front offices face similar decisions each year, often opting to bench key starters in Week 17 when there's no postseason positioning left to play for. Sometimes, they still find a way to win, like the Lamar Jackson-less Ravens did in Week 17 this year. But no team since the 2009 Colts has had to wrestle with the pursuit of history while risking the season's ultimate goal.
In 2011, the Packers started 13-0 but still were looking to clinch home-field advantage from the 10-3 Saints and 49ers, before falling in Week 15 to a Chiefs team that had just fired its head coach. In 2015, the 14-0 Panthers were looking to clinch home-field over the 12-2 Cardinals before dropping a close game to the Falcons in Week 16.
“It’s only a factor when you’re undefeated because that’s when people say, ‘Oh, you should try to create history,’” said former Colts coach Tony Dungy, who coached Indianapolis through a similar situation during their 13-0 start in 2005. “None of us were ever there to make history. We were there to try and win a Super Bowl.”
Still, with the rarity of such an achievement on the line, Caldwell and Polian’s decision was met with surprise and confusion by fans and players. Polian said he, Caldwell and the front office determined before the game when they would pull Manning & Co., regardless of the score. But then-defensive star Antoine Bethea said he doesn’t remember coaches or anyone in the front office communicating an approach to balancing the team’s 14-0 start and its pursuit of a Super Bowl prior to the moment it happened.
“Coaches don’t really relay that to players,” said Bethea, the only remaining active player from the Colts' Super Bowl roster. “It wasn’t something we, as players, knew going into the game. I didn’t know, and I don’t think any of the other guys knew it was going to happen.
“If you’re 12-2 instead of 14-0 and have already locked up our spot in the playoffs and home-field advantage, then you’re talking about a different conversation. But being 14-0 with two games left, playing the Jets and Buffalo – two very winnable games – for us as players, I don’t think we were really worried about (injuries).”
The unexpected decision led to a myriad of reactions postgame. While Manning provided the company line, Reggie Wayne was a rare passionate voice on the opposite end of the spectrum.
“Who wouldn’t (want to pursue perfection)?" he said then. "Doesn’t everybody want to be part of history? Not a season goes by that you don’t hear about the ’72 Dolphins. … I guess there’s a bigger picture. We all wanted to play, but the big dog made a decision, and we have to roll with that decision. We came out after halftime and felt like we were starting to roll and could score some points, but the manager took us off the mound.”
With 10 years to let the results simmer, Bethea said his opinions on how the events of Dec. 27, 2009, played out don’t mean all that much to him. He was lucky enough to win a Super Bowl with the Colts during his rookie season in 2006. Nothing else in his extended career has compared to that evening of pure bliss in Miami.
A perfect regular season coinciding with a Super Bowl ring would be an unmatchable achievement, but without the final victory, the 2009 Colts still would have been another footnote in the history books, Bethea said.
“(An undefeated regular season) isn’t up there with a Super Bowl win, but it’s up there," he said. "Just with the nature of where the game is at with free agency and building the culture in a team sport, going 16-0 is up there. But if you’re 16-0 and don’t win a Super Bowl, does it really even matter?
“No one talks about (the 2007 Patriots). The ultimate goal is to win another Super Bowl, and along the way if you could go undefeated and win it, then of course we’d want that to happen."