Why Cardale Jones' decision to return to Ohio State may be the right move

·Columnist

Instead of cashing in, Cardale Jones went all in.

The 22-year-old overnight pro prospect called a press conference Thursday to announce what he described on Twitter as a "life-changing decision." Most everyone figured the Buckeyes quarterback would bolt for the pros after the best three-game NFL audition in college football history. But just when cynicism seems to dominate the sports landscape, a glimpse of idealism shows up. Jones said he wasn't ready to leave, and he wanted to get his degree. He made a major bet on himself.

"It's everybody's dream when they play a collegiate sport to make it to the next level," Jones said in a very short press event. "At my point in my career, I feel like it's best for me to go back to school and one of the most important things for me is to graduate."

Sure, there's reason to think this was as calculated as cold hard cash: Jones thinks he can stay at Ohio State for a year and then get selected at the very top of the draft instead of in the second or third round. But consider the risks, and the self-belief Jones needed to stay in Columbus.

There is no guarantee Jones will be the starter at Ohio State. Braxton Miller was a Heisman candidate for coach Urban Meyer before he got hurt, and backup J.T. Barrett was another Heisman candidate before he went down in the Buckeyes' last regular season game against Michigan. Sure, Meyer would be wise to stay with the passer who won him a national title, but Meyer is even more likely to go with his best chance to win games. If that's Barrett, or even Miller if he stays in Columbus, Jones will have to answer questions from NFL personnel people about why he couldn't keep a job he already had.

Cardale Jones announced his decision at his Cleveland high school. (AP)
Cardale Jones announced his decision at his Cleveland high school. (AP)

Then there's the risk of injury, which is all too familiar at Ohio State. Who knows how the draft prospects of Miller and Barrett have been affected by their injuries? If Jones gets hurt playing for free in college, he may lose earnings at the next level. The risk is augmented by the possibility that Jones could play up to 15 games next season, including the Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff should the Buckeyes fare as well as they did this season.

If they do not fare as well as expected, that might hurt Jones too. The most famous third-string quarterback in college football history was staggeringly good in all three of his games under center for the Buckeyes. He has played only in win-or-else games, first against a division champion (Wisconsin), then two conference champions (Alabama and Oregon). He was nearly flawless in all three, showing a blend of running and throwing that impressed absolutely everyone. The only tape on Jones is good tape, which is reason enough for him to head to the pros now. If "What have you done lately" is a factor in NFL personnel moves – and ask Teddy Bridgewater if that's the case – Jones is every bit as formidable of a draft prospect as the quarterbacks forecasted to go in the first round this spring: Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. But every game is a chance for flaws to emerge. That starts right away, as the Buckeyes open their 2015 against the defensive mastermind who nearly derailed their 2014 run: Bud Foster of Virginia Tech. The Hokies would be delighted to get a chance to take Jones down a notch, just like they did against Barrett, and that will certainly be the case for Mark Dantonio's Spartans, Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines, and every other team getting a shot at the champs. Even if Jones wins the job again and runs the table again, more might not necessarily be better. Winston looked shaky on many occasions this season, even though he emerged in good shape amid a weak quarterback draft class, and Mariota's unspectacular performance against Ohio State may cause some concern in team front offices.

Jones knows all of that, and still returned to school. He believes getting his degree will help him on and off the field, and he deserves credit for thinking that way. Football is littered with players who leave school early and fail. Jones could fail, but getting a degree is a terrific precaution – for the short term and for the rest of his life. And this choice shows he's learned something since his infamous tweet about how he didn't come to Ohio State to "play school." Clearly he got some strong mentorship from Ted Ginn, Sr., coach of the Glenville High team that produced both Jones and Troy Smith. "The vision," Ginn, Sr. has said, "Is to make strong young men and great citizens. If you don't like the vision, get out of the way."

There's that idealism: that Jones can be unbeaten on the field and in the classroom. There isn't much room for that kind of thinking in today's instant-gratification world, but for a little while it's heartening to see a 22-year-old think he can do well on the field and off.

The NFL has been pounding the table on slowing the flow of underclassmen leaving early for the draft. What the league needs is examples of stars who stay. Yes, there's every chance Jones is making a mistake here. But there's also a chance he will grow into a better leader, both for his teammates and for the many other students who will be watching his every move.