The Only Way to Run a Team

When I was in 8th grade, I made my middle school baseball team.  The week before the first game, I had to miss a practice to attend a National Junior Honors Society function.  I told my coach about it ahead of time, and he gave me permission to go.  However, come opening day, I wasn’t in the starting line up.  Instead he started a scrawny 7th grader.  His reasoning was that only players who attended every practice could start.

We lost 35-1.

I pinch hit and got our only hit.

Obviously, had I started we would have won that game.  I mean, weak armed second baseman have a way of cutting 10-15 runs off a final score.  And I’m sure that had I had a second at bat, it would have made my first hit (a 20 foot ground ball that got stuck in the mud in front of the mound) look weak.  While I couldn’t have changed the outcome by starting, the attitude of my coach was so bizarre and unfair, that it soured me on the season.  I quit the team three games later.  It’s just about the only thing I’ve ever quit on in my life.  The best players should play.  Nothing else makes sense.

I bring up this story because it has direct bearing on the Mathis and Wayne situation. Some fans would like to see both players punished for their holdouts beyond just fines.  There are those who have implied that if the Colts really had ‘open competition’ for jobs, that Mathis and Wayne would be riding the pine come September.  Such thinking couldn’t be more destructive or more erroneous.

First, let’s address the issue of “open competition”.  What it means is that the best players play come Sundays in the fall.  It doesn’t matter what a guy’s resume is, if there is another player who is better he starts.  What it also means is that it doesn’t matter who practices more.  It doesn’t matter who toed the line with the organization.  The only thing that matters is who can make the plays on Sundays.  If you are selecting your starting lineup based on ANYTHING other than what players will produce the best outcome, then you are doing a massive disservice to your fans.  Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis will start (as much as Mathis ever ‘starts’…he typically hasn’t started much) because they are the best players at their positions.

What missing camp means for them is basically that they are taking a chance that some other player will jump up and take their job.  Could it happen?  Absolutely. If the coaches determine that Collie/Garcon/Gonzo are better than 87, then Wayne won’t see the field.  Missing practice opens that door, but it does not automatically push other players through it.  The same thing goes for Mathis.  If Jerry Hughes starts ripping through quarterbacks, then he’ll play.  Mathis missing some camp time might leave the door open for Hughes to show the coaches something, but it absolutely should not be a guarantee of anything.

Fans tend to think of these camps and practices as much more important to veterans than they really are.  This same issue comes up with Bob Sanders.  There are those that think that a player like Sanders missing practice or camp time due to injury is a big deal.  It isn’t.  Bob Sanders has always practiced less than other players.  Why?  Because come Sundays, he’s one of the best safeties in football.  It’s not that practice doesn’t matter at all, but for the most elite players it simply isn’t that important.

There’s another issue at work here, and that’s the issue of punishment.  Just like my middle school coach wanted to make a statement that baseball practice has to be more important than anything else, fans want players punished who hold out.  There are punishments built into the system.  Mathis and Wayne will be fined for missing camp time.  However, when a team punishes a player for a legitimate negotiation tactic, it risks alienating the entire locker room.  Rule by fear is not an effective way to manage grown men, many of whom are millionaires.  Were the Colts to crack down hard on Mathis and Wayne, they would show that the organization is unreasonable and doesn’t care about the players.  The tenor of both Wayne’s and Polian’s statements on the matter shows that everyone is maintaining the right attitude.  This isn’t personal. It’s just business.  There’s no need to “show anyone who’s boss”.  There have been no recriminations or even condescending statements of ‘disappointment’ from the team.

Punishing the players with benchings just for missing some not overly meaningful spring practices would only punish the rest of the team and the fans.  We need our best players on the field as much as possible.  Barring some insanely unforeseen leaps in productivity from a few guys, there’s just no way that Mathis and Wayne aren’t among the best 22 players on the team.

Open competition. It means the best players play.

Not the players who attend the most practices.

It’s the only way to run a team.

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