It started with simple declarations by Christian McCaffrey of Stanford and Leonard Fournette of LSU in December of 2016.
Each announced they were sitting out their team’s bowl games — the Sun and Citrus, respectively — in order to prepare for the NFL draft. The unspoken motivation was clear: It wasn’t worth putting millions of dollars at risk by getting injured in a second-tier bowl game.
Thus was a trend born, one that has since seen dozens of players follow suit while engendering criticism and solidarity. And this year, it has hit close to home: Tight end Hunter Bryant and offensive tackle Trey Adams of the Huskies will sit out next Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl game against Boise State, presumably for the same reason.
To which I say, I don’t blame them one bit.
Both had injury-ravaged careers, Bryant with two knee surgeries and Adams with back and knee operations. Both have persevered to the point where they are poised to hear their name called, perhaps early, in the 2020 draft. If they don’t get hurt, that is.
You can counter with romantic notions of “seeing it through to the end” and “being there for your brothers.” But is it really worth jeopardizing millions of dollars to pursue an eighth Washington victory in a game few outside Seattle and Boise will even notice?
The two distinct points of view were well-represented on the podium at Seahawks’ headquarters on Thursday. Russell Wilson was the first to be asked about the trend of college players skipping bowl games. Here was his response:
“Personally, I don’t like skipping games. I don’t like the idea of skipping bowl games and all that. That’s a personal decision, I guess. To me, as a player, I’m a competitor. There’s no such thing as games skipped. Every practice, every play, I’m playing. That’s my mentality.”
Next up was linebacker Bobby Wagner, who took a vastly different point of view:
“It didn’t cross my mind when I was there, but it’s a different age. When I was in college, I was playing at such a small school (Utah State), I felt like I had to take advantage of every opportunity that I had.
“With these guys now — especially with social media — you watch and you see a guy get hurt and his opportunity to play in the league dwindles significantly. I’m all for a guy not playing if he doesn’t want to play and focusing on where he’s been trying to get to.
“At the end of the day, they’re not getting paid anyway. The school is the one benefiting from them playing the game anyway, so I’m not opposed to it. At the end of the day, you’re doing what’s best for you.
“I think that’s what you learn as you become a young man is — sometimes you have to do what’s best for you and your family because the people that you think are going to do right by you, might not do right by you. Colleges, the NCAA; they might not make the right decision for you, so you have to make the right decision for yourself. It’s part of life.”
The risk is not just hypothetical. The cautionary tales are out there for all the players to see. In the very Sun Bowl game that McCaffrey skipped, Stanford’s quarterback, Keller Chryst, suