Let’s first acknowledge that a scenario in which this question becomes relevant is far from a guarantee. If the Lions beat the Giants, it’s irrelevant, as a loss to Philadelphia would severely harm the Bears playoff chances. If the Lions and Packers both lose, it’s irrelevant, as the Bears would then be playing to clinch the division. The only scenario in which it matters for this Sunday is if the Packers win but the Lions lose. In that case, the Bears game is essentially meaningless with regards to the Bears postseason hopes; they would finish the Eagles game either a half-game ahead or a half-game behind the Packers, heading into what would be a climactic regular season finale at Soldier Field.
But since they might also face this question heading into Week 17 (the dream scenario in which they clinch the division on Sunday) I thought it might be a debate worth having, and it’s clearly something that Marc Trestman is considering as well.
First, for this Sunday. If things shake out in the necessary manner, the Bears would still have something to play for, even if their postseason chances weren’t riding on the game: playoff seeding. A win over the Eagles would assure the Bears of the #3 seed if they were to make the playoffs. That’s important for a couple of reasons. The #3 seed is likely to face an NFC South team, either the Saints or Panthers. Those two teams currently sit at 10-4, and one of them is likely assured of a wild card berth. But they play each other this weekend, meaning the loser will most likely fall to the #6 seed line heading into Week 17. I’m giving San Francisco two wins to close the season in this scenario as they’re playing very well. If that holds, the #3 seed’s path is through two NFC South teams, while the #4 seed would have to play two NFC West teams, including a potential trip to Seattle in the Divisional round. The Seahawks haven’t lost at home since 2011. That scares me. If we want the Bears to have a chance at a deep playoff run, I think the #3 seed is worth playing for.
Even if the Bears disagree on that point (and it’s quite a hypothetical, to be sure) I’m not sure what you gain by resting starters on Sunday night. Jay Cutler only returned to practice last week. If the Bears are prepping for a winner-take-all game against Green Bay, I would want to get him as many reps as possible.
But here we run into the main problem with this debate. Injury avoidance, the main benefit to resting Cutler, Forte, Marshall, and more, would be invisible. We would never be able to know if they would have been injured during the game. Resting players certainly protects them from the chance of injury, but that decision is not without collateral damage in the form of lost game time. It seems to me that it is very hard to replicate game-like conditions for football. Basketball players can and do scrimmage full speed, baseball players take live batting practice and infield, golfers golf. (Last one was a joke.) Football practices are necessarily limited, due to injury fears. But football is also a very intricate team sport; there are so many moving parts on each play, on both sides of the ball, and everyone must be in sync. That’s what makes it great, of course. But that sort of complexity requires practice, and it’s impossible to simulate the speed and intensity of a playoff-like game at a walkthrough on a Thursday. (Caveat: I’ve never played.) To ask Jay Cutler to sit out five weeks, play one game, sit out another two weeks (calendar time) and then play one of the most important games of his career would seem like a borderline-unfair request.
But, back to the injury problem: if Matt Forte or Brandon Marshall or Cutler himself were to be injured during a relatively meaningless game, the backlash would be swift, severe, and not entirely unwarranted. I know I would have to think very hard about the risk/reward analysis. This isn’t a new thing, of course; the Colts rested their starters in 2009, giving up a chance at a perfect season. They made the Super Bowl anyway, but lost to the Saints. (One of the odder things about that playoff run for Indy: organizationally they’d decided that resting starters was the smart thing to do, but Dwight Freeney was still playing late in a blowout AFC Championship game victory. He severely sprained his ankle and was heavily limited in the Super Bowl.) The Packers rested players in 2011, and lost their first playoff game to the Giants (that Giants team beat the Packers and the Patriots en route to the Super Bowl. I was a big fan of theirs that post-season.) And my favorite game to feature an element of this debate was in 2007, when the Patriots were gunning for an undefeated season and the Giants played their starters in an effort to stop them. Neither team had anything to play for (except 16-0) but both ended up making the Super Bowl. (I liked that Giants team even more than the 2011 Giants team.)
So what should the Bears do, either this week or next, if the game’s outcome becomes meaningless? I think regardless of other outcomes this weekend, the Bears should play to win the game in Philadelphia. I think playoff seeding is important, this year especially. And I think bringing Cutler back into the fold is also vital. But if the game is out of hand one way or the other, I would certainly consider pulling some key players in the second half. But if the things break Chicago’s way, and the Bears clinch the division this weekend, I think the equation changes for the Green Bay game. In that case, with the division decided and seeding set, it would make more sense to limit the action for some starting players. I think Cutler would play a few series, maybe even a half, and I would applaud that. But I would have no qualms with pulling starters at some point in the game, even if it happened early.
In any case, it’s a good problem to have. I’m happy that the Bears have done enough to be in this position as the season winds down. These debates are more enjoyable than the ones we’d be having if they were 5-9 right now.