Jim Irsay was a football fan long before he was owner of the Indianapolis Colts.
So when he hears outsiders criticize Indy’s move to pull its starters in Sunday’s game, 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," he said in 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."
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Fans have been furious since Peyton Manning and others 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 league-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 get refunds, 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, a day Manning and defensive captain Gary Brackett uttered the same line: It’s time to move on.
"Three’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, he called the decision "courageous" and said the difference between winning and losing in the playoffs could come down to whether Indy’s 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 does not believe the fallout will create any long-term damage.
He hopes many of the angry fans have plenty to cheer when they return to Lucas Oil Stadium for the team’s first playoff game in the two-year-old facility Jan. 16 or 17.
And if the Colts bring home the Lombardi Trophy from Miami, for the second time in four years, all will be forgiven.
Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, though, Irsay thinks 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."
Indy visits Buffalo this weekend and nobody has said how long the starters will play, though it’s expected to be less than last week.