As he has done his whole career, Andy Reid has announced that he won’t be playing the starters for the meaningless week 17 game. The majority of coaches do this, as the risk of a player getting injured is relatively high during a game, and they would have little time to recover during the playoffs, so why take the risk for a game that doesn’t matter anyway?
The counterargument is that by not playing them you’re taking a different risk, that the players will become rusty with extended time off and not play at the level they’re capable of during the playoffs. If this is true, this is a valid concern that coaches should consider when deciding whether or not to rest starters. But often lost in this discussion is one very important question.
Do players actually get rusty?
In one sense the answer is obviously yes, if the amount of time is long enough. Even ignoring the aging factor Tony Gonzalez would be nowhere near the same level of play as he would have been had he not retired. It’s a normal part of human nature, if you go long periods without doing something you’re not going to be as good at it as you were when you were in the thick of it. But is 3 weeks off for a professional football player really enough to start to show rust, especially considering they’re still practicing and studying film?
Those who answer yes will point to the playoff failures of teams who rested starters before a first round bye. Just last year the Ravens, who rested starters in week 17, lost their first playoff game while the Chiefs, who didn’t rest starters, won the Super Bowl. But I would argue that there’s no actual evidence that these losses are due to rust, instead the normal up and downs of professional football where sometimes the better team loses just because (or in the Ravens case because they faced a better team). [Editor’s note: Correlation doesn’t demonstrate causation.]
Maybe if every single team who rested starters lost there’d be something to it, but there are plenty of teams who saw playoff success after resting starters in week 17 before a bye. The Reid Eagles went to the Super Bowl the year they rested starters, and the Saints rested starters when they won the Super Bowl.
But then there’s the problem of how you count what’s rusty and what’s not. For example, in 2018 the Saints rested starters in week 17, had a bye, and then won their divisional round game before eventually losing to the Rams in the Conference Championship. Do those Saints count for or against the rust theory?
Overall, when you break it down and examine it honestly, there simply isn’t enough evidence that players see a significant decline in performance when given two consecutive games off, certainly not enough to justify playing starters given the easily proven risk of injuries.