Colts owner Irsay OK with resting starters, losing out on perfection

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Irsay was a football fan long before he was owner of the Colts.

So when he hears outsiders criticize his team's move to pull its starters in last Sunday's game against the New York Jets, at the expense of a perfect season, he understands the passion. He just disagrees with the sentiment.

On Wednesday, after three days of hearing national media personalities and local fans express outrage over the Colts' decision, Irsay responded. Not only did he support the decision made by president Bill Polian and first-year coach Jim Caldwell, Irsay said he approved it.

"For anyone to attack the virtues, the intentions or the integrity of what we're trying to do, I think, is misguided because our goal is to win a world championship," Irsay said during a conference call with three reporters. "As owner, I take everything into account, and I could have, as I have on occasion, overruled some things. But in this case, that was not the case, and it was the right direction to go, and it was really a close call."

Fans have been furious since Peyton Manning and other starters were yanked out of Sunday's game with 5:36 left in the third quarter and the undefeated Colts holding a 15-10 lead. The Colts didn't score again and wound up losing 29-15, ending their NFL-record 23-game winning streak and their shot at the first 19-0 season.

Angry callers spent two days flooding local radio talk shows. Some contended they should be given refunds, and others said they were giving up their season tickets. Terms like "arrogant" were used to describe the team's braintrust, and on Polian's weekly radio show Monday night, one caller asked why he decided to run away from history.

The anger started to dissipate Wednesday, when Manning and defensive captain Gary Brackett uttered the same line: It's time to move on.

"There's no question that what's done is done," Caldwell said. "It's more so how you react to things that happen to you. It's something that is on the mind of our guys. I think it (preparing for the playoffs) will serve them well."

Irsay weighed in on the controversy several hours later.

While he acknowledged it was difficult, even for him, to watch the undefeated season slip away, Irsay called the decision "courageous" and said the difference between winning and losing in the playoffs could come down to whether Indianapolis' best players are healthy. For that reason alone, he backed the unpopular move.

"I'm a fan, and it was tough to watch because you knew you had an excellent chance to win the game," Irsay said. "At the same time, you're trying to do what's best for the franchise. But you have to have the courage to do it."

Irsay doesn't believe the fallout from the loss will create any long-term damage.

Irsay hopes many of the angry fans have plenty to cheer when they return to Lucas Oil Stadium for the Colts' first playoff game Jan. 16 or 17. And if the Colts bring home the Lombardi Trophy from Miami, for the second time in the last four years, all will be forgiven.

Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, though, Irsay believes his team made the right call.

"I don't want Jim Caldwell and Bill Polian to shy away from their deep feelings -- that, to me, would be a real shame," Irsay said. "You wouldn't want a GM, president or coach to cower away from a critical decision like this. And when you're walking into the stadium on Jan. 16 or 17 and we're getting ready for that experience, what we want to know and what our fans want to know is that we have the best chance to win this game."

The Coltswill visit the Buffalo Bills this weekend, and nobody has said how long the starters will play, although it's expected to be less than last week. Fourteen players, including five defensive linemen, sat out Wednesday's practice, and two others were limited participants.

Among those on the sideline were Pro Bowl defensive ends Dwight Freeney, who had a normal rest day, and Robert Mathis, who missed last weekemd's game because of a quadriceps injury. Others who missed time were left tackle Charlie Johnson (foot), wide receiver Austin Collie (rest), cornerbacks Jerraud Powers (hamstring) and Jacob Lacey (biceps) and linebacker Clint Session (knee). Safety Melvin Bullitt (shoulder) and wide receiver Pierre Garcon (hand) did some work.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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