It’s important to be healthy entering the postseason, but is there an advantage to resting players?
The Pittsburgh Steelers are perparing for the 2020 NFL postseason even with one game remaining. Being in the position where the final game of the season is one in which players can rest is a luxury not all teams get. Some teams even get the opportunity but chose not to take it. But does it ultimately help in the long run?
It’s impossible to judge if it was a wise decision to rest players or not. First, there is no way to say with certainty the outcome would have been different if a team had decided to take the other approach. Also, it’s impossible to speculate if a player would have sustained an injury if they would have played. The only determination which can be made is how teams did based on the decision to rest players.
Before diving into the numbers, I want to give my personal opinion on the matter. For this season, one in which the Steelers essentially had no bye week due to the multiple Covid situations they had because of some of their opponents, it made a lot of sense to rest some players in order to give them a chance to somewhat recover before a postseason run.
In this installment of Crunching the Numbers, we’ll take a look at how the Steelers have fared in games when Ben Roethlisberger has rested for the postseason, how they performed in the playoffs those seasons, and how it has worked out across the NFL in recent years.
In Ben Roethlisberger‘s career, he has sat out in Week 17 in order to rest for the playoffs four times. In those games where Roethlisberger missed, the Steelers have won 3 of the games. In 2004, Tommy Maddox led the Steelers to a win over the 9-6 Buffalo Bills who had won 6 straight games and it kept them from qualifying for the postseason. In Mike Tomlin‘s first year as head coach in 2007, Roethlisberger rested the final week of the season in Baltimore where the Steelers fell to the 4-11 Ravens. The two most recent time the Steelers have made the postseason, 2016 and 2017, Ben Roethlisberger sat out Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns and the Steelers won both games.
In the two most recent victories the Steelers had in Week 17 while resting players, they managed to squeak by the Cleveland Browns who were a combined 1-29 in those two seasons coming into those games. While the Steelers won them both, they came by a combined 7 points and one game took overtime to secure the victory.
More importantly than how the Steelers performed in Week 17 when Roethlisberger rests is how the Steelers perform in the next game when he returns. In all, the Steelers hold a .500 record in winning two of the four games. While the Steelers defeated the New York Jets in the Divisional Round in 2004, they lost in the Wild Card Round to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2007. In 2016 the Steelers won their first two playoff games after Roethlisberger rested in Week 17, but in 2017 the Steelers fell in defeat in their next game in the Divisional Round to the Jacksonville Jaguars yet again.
In Roethlisberger’s four postseason games after he had received rest in Week 17, he has a completion percentage of 64.9% and averaged 297 yards per game which are both higher than his career regular-season average. Interestingly, Roethlisberger threw for under 200 yards in both of the Steelers postseason victories while throwing for over 300 yards in both of the losses. In his last postseason appearance, Roethlisberger threw for 469 yards on 37 completions and 58 attempts while throwing 5 touchdowns and one interception in the Steelers 42–45 loss to Jacksonville.
Beyond the Steelers, how do other teams fare when resting their quarterbacks in Week 17 before the playoffs? Going back over the last 15 seasons, teams who played on Wild Card Weekend after resting their quarterback completely have a record of 5-9. Over the last five years it gets much better as teams have a record of 2-2.
When looking at teams hosting a Wild Card game after resting their quarterback the previous week, the record gets even worse as the home team is only 2-6 in eight games. Once again, looking at the last five years, it’s not much better as teams are 1-2. On the bright side, it was the 2016 Steelers win over the Miami Dolphins which was the lone victory.
A different approach to resting players the final week of the season is for teams to have their quarterback start the game but not even play the entire half. When teams have done this over the last 15 seasons, their playoff record is 5-5. To break this down even more, teams who hosted the Wild Card game as either the #3 or #4 seed are 5-1 over the last 15 seasons with the only loss going all the way back to 2005 when the #3 seeded Cincinnati Bengals lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
Just for fun since it doesn’t apply to the Steelers this season, resting quarterbacks in Week 17 and having a first-round bye in the playoffs have not paid off for teams over the last 15 seasons. Teams who have completely rested quarterbacks have a record of 2-4 while teams who have rested their starter for part of the game are 3-5. It will be interesting to see if the strategy pays off for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020 as it did not bode well for the 2019 Baltimore Ravens.
So there are some numbers in regards to both how the Steelers and the rest of the NFL have fared when resting players. While it is difficult to determine if teams performed better than they would have otherwise, the ultimate goal is winning games and moving on when it comes to the NFL postseason. How will it work out for the Steelers this year? We should know in just about a week.