Some of college football’s highest-profile running backs have announced they won’t play in bowl games this winter before leaving school and entering the NFL draft.
LSU junior Leonard Fournette said on Dec. 16 he’d skip the Dec. 31 Citrus Bowl against Louisville. Stanford junior Christian McCaffrey said three days later he’d follow suit and not play in the Dec. 30 Sun Bowl against North Carolina. A day after that, Baylor’s Shock Linwood, a senior, said he’d skip the Cactus Bowl against Boise State.
While Fournette and McCaffrey leave with a full year of eligibility remaining each, the debate isn’t about their underclass status. It’s about some players deciding second-tier bowl games aren’t important enough to risk injury and detract from getting ready for the pro game.
A lot of people are fine with guys skipping these bowls.
An NFL personnel executive summed up the case to FOX Sports’ Bruce Feldman:
“Put yourself in their shoes, an injury could change the course of the rest of their lives,” the veteran NFL personnel man said. “We’re not talking about a left guard here. We’re talking about a skill (position) player who is a huge target. That’s the reality of it.
“Look at what these coaches are making now. Those guys are making $5 or $6 million a year and they may pressure these kids to play? Look at what these coaches and ADs are doing. It’s OK for them to leave, but it’s not OK for players to think about their futures? For coaches to (be critical), that’s incredibly selfish. Hold on a second here, guy. You pressure these kids to play, and then one of them (suffers a career-altering injury) and it’s, ‘I love you, and you’re a great teammate. Sorry about that.’ And it’s all for some bowl game who no one cares about? That’s a joke. I’m looking at it practically. If it was your son, what are you gonna say?”
And a Power 5 head coach, to Feldman:
“If some coaches can skip bowls to get ready for their next job, how can anyone fault Fournette or McCaffrey?”
Coaches change jobs during bowl season every year. Some stick around to coach the bowl for the program they’re about to depart. Others do not. They’re rarely castigated for it. When players skip a bowl for draft prep, they’re doing it as part of a de facto job change.
Former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a career-derailing knee injury in a college regular season game:
Former Pitt and longtime NFL safety Louis Riddick, now an ESPN commentator:
It cannot not be that hard to understand and accept why McCaffrey and Fournette are doing what they are doing. It makes sense. Get over it.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) December 20, 2016
...unless u r telling me that everyone is entitled to make "personal business" decisions in college football except draft eligible players?— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) December 20, 2016
Fournette’s been oft-injured this year, and McCaffrey was banged-up at one point too, which raises another point.
Fournette has played hurt this year "for the team" but now let's question his "commitment to the team" because he wants to get healthy. Ok.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) December 20, 2016
Not everybody is happy about this, though.
Bruce Arians, the Arizona Cardinals coach, doesn’t seem enamored:
“That would concern me. Depending on what their situation is as a team, because this is a team sport. But you’ve had a couple of guys get injured in the last couple years. Agents have a lot to say about it. Parents have a lot to say about it. But, it would concern me.”
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who left Ohio State with eligibility on the table:
All these young guys deciding to skip their bowl games .I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) December 19, 2016
One last time to honor your university and one last chance to play with your boys who will be your brothers for life.— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) December 19, 2016
And there is a difference between not coming back for your last year and not finishing your last season.— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) December 19, 2016
My bad though I didn't realize they were already battling injuries. So I guess it makes sense.— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) December 19, 2016
I just know how much I loved my university and the guys I played with. My last game was the most memorable moment from my college career.— Ezekiel Elliott (@EzekielElliott) December 19, 2016
Former NFL MVP Marshall Faulk:
If a RB can't play in a bowl game vs college competition without getting hurt. How in the hell is he going to play 16+ games in the NFL?— Marshall Faulk (@marshallfaulk) December 20, 2016
That might be a rhetorical question, but the answer is something like: “If he’s not healthy in the first place, he’s definitely not playing 16-plus games in the NFL.”
Danny Kanell, a former quarterback who’s now an ESPN analyst:
So I guess Dak Prescott should stop playing this season. He's severely underpaid as a franchise qb. Why risk injury? Got to get his right?!?— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) December 19, 2016
Prescott is paid money for every game he plays, including playoff games. College players get sometimes cool, sometimes uncool bowl gifts, but they don’t get more money. They are not, in the NCAA’s own legal arguments, employees.
