2009’s sad fling with bling

On a midwinter day in a Midwestern town that should know better, it became official.

The 2009 sports year is not something remembered in a scrapbook, but something worn around your neck.

It was, all shiny and sad, the season of bling.

It was the story of the year, everyone raising their hand and begging for attention, style over substance, me over we, bling.

Andre Agassi embarrasses himself and the tennis tour for the sake of a bestselling book.

Manny Ramirez misses one-third of the season for violating baseball’s drug policy, yet upon his return to Dodger Stadium he is given a huge ovation.

John Calipari is stolen from Memphis by Kentucky to coach its basketball team . . . a little more than four months before one of Calipari’s Memphis teams is thrown in NCAA jail . . . and everyone cheers.

Brian Kelly leaves an unbeaten Cincinnati team before its bowl game to coach Notre Dame . . . and Notre Dame allows him . . . and everyone cheers.

Which brings us to last Sunday, when the NFL’s best team decided to give itself the best possible chance to win a Super Bowl.

And was booed off its own field.

Because its sturdy, steadfast fans wanted the bling.

The event took place in that bastion of teamwork and sacrifice known as Indianapolis.

But “Hoosiers,” this ain’t.

It was the 15th game of a 16-game NFL season, the Colts were 14-0 with a chance to become the first team in 37 years to complete an entire season unblemished.

If they pulled it off, finishing with a 19-0 record that would include three postseason wins, it would be a historically unmatched mark and rank them as perhaps the greatest team in NFL history.

But you don’t need to be unbeaten to win a Super Bowl.

You do, however, need to be healthy.

So, in the second half of Sunday’s game, with the Colts leading the New York Jets, 15-10, Coach Jim Caldwell benched his best players.

Peyton Manning, out. Dallas Clark, out. Reggie Wayne, out.

As expected, the scrubs blew the lead and lost to the Jets, 29-15. A bit more surprising was the reaction from a town that cared more about the little bling than the big picture.

Fans booed them out of Lucas Oil Stadium. Fans inundated the local media with nasty e-mails. Fans angrily burned the lines to local talk radio stations, their dander so heightened that General Manager Bill Polian reportedly cut his weekly talk show short just to shut them up.

The theme of their discontent was, how can the Colts give up on a chance at history?

Because it was the right thing to do.

Sports are not about records, they are about championships. They are especially about championships in Indianapolis, where one of the greatest regular-season teams in all of sports history has lost its first playoff game in four of the last seven years.

While it’s understandable that a Colts fan would be momentarily upset at losing a perfect record, that same fan would rip those unbeaten Colts if they didn’t win a championship.

And if you think an undefeated regular season guarantees a championship, then you weren’t there with the New England Patriots a couple of seasons ago.

I was. I watched how the Patriots worked so hard to achieve the then-magical 16-0 record, they were burned out by the Super Bowl.

They erased a 12-point deficit to the New York Giants in the final regular-season game, but the chase for history had left them limping and lost.

They were tied in the third quarter of the divisional playoff game against Jacksonville. They led by only two points in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game against San Diego. They crumbled in the final minutes to lose the Super Bowl to the Giants.

In the end, the unbeaten record dragged them down like a bad hamstring. Tom Brady was injured. Randy Moss was confused. Bill Belichick couldn’t control it.

The bling blinded.

The Colts are seeing straight.

“The perfect season has never been one of our goals,” said Caldwell to reporters this week. “You have to look at your objective and keep an eye on what’s most important.”

Peyton Manning is important. He didn’t need to risk injury in a meaningless -- that’s right, completely meaningless -- game.

Clark and Wayne are important. They didn’t need to get unnecessarily hit by a flying Jets secondary.

Some of the players seemed initially miffed by the decision, a strangely unsettled 14-1 locker room.

“Doesn’t everybody want to be part of history?” Wayne told reporters. “I guess there’s a bigger picture.”

But at least one player, despite his downtrodden body language on the sidelines, verbally stood behind Caldwell.

“We are followers of our head coach,” Manning told the media. “Our job is to take instruction from our superiors and follow those instructions.”

Not quite the Brett Favre diva, is he?

Like his bosses, Manning is the anti-glitter, and here’s guessing that in the next several weeks, this attitude will serve them all well.

The spotlight is gone. The burden is lifted. The shine is off.

They are no longer playing for the bling, they are playing for a ring.

Despite what you may have heard during this costume-bejeweled sports year of 2009, there is a difference.