Sometime in the not-so-distant future, nobody will blink about what Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey announced he was doing on Monday – skipping the team’s upcoming appearance in the Sun Bowl. Why is he doing it?
“So I can begin my draft prep immediately,” McCaffrey said in a statement.
McCaffrey had already declared he was turning pro after his junior season. That was earlier in the month. This was the realization that playing in another game – a bowl game no less – was both a waste of time and an undue risk. McCaffrey plays running back, a position seen by NFL teams as nearly interchangeable. Mileage matters and one knee injury can end everything.
McCaffrey’s father, Ed, played 13 seasons as a receiver in the NFL, where he won three Super Bowls (one with San Francisco, two with Denver). He currently works on the radio crew for the Broncos, where his old quarterback and friend, John Elway, is in charge.
The family knows the system. The family knows the league. The family knows the sport. The family knows how perilous it is to fulfill that dream of not just becoming a pro, but remaining one. This isn’t some kid listening to an agent or a middleman uncle or whatever other stereotypical boogeyman can be invented. This is no callous, money-desperate crew, either.
This is business, smart business from smart people. Christian isn’t the only Stanford product in the family. Both Ed and his wife, Lisa, went there, too, home to the elite academics and 99 percent football graduation rate.
So what does it mean when they, the McCaffreys, looked at the Sun Bowl and said, “Forget it, this is not worth it,” and figured if they want an authentic plate of flautas de pollo, they’ll fly down to El Paso themselves and order some?
Oh, you can bet other players and parents are paying attention.
The dam has been ready to burst on player participation in bowl games for a while now, but with McCaffrey providing cover, here’s the expectation that the flood is coming. It may have already started with the decision by LSU running back Leonard Fournette to skip the Tigers’ bowl game. However, Fournette is recovering from injury, so there was a plausible reason for his non-return. McCaffrey is totally fine.
For generations College Football, Inc. has argued that skipping a bowl game was akin to treason against the team, that the joy of suiting up one last time with your buddies had an incalculable value, that the chance to get a little warmth, a swag bag and an opportunity to meet the Sun Court was too much to pass up. Even the thought of skipping would supposedly scare off NFL teams, which would questioned the players’ commitment and coachability.
A million excuses were invented as the bowl directors made their millions.
Well, the McCaffreys not only believe that not playing in a bowl game won’t negatively impact Christian’s draft stock, they believe taking the extra days to prep for the draft process will actually help it.
That’s an additional step forward from simply avoiding an injury. Sure no one wants a big one, the way Notre Dame’s great linebacker, Jaylon Smith, had his knee ripped apart in last year’s Fiesta Bowl. Smith was projected as a top-10, maybe top-five pick. He wound up in the second round, a loss of over $10 million in guaranteed money.
The cash is just part of it – smart, educated people such as Smith are unlikely to hurt for money across their life (and yes, $10 million is $10 million). The dream was to play in the NFL, though. That’s what he worked toward. This year he had to rehab the entire season. No one knows what he’ll be in the future, or how long he’ll last.
It can also be a small injury though, one that impacts January training. It can be the risk of one more concussion. It can be the full-contact practices that lead to fatigue. It can even be the distractions of the aforementioned Sun Court, or anything else that isn’t laser focused on a single goal.
Football is big business, treating it as such isn’t selfish. It’s sharp.
The idea that NFL execs would recoil in horror at a player skipping a bowl game doesn’t seem to be much of a concern. Many in the NFL view college athletics’ amateurism rules with skepticism or disdain. No one has ever associated McCaffrey or Fournette with softness or self-interest. Any team that wants to hold to that old-school principle, do so at your own peril. Here’s guessing Ed McCaffrey ran the idea by Elway, among the scores of other front-office execs and coaches he knows through a lifetime in the league.
Besides, what’s a bowl game anyway? Bowl games used to be considered exhibitions. The stats didn’t even count. Outside of the playoff, they still are mostly pointless, at least to everyone but the people profiting off them.
Coaches routinely leave their teams to take new (often higher-paying) jobs in between the end of the regular season and the bowl game. Schools have no problem firing coaches in the middle of the season. Is Fournette wrong for not finishing the year with the teammates and coaches he started it with back in the heat of August, or is LSU wrong for canning his head coach, Les Miles, in September after a 2-2 start?
The charade has been stripped away. The man making arguments behind the curtain has been exposed.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to play in a bowl game and ending your career with your guys and then concentrate on the NFL. Go out, have fun and stay safe.
It’s just there is also nothing wrong with the other way, the way Christian McCaffrey just uniquely busted open for plenty of future stars to follow.