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Does resting a quarterback in Week 17 lead to playoff success?

There is a delicate balance between risking injury in a meaningless game and maintaining momentum going in the postseason

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Last offseason,I entertained some numerical questions as users submitted various items to “Ask the Stat Geek.” After moving into the deputy editor role, and ultimately the editor position, diving into a lot of research is something which took a bit of of a backseat at times. But when an interesting question is proposed, I can’t help but dive into the research in finding an answer.

In this case, I wish I could give credit to where the question was raised, but I can’t remember if it was in a comment on a podcast or an article. If this is your question, please let me know.

So here’s the question: When a team rests their quarterback in Week 17 in preparation for the playoffs, does it lead to greater success on the field?

There are several factors which could lead a team to rest players, specifically their quarterback, in preparation for a playoff run. Not knowing the exact motive in each case, I simply just state the results. Of course, if the team’s quarterback were to get injured in a meaningless Week 17 game, chances of successfully navigating through the playoffs take a serious hit. Also, if a player is dealing with some minor injuries, it would probably benefit some added rest in order to get fully healthy. So there are other factors to consider.

But when it comes to the numbers, the results are not encouraging.

There are several ways in which to look at the numbers. Teams who wind up with a bye in the first round of the playoffs yet still rest their players in Week 17 are going to be a different category than those having to play the very next week. Additionally, I even broke down teams who completely rested their quarterback to a degree where they didn’t even play a snap versus those who played their quarterback some, but did not complete the first half. Needing to establish a cut-off point somewhere, any team whose quarterback played up through the final series of the first half was not included as a team who “rested their quarterback for the playoffs.”

For the purpose of the study, I went back 15 seasons. It seemed like a good round number, and it encompassed the Steelers Super Bowl run of 2005.

When an NFL team was facing a bye the first week of the playoffs and chose to completely rest thier starting quarterback, those teams have gone on to lose their first playoff game four out of the six times it occurred since 2005. Of the two victories, they were both achieved by the New Orleans Saints, once in 2018 and a previously in 2009 when they went on to win the Super Bowl. The year the Saints won in the playoffs in 2018 after resting their quarterback Week 17 was sandwiched between two different losses— the 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers who lost in the divisional round after resting Ben Roethlisberger in Week 17, and the 2019 Baltimore Ravens who got bounced immediately from the postseason by the Tennessee Titans after resting Lamar Jackson to end the regular season.

As for teams who rest their quarterback for more than half of the game but did at least have him play, those teams went 3-5 in their first game of the playoffs. Even though there were more losses than wins coming from playoff teams hosting a game after a bye, two of those three winning teams went on to win the Super Bowl in the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles and the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers.

One game which was not included in these latest set of numbers was the 2015 Denver Broncos who saw Peyton Manning come off the bench in Week 17 after returning from injury and then take over the team for their playoff run which concluded with a Super Bowl victory. Being such a special circumstance, this example needed to fit into its own category.

So between either completely resting the team’s starting quarterback, or playing him minimally in the final week of the season, those teams have a combined record of 5-9 in their first playoff game after getting a first-round bye.

But what about teams who play on Wild Card Weekend? Is it better to rest their quarterback for Week 17 in these situations?

The simple answer is better than those teams who had a bye, but not much better.

Of the teams who completely rested their quarterback in Week 17 to turn around and play the following week in the playoffs, they have a record of 5-9 over the last 15 years. As for teams who rested their quarterback for more than a half but still had them play, they ended up being the most successful with an even chance of winning the first playoff game at 5-5.

For teams who played in Wildcard Weekend but fully rested their quarterback the week before, none went on to win the Super Bowl. As for those who gave their quarterback a limited number of series, the only team to go on and win the Super Bowl was the 2012 Baltimore Ravens.

One interesting item of note is a team which only appeared once on the list over the last 15 years— the New England Patriots. Even when things are locked up for “that team up north,” they still continue to play Tom Brady the final week of the season at least through halftime with the exception of the 2005 season.

Other interesting factoids which arose during this research was 2014 is the only year in the last 15 seasons where a quarterback was not significantly rested in Week 17 heading into the playoffs. Surprisingly, 10 of the 15 years had teams resting a quarterback even though they had a bye the next week with half of those having multiple teams. Additionally, the two years in which the most teams rested their quarterback— 2007 and 2005 which each had five teams— none of those teams went on to win the Super Bowl in those years with seven of them losing their first game.

When looking specifically at our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers, they fit into a variety of categories. In 2017 the Steelers rested Ben Roethlisberger the final week of the season and ended up losing coming off the bye. In 2016, the Steelers also rested Roethlisberger the final week of the season yet won their first playoff contest on their way to the AFC championship game. In 2008, the Steelers partially rested Ben Roethlisberger before their playoff bye and the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl. But in the previous season, the Steelers rested Roethlisberger fully in Week 17 only to fall to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the opening round of the playoffs. So for the Steelers, the results have been all over the board.

In summary, regardless of where a team placed going into the postseason, if they rested their quarterback in Week 17 they only went on to win the Super Bowl 1 in 20 times. As for teams resting their quarterback for more than a half, they went on to win the Super Bowl 3 out of the 18 opportunities.

Obviously, there are other factors involved as to whether or not a team should rest their quarterback and the risk/reward associated with it. Sometimes it could be a team who has the opportunity because things are already wrapped up but changing things ultimately kills their momentum. On the flipside, teams who struggle and fight both to make the playoffs or for their best possible position, they can continue their fighting mentality into the postseason.

Exactly why these are the results are up for debate. But when it comes to the numbers, an NFL team resting their quarterback the final week of the season for a half or more has not led to an immediate playoff victory the majority of the time.