There's no excuse for key first-stringers like Rob Gronkowski getting injured in garbage time.
The New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, one the NFL's most gifted players on offense, broke his left forearm on Sunday during an extra point attempt with 3:55 left in his team's 59-24 blowout of the Indianapolis Colts. His is a significant injury. The Washington Post reported that Gronkowski's arm will require between four and six weeks of recovery time. That's bad news for the Patriots, of course: He's been an integral part of the Patriots' explosive offense, so his absence could hurt the defending AFC champions down the stretch of a very competitive football season. But it didn't have to be this way. Bill Belichick risked Gronkowski's health by playing him long after the outcome of Sunday's game had been decided.
Belichick's not the only NFL coach who consistently plays his starters late into blowout games, even as this practice continues to perplex levelheaded fans across the country. The reasoning coaches use to defend this tendency goes like this: Because it's impossible to predict whether an opposing team will mount an improbable comeback, keeping first-string players on the field until the final whistle blows is the best way to ensure victory.
That line of reasoning, in and of itself, is unassailable. It is impossible to predict whether a team that is seemingly down for the count will rise off the mat and execute a come-from-behind victory. Keeping star players in the game and continuing to attack until the very end is, in a way, a very sensible strategy. Professional football has seen plenty of remarkable comebacks over the years, and woe will be the coach who one day loses a game because he prematurely pulled his team's starters.
But that reasoning also ignores the fact that at some point in every lopsided contest, a comeback becomes about as statistically probable as a bolt of lightning suddenly incinerating the football. Once that point is reached, it's hard to understand why star players remain on the field, where they are at risk for potentially devastating injuries. After the Patriots scored their final touchdown on Sunday, putting the score at 58-24, it would have taken an act of God for the Colts to eke out a win. Instead of sending Gronkowski into the game as a blocker on the ensuing extra-point attempt, Belichick should have told New England to just take a knee, ensuring no physical contact would occur (of course, this strategy is more dicey when the opponent is the Tampa Bay Bucs).
Statistics matter more than ever in football: There are, for example, precise mathematical methods for determining whether or not a team should go for it on fourth down. So why is there still no way to calculate when exactly the risk of playing starters begins to outweigh the possible rewards? The importance of coaches' qualitative judgments in these situations cannot be overlooked, but having the ability to measure the likelihood of a comeback would help teams defend their leads and the health of their stars.
The counterargument to pulling starters during so-called "garbage time" is that on any given play it's statistically unlikely that a player will suffer a serious injury. Rarely do we see someone limp off the field following an extra point. But tamping down the risk of injury is not the only credible reason for resting starters. Football is our most physically taxing game. All those violent hits take a cumulative toll on players' bodies, and by the final third of the season even the toughest footballers fall into the category of the walking wounded. Giving players a little extra rest by letting them sit out the fourth quarter of a blowout may seem insignificant, but even a few unexpected minutes of down time can pay lasting dividends.
On Sunday, Belichick was not the only coach who kept his first unit in the game a bit too long. Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan played his starters long into the fourth quarter of a 31-6 blowout versus the Philadelphia Eagles. No Redskin suffered a catastrophic injury, but considering that Washington plays the Dallas Cowboys this Thursday and therefore has a short week to rest its players, giving Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris some extra time off would have created something of a competitive advantage for Washington. The Cowboys played a close game on Sunday; resting their starters was never an option. Had Shanahan pulled Griffin and Morris a bit earlier, saving them from taking a few extra hits, he would have increased the likelihood that they would enter Thursday's game with fresh legs.
Coaching in the NFL is incredibly difficult. The win-now-at-all-costs mentality of owners, fans, players, and commentators means that even long-tenured, highly successful coaches can find themselves at risk of firing after one or two disappointing seasons. In such an environment, it makes some sense that coaches will do anything to prevent losing, including keeping their stars in the game when their team is leading by 34 points late in the fourth quarter. But eventually, some coach will figure out that resting starters in garbage time is the best way to conclude blowout victories. When that happens, we'll all look back at injuries like Gronkowski's and realize how senseless they really were.