Taboo in the not-too-distant past, players opting out of bowl games has quickly become a trend
Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette were once admonished for decisions we now shrug off
Lincoln Riley was beyond perturbed.
Two years ago, a pair of Oklahoma's biggest stars approached the team's then-offensive coordinator about sitting out the Sugar Bowl. Wide receiver Dede Westbrook and tailback Joe Mixon were going to leave the team early to preserve their bodies and begin training for the upcoming NFL Draft.
"They told me they thought it was in their best interest to skip the Sugar Bowl," Riley said this week. "I had a few choice words."
The smiles on the faces of Westbrook and Mixon weren't far behind.
"They pranked me," said Riley, now the Sooners' head coach entering his second consecutive College Football Playoff. "They got me pretty good."
So far, Oklahoma has been immune to a relatively recent trend for draft-eligible NFL prospects: punt the bowl game, leave the team and begin training for the draft prior to that postseason reward.
"We haven't had that happen here," said Riley. For obvious reasons, of course, as no player -- thus far -- has bolted a team competing in the College Football Playoff with a championship at stake.
"That's not to say we won't ever have to go through it."
As for the impact on the random Gasparilla-Quick Lane-Cheez-It bowl games? Two years ago, there was outrage in some quarters when this trend started. A pair of star running backs nursing injuries -- Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and LSU's Leonard Fournette -- skipped their bowl games to heal and begin NFL training.
That broke tradition. There were claims of disloyalty. Even today, some take issue with such decisions.
"I would probably never do that," said Kansas State All-American guard Risner, a fifth-year senior. "At the same time, I have no judgment for guys that do because I completely understand why. That line right there is one of the hottest topics in college football."
It's a hot topic that more or less has become accepted. There are at least 13 players to this point who have declared for the draft and premature ended their college careers.
If you haven't noticed, there is a reason: The outcry over McCaffrey and Fournette two years ago has essentially died out.
"One player here, one player there?" said Wright Waters, executive director of the Football Bowl Association. "God bless 'em. You know what? I've got no problem with it."
On the other end, Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based attorney Bryan Fischer looks prescient. Twenty-one months ago, he predicted the current increase in early departures.
"What you saw is the tip of the iceberg," said Fisher who works with college players vetting pre-draft insurance. "You're going to see a lot of kids skipping."
For better or worse.
"You're torn because you're kind of half-parent, you see the individual side of it," Riley said. "You're also the head coach. You know how important it is to win bowl games and finish the year strong and create memories for these guys that they'll never get back."
If there is one thing coaches cannot do without, it's control -- specifically roster control. It's why we witnessed so much consternation in the transfer reform process. It was the coaches who came up with the term "free agency" when transfer reform amounted to something significantly less.
No one, then, should be surprised when the players in this instance are looking out for themselves.
"Will it impact [bowls] in this age when people are looking for a reason not to go instead of go? Yep," Waters said. "But at the end of the day, the bowls have been impacted by coaches leaving for years. If we talk about leadership and leading by example, what's the example when a coach leaves his team? What's the difference when the kids leave? It's kind of hard to throw rocks at kids when the people we trust to lead them are doing the same thing."
This year's list of early opt-outs is the most talented we've seen since the trend started.
Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa might have been the Buckeyes' best player this season. We'll never know because Bosa never returned after a core muscle injury suffered in Week 3 against TCU. He underwent surgery. In mid-October, the team confirmed Bosa would not be back. In the end, Bosa balanced riches of possibly being the overall No. 1 pick (and the at-least $30 million contract that would go with it) against returning for a few games at the end of the season.
Arizona State's N'Keal Harry is an All-American wideout. The 6-foot-4, 213-pound specimen caught the most balls of any Sun Devils receiver in three seasons. "He's still raw as far as things for the next level," coach Herm Edwards told ESPN. That assessment beats tearing up a knee in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Houston's mercurial defensive lineman Ed Oliver was limited by a series of injuries. At his best, Oliver was an All-American, the youngest-ever Outland winner and a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate. Why risk top 10 money playing in the Armed Forces Bowl?
West Virginia's Will Grier is the first major quarterback to duck out before his team's bowl game. Who can blame him? A chance to be a first-round draft pick or a lifetime experience playing in the Camping World Bowl?
"The only thing I ever worried about for these kids is, would you look back 30, 40 years and say, 'I'd like a chance to play in that bowl game and I didn't do it,'" Riley said. "I know we all grew up in a different era. I don't fault guys for it, but [I] also hope they keep in perspective the places they're playing for and how lucky they are to play at great programs."
"By the same token," Waters countered, "there's some kids out there who may improve their draft status, by giving the pros one more look at them and playing against a competition in a different part of the country they been exposed to all year."
There are two recent career-altering injuries that seem to have changed the conversation.
Michigan tight end Jake Butt suffered a torn ACL in the 2016 Orange Bowl. He slipped from a first-round projection to fifth-round pick.
Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith suffered a significant knee injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl that cost him an estimated $20 million in first-round money. Smith was eventually drafted in the second but put on injured reserve by the Dallas Cowboys his rookie season. He later collected $700,000 cashing in on a loss of draft value insurance policy -- significantly short of that $20 million.
"It is unreal," said Ronnie Kaymore, CEO of New Jersey-based Kaymore Sports Risk Management and Consulting. "… It all stems from the Jaylon Smith scenario. The kid did collect on his insurance but he lost far more than what he was compensated for. I don't know what the schools do to rectify. At most schools, it's going to become a problem."
This trend is obviously influenced by agents, families and advisers. Risner is close friends with McCaffrey having grown up with the Carolina Panthers star in Colorado.
"When Christian McCaffrey says, 'I could have torn my ACL [playing in a bowl game]. Look at me now. I'm the face of the program,'" Risner said. "You can call them unloyal. You can call them whatever you want, but I think it's more or less being smart."
The trend is also influenced by the glut of bowl games, 40 of them at last count. In other words, there wouldn't be bowls to skip if there weren't so many of them.
"I've been contacted by over 500 NFL agents," Risner said. "I have zero idea how [they knew how to reach me]. I never put my information out there."
Risner never had to make that decision. In his and coach Bill Snyder's final season, the Wildcats finished 5-7.
"I would play [in the bowl game] because I'm a big believer in God's plan. It's God's plan for me, this game of football," Risner added. "At the same time, I'm not one to judge or even get angry at those guys who decide not to play in the bowl game because you see they're aware of the impact they're about to have."
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