Former Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who injured his leg in last year’s Fiesta Bowl and saw his draft stock suffer as a result (Smith isn’t criticizing others and is only saying what he’d do):
Honestly. With Everything I've been through, If I could go back to Jan. 1st I'd play again. #ClearEyeView— Jaylon Smith (@thejaylonsmith) December 20, 2016
ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, another former college quarterback:
While I get players skipping their bowl game-what happened to LOVING the GAME & wanting to compete 1 more time w/ your boys-Disturbing trend— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) December 19, 2016
Miami coach Mark Richt, also a former college player, makes a similar case:
“I think it’s sad, personally,” Richt said after practice Tuesday. “Football is the greatest team sport there is, and I think until the season is over, you should be with your team, really and truly.
“You can take out whether I want a guy to stay to help us win and all that. Football is the greatest game. It’s the greatest game because it’s a team game. Everybody is counting on each other.
“I bet their teammates are like, ‘I understand. I understand.’ Maybe face to face. But I bet you when they lay their head on the pillow, they’re like, ‘Why is that guy doing that? We’re a team. We paid the price together.’
Boston College coach Steve Addazio doesn’t like it:
I don't understand that. You have a bowl game, you have your team, you're with your team, and I think a bowl game is a reward for your team, and you go play together, compete together. You don't need to rush your -- everybody wants to rush their life, and then when they get on the other side of that thing, I talk to guys like Mike and Maurkice Pouncey all the time, and they wish they could go back because it's such a unique time in their life. I really don't understand that. I hope that's not something that's going to -- once again, here we go, create that. I hope not. But everybody has got their own individual reasons, I guess, why they do what they do, but at the end of the day, I just think about how we all started this thing, one of our goals was to get to a bowl game as a team, and we want to go as a whole team and compete as a team.
Clemson safety Jadar Johnson, who’s in the Playoff:
“At first I thought it was a joke,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I had never heard nothing like that before, like you’re sitting out for a bowl game? I don’t know. I don’t understand that. I just don’t see the logic in that.”
“No matter how big the bowl is, that’s still a big game,” he said. “You win that as a team, and you’ll still celebrate it like it’s the biggest game of your career. You just say you don’t want to play in it? That’s not me.”
Nick Saban takes a pretty nuanced view of the issue.
He sees it as a product of the sport’s devaluation of non-Playoff bowls:
"We kind of created this trend," Saban said Wednesday. "I said as soon as we had a playoff, we were going to minimize the importance of all the other bowl games. I'm not saying whether it's good or bad, it kind of is what it is.
"I don't know where all this is going, but I don't think it's going to change. Is it good? Probably not. But you can't blame the kids. It's a product of what we created."
"I don't coach football afraid that people are going to get hurt," he said. "Injuries are a part of the game. Injuries are a part of every sport. Tennis players get hurt. Tiger Woods got hurt. I don't think you can live your life concerned about that when you're an athlete and you're trying to create value for yourself. I would tell every guy that you benefit more from going and playing really well than by not playing. If you play really well, that enhances your value."
There are a few unique dynamics.
The first is that football is football. Players and coaches are all about being part of a team and contributing to something bigger than any one man. That’s a good attitude.
But it isn’t hard to see how can lead players astray. If they play and get hurt, it helps no one. If they delay draft preparation, it helps the college team, but not the individual.
As one longtime NFL lineman puts it:
I think guys equate football too much towards the military & their principles. Football is entertainment....big business— Damien Woody (@damienwoody) December 20, 2016
The majority of bowl games aren’t a lot more than glorified exhibitions. Stanford could get more out of McCaffrey making himself a first-round pick than it would from winning the Pac-12’s lowest-ranked 2016 bowl.
One of Saban’s players adds that nobody’s ever gonna sit out a bowl that leads to the national championship, while throwing in a shot at the fictional “Birmingham Biscuits Bowl”:
The second is that these are college students. Think about what college students are supposed to do in college: readying for a career. College can be fun, but personal and professional development are its core purposes. If your chosen career path is pro football, there could be more value in independent preparation, including the hiring of an agent to line up workouts and build relationships, than in a bowl game.
The third is that running backs have a hard job. Every carry over a multi-year career moves a running back one carry closer to the end of his career. Running backs are considered easily replaceable, and their earning window is only so wide.
It’s not fair to fault players for trying to maximize their dollar value. If skipping a bowl helps them do that, who are any of us to judge them?
Running backs are the current flashpoint in this discussion, but the outlook won’t change much when players at other positions make the same call. And if a player on a Playoff team ever does it, the outcry against it will get even louder.