Here’s a statistic no one else will mention to you in promoting the hysterical response to the decisions by running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffery not to participate in bowl games — and the NFL’s embrace of those players as top-10 draft picks.
Ready? OK: 94 percent of the players selected in the first two rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft who had the opportunity to play in “meaningless” bowl games chose to participate.
Did Myles Garrett need to play for Texas A&M against Kansas State in the Texas Bowl? Obviously not. But he did. Trubisky threw two picks against Stanford in the Sun Bowl. He still was the second player selected in the draft. Solomon Thomas sacked Trubisky in that game, had five solo tackles and was so dominant his bowl performance was considered a factor in his climb to No. 3 overall.
What happened with Fournette and McCaffery was interesting, and worth nothing. It was not a revolution, as disappointing as that will be to so many in the media.
Here’s how the first two rounds broke down:
Played in the College Football Playoff: 18
Missed bowls with injury: 3
Team didn’t make bowl: 10
Skipped bowl: 2
Played in bowl game: 31
That means 96 percent of those available to play in the postseason chose to compete.
The media theme that has been playing more often in the past week than “24K Magic” is this: College football bowl games are meaningless exhibitions, Fournette and McCaffery skipped them and still became top-10 picks, so naturally we will see a future contagion of top NFL Draft prospects passing on their opportunities to play in bowls.
Here’s the truth about that song: We in this business never learn. We overreact to everything that is remotely different from the status quo, particularly if it involves debasing college athletics.
And college coaches are often behind this broken analysis.
When ESPN’s Andrea Adelson wrote a piece for Friday on the McCaffery/Fournette story, she quoted four college coaches who proclaimed their belief that skipping bowl games will become a greater trend among elite prospects. Not one of them was willing to put his name to that prediction. This is quite possibly because it’s total malarkey.
Those of us who cover basketball have been through this sort of thing before, when point guard Brandon Jennings chose not to attend college and instead played professionally in Italy. He was called a trendsetter and a trailblazer by reporters. That was in 2008. Since then, a grand total of two elite prospects — point guard Emanuel Mudiay and shooting guard Terrance Ferguson — chose to play professionally overseas rather than for NCAA programs.
Admittedly, skipping out on a bowl game is easier than adapting to life in Italy, China or even Australia. It requires no effort at all. It does, though, require a few difficult conversations, the abdication of one’s own competitive instincts and the abandonment of all sporting logic.
Indeed, as we have seen with Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith in 2016 or Michigan tight end Jake Butt this year, it is possible to be severely injured while playing in a bowl game.
It also is possible, though, to be injured while training for the draft. Washington cornerback Sidney Jones was considered a lock first-rounder until he blew out his Achilles tendon.
The folks who run the Reese’s Senior Bowl proudly proclaim on their website that 85 players who appeared in their 2017 game were selected in last week’s NFL Draft, including four in the first round. Overall, nearly half of the senior players chosen in the draft participated in what is, by design, a meaningless exhibition game.
It is so obviously meaningless that everyone involved recognizes and acknowledges that the practices leading up to the game are far more impactful. The game goes on, though. Media logic regarding bowl games would suggest this is madness, but guys still play even though injury is a possibility.
It would be foolish to suggest the draft success of Fournette and McCaffery will not lead to more players following a similar course, because some agents figure to encourage it and some athletes are easily led.
Football players are competitors, though, and they are teammates, and many more figure to follow the same path as Butt — the path he declared he would follow again even though it led to him being chosen several rounds later than he might have been before he tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl.
“You can get injured walking down the sidewalk,” Butt told reporters three months after his injury. “I’m never sitting out of a football game.”
That doesn’t make for as interesting a day on Twitter, but it’s what most college football players will decide.