College football star running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey shook the college football world last week by announcing they’ll skip their bowl games (with LSU and Stanford respectively) to make sure they stay injury-free for the upcoming NFL draft. The reasoning behind the players’ decisions? As projected first-round draft picks, they’ve already proven their worth to the NFL, and don’t have much (if anything) to gain from playing in one more game — especially when those games are secondary bowls. They could, however, have plenty to lose. Playing could put them at risk of suffering potential injuries that could cost them their careers or millions in NFL salaries.
And you know what? I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it. I still remember Miami’s Willis McGahee getting cut down by Ohio State’s Will Allen in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. McGahee, a stud back himself, was expected to be a top 4 pick in the NFL draft that year. Instead he dropped 18 spots to #23 after suffering a severe knee injury on that play. That slide cost McGahee several million dollars in his first NFL contract and months of extensive rehab after reconstructive surgery.
Now fast forward to last year’s Fiesta Bowl (coincidentally) where Notre Dame’s all-world linebacker Jaylon Smith, also slotted to be a top 5 pick, blows out his knee. That injury caused a slide to the Cowboys in the 2nd round and the #34 spot in the draft. He’s still yet to play a down of professional football as his rehab continues.
Can Smith ever be the player he was for the Irish again? That remains to be seen, but one thing is certain – that one play cost him dearly finacially. If Smith had gone 4th overall as many draft gurus had him pegged, he would have been slotted a fully guaranteed four-year, $24.96 million deal. Instead he signed a four-year, $6.49 million deal with $4.52 million guaranteed. So that’s a loss of at least $18.47 million, and potentially as much $20.44 million. That’s a big chunk of change. Smith for his part says he doesn’t regret his decision to take the field that day, saying “I would play it again. And I don’t just mean that figuratively. Like I truly believe that. It’s just not in me to give up, even if it would be for the benefit of me.”
So what’s the bottom line on all this? Well, first off without question it’s bad for college football. Was I going to make sure I was in front my TV on Dec. 30 to watch Stanford play North Carolina in the Hyundai Sun Bowl? Nope. But would I have had more of an interest in the game if McCaffrey was playing? Yep.
Or maybe the deeper issue in all this is the over-saturation of bowl games in general (any one watch the Potato Bowl last night?). Bowl games used to be a reward for teams that had outstanding seasons or won their conferences. Big 10 and Pac 12 champs went to the Rose Bowl and it was a big deal even if they weren’t playing for a National Championship. Ditto for the SEC and the Sugar Bowl and the Big 12 and the Orange Bowl. There are so many bowls now, teams that go 6-6 or even 5-7 are playing in them. In fact, of the 80 teams invited to bowls this year, 20 don’t have winning records. What allure can these bowl games really have for the players (or fans for that matter) when the teams played much, much bigger games during the regular season?
I don’t doubt for a second that both McCaffrey and Fournette would be suiting up if their squads were playing in the College Football Playoff, but LSU’s trip to the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl just doesn’t seem that important – even to me. Nick Saban recently put the blame on the playoff system, saying it more or less has rendered the other bowl games meaningless. I think that simplifies things a bit too much, but I get his point. Just like I get why players would want to err on the side of caution before heading into the NFL combine and draft. After all, coaches can pass on bowl games to start preparing for a new career (see Tom Herman on his way to Austin), why can’t players do the same?
So I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it.