WASHINGTON — It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say this phrase in a good way here in Washington: Week 17 doesn’t mean anything.
For the first time since 1999, the Redskins have nailed down their division without having to dig their way out of a 3-6 hole or beat a rival in a winner-takes-division duel in the regular season finale. The Skins are locked into the NFC’s 4-seed, meaning Sunday’s game in Dallas will mean little more than draft position for the Cowboys and momentum entering the playoffs for the Redskins.
Thus, the talk in town this week isn’t about convoluted playoff scenarios, but whether the ‘Skins should sit their key players for what amounts to an exhibition game. After all, why risk injury to guys like Ryan Kerrigan, Trent Williams, or the red-hot Kirk Cousins in a game of no consequence?
Because it’s the right thing to do.
Joe Gibbs, D.C.’s patron saint of pro football, didn’t rest starters entering the playoffs during the ‘Skins heyday. His teams always opted for momentum entering the postseason and those ’80s Redskins squads weren’t sorry about it.
The current-day Redskins have been trending upward for weeks. Kirk Cousins — and by extension, the team — has played better each and every week. In back-to-back weeks, they’ve dominated opponents with something to play for. Taking the foot off the gas pedal now could do more harm than good.
Case in point: the 2000s Indianapolis Colts. I’ve long contended that Peyton Manning would have more rings than little brother Eli if Indy hadn’t routinely coasted to the regular season finish line. The Colts had the benefit of being an elite team in a crappy division, so that generally led to gaudy won-loss records and two or three meaningless games at the end of the season. That phenomenon is part of the reason the league now jams Week 17 chock full of divisional matchups — to try and maintain some semblance of competitive football at season’s end.
The results weren’t good for the Colts. Between their propensity for first round byes and the refusal to play key players once they clinched everything possible, Indy would sometimes go close to a month without playing meaningful football — and it showed. In 2005 and 2007, the Colts were a combined 27-5 but were completely manhandled in their own building by wild card teams. Why? Because they opted for rest over momentum, which is nothing more than another form of the cliché “playing not to lose.” And as we all know, you play to win the game.
Eventually, the Colts did win a championship in 2006 … but as a wild card team that had something to play for in all 16 games.
As we know, the Redskins aren’t elite. They’re injured, they’re one-dimensional, and they’ve thrived due in large part to a bad division and a somewhat easy late-season schedule. Their best chance at competing with teams that are elite is to stay on a roll entering the postseason. I know momentum didn’t play in their favor 2012 (that season-ending 7-game win streak did little to help them once RGIII got hurt in the Seattle playoff game) but this is very different team playing under different circumstances. The last thing Cousins needs is to have his hot hand cooled by an overcautious benching.
Furthermore, this is football. These guys don’t play scared and Jay Gruden shouldn’t coach scared either. Yes, I’m aware of Jordan Reed’s injury history. I know Morgan Moses is playing on a bad leg. But the ‘Skins have enjoyed some fast starts in recent weeks (21-0 vs. Buffalo, 14-0 at Chicago), so the best case scenario would be to run up the score early and then rest the starters in the second half. But leaving key players inactive for the sake of saving them is a loser’s approach.
Just ask Peyton.
Now see how his team did in the updated Week 16 Recap.