Theory of resting NFL QBs in regular-season finales will be tested again in playoffs

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National Football League

Jan. 10, 2024 8:52 a.m. ET

In chilly, sunny Santa Clara, Brock Purdy stood as a sideline spectator last weekend, the NFC’s No. 1 seed already in possession of the San Francisco 49ers and their impressive QB. 

Over in Baltimore, Lamar Jackson did the same, albeit while in downright torrential conditions, making the most of his and the Ravens’ superb campaign to take Week 18 as a time of recuperation ahead of the postseason. 

Elsewhere, a trio of Super Bowl winners in Patrick Mahomes, Joe Flacco and Matthew Stafford all left the rigors of game action to their deputies, in an effort to be as healthy as can be for the bruising nature of the wild-card round this weekend. 

In each case, it didn’t seem like much of a decision at all.  

If a team had something to either strive for or defend in Week 18, from the all-or-nothing chase of a bracket spot like that claimed by C.J. Stroud and the Houston Texans, all the way to the Detroit Lions and Jared Goff seeking the unlikely (and ultimately fruitless) prospect of jumping to a No. 2 seed, they started their QB. 

If they didn’t, they rested him. The only tweak is that the Los Angeles Rams could theoretically have dropped from No. 6 to No. 7 in the NFC had they lost to the undermanned 49ers, with backup Carson Wentz under center in place of Stafford. They beat them anyway, 21-20, and will now travel to Stafford’s old stomping grounds in Detroit

NFL teams do things for a wide variety of reasons, the main ones being common sense, perceived future advantage, and, increasingly, data-driven evidence. However, the last of those doesn’t quite mingle with the “rest or rust” debate when it comes to season-ending quarterback activity. 

Since 2005, 26 teams have gone into their first postseason game having taken the opportunity to sit their starting QB. The results have been mixed at best, with those squads posting a 10-16 record in that subsequent playoff contest. 

By comparison, teams that played their starters racked up a mark of 112-84, for a .571 clip.

It’s worth noting the prior sample is a small one; 13% as large as the number of teams that played their quarterbacks. Teams that sat their QBs are also much more likely to have a bye in the wild-card round and face a challenging opponent in their first game.

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“You work hard to get an off week in this league,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters. “I think an off week helps a lot, especially if you handle it the right way and stuff, at this time of year it allows guys to get a little fresher. What you don’t want is two off-weeks. Two bye weeks isn’t good for anybody, and that’s why (Week 18) isn’t one.” 

Despite that, Shanahan still opted to stand Purdy down, the fear of potential injury too great to disregard. And in the AFC, Harbaugh did the same with Jackson, despite the Ravens having been in a virtually identical spot in 2019 and having not-so-fond memories of it. 

Back then, Jackson clinched the MVP award and the Ravens won their last 12 to finish 14-2 and lock in the top seed. On the last day of the season, John Harbaugh rested Jackson and seven starters. In the divisional round, they got tripped up by the Tennessee Titans, and a campaign of huge promise ended, just like that. 

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You have to look back to the 2009 season for the Super Bowl to have been won by a No. 1 seed that rested its QB in the regular season closer — Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints. But don’t expect the trend toward rest to shift backward. 

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid knew Mahomes’ involvement or otherwise would be the main talking point and the opening words of his media availability last week were “Pat is not going to play,” before resting Travis Kelce, too. 

Perhaps the biggest factor of all is that while taking a signal caller out of his rhythm is a genuine concern if there’s one thing assured of torpedoing a team’s run at a Super Bowl, it is if the quarterback goes down hurt. 

An example of the inherent pitfalls arose from the Eagles’ tortuous evening against the New York Giants. Hoping for the tandem combo of a Week 18 win and a Dallas Cowboys stumble that could have propelled them from a No. 5 to a No. 2 seed, they got neither, while also seeing Jalen Hurts injure a finger and A.J. Brown hurt his knee as Philly’s stunning decline over the past month continued. 

With Flacco turning 39 in a week, the Cleveland Browns’ choice was possibly the easiest of all, although the team did take creative steps to get Flacco the $75,000 bonus he would have given up by resting. 

The Rams, meanwhile, weighed up multiple factors, including the likelihood of falling a spot in the seedings and how harmful that would be, before opting to keep Stafford out. Head coach Sean McVay made the final call but wasn’t pretending that he had found the golden ticket.  

“You are just balancing what you think is best,” McVay said. “There is not a perfect solution.”  

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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