Last week was the final week of the regular season in the NFL, and for teams that already locked up their seed in the playoffs, the same old question comes up-do you start your regular players, and risk them getting injured for the playoff run, or do you sit them, risking losing the game (and as a corollary effect, providing fans a 'substandard' product)?
The Bears had this type of decision in the final game against the Packers. The Bears knew they had the #2 seed and a 'bye' next week, so one could argue that there was no need to risk the important starters. The Packers needed to win the game to get into the playoffs. The Bears had the opportunity to knock what would have been an extremely potent team (but for an extraordinary number of injuries) out of contention. The possibility would exist for the Bears to play the Packers for a third time this year. As a rule, it's best not to have to play the same team three times in a season-the teams have a pretty good pile of knowledge on each other by then.
As it worked out, the Bears did lose to the Pack, 10-3. The Packers are in the playoffs, but the Bears had no major injuries. They'll have two weeks to regroup, get healthy, and figure out what the hell they have to do to win a game in the run to the Super Bowl. But there'd have been screaming all over Bear Nation and cries for head coach Lovie Smith's head on a platter if Jay Cutler got a separated throwing shoulder or Devin Hester blew an Achilles tendon running back a punt in what many would say is a 'meaningless' game.
A few seasons back, the Indianapolis Colts were 15-0 with a chance for a perfect 16-0 record. They had already wrapped up all the advantages they could get in the playoffs. So Coach Caldwell opted to sit Peyton Manning and his big players and put his reserves in for Game 16. The Colts lost the game but I believe ended up in the Super Bowl that year.
I'm sure a lot of Colts fans would like to have seen the regulars in there slugging it out trying for 16-0. And I suppose one could argue that if one pays $80-90/seat for an NFL tilt, one deserves to see the best players in the game.
The coaching staff, however, isn't all that interested in providing a good game for the fans. Their mission is to best manage the assets they have to get to and win a Super Bowl. Anything else is a bonus.
My opinion on the whole start/sit thing is....
...it depends on the situation.
If I were Lovie Smith going into week 16 and the playoffs, and playing the Packers, I'd have put the starters out there. My thought would be to try to eliminate a team I've already played twice and is showing signs of getting healthy at the right time.
Now, if it's 35-3 (either way) at halftime, the starters get to watch the second string finish up. As it was, the score never got to a point where it was a blowout. Indeed, most of the Bear starters seemed pretty disinterested in the whole affair from what I saw.
In the case of the Colts, I think Caldwell made the right call. There wasn't much incentive in playing a team that wasn't going anywhere, and the extra week can work wonders in getting bodies in some semblance of fighting condition for the postseason. Personally, I'm a big fan of getting the second stringers some quality time as well. One never knows when that reserve player may have to go in and make an impact on the game. So I'm for what the Pentagon calls 'total force concept' with my sports squads as well.
Teams have won Super Bowls using both approaches and to me it seems a no-brainer how to approach that last, possibly meaningless game. I'm sure most coaches look at the physical condition of their key players, and their opponent for the last game. I don't know why most sports fans even think about it all that much.
Baseball, basketball, and hockey have different dynamics. Most of the players will get game minutes as a matter of course. Baseball teams like to clinch with a week or so left in the regular season to give the manager time to get his pitching rotation set up. Basketball and hockey will see most of the players get game minutes as a matter of course. The only reason you'll see scrubs in those games after they clinch is because the regulars are generally too hung over or clubbed out to play the next day.
I don't know if, say, Oz rules or rugby has similar considerations. The level and type of impacts and violence is different. But the same thought processes might come into play. I'm sure someone will clue me in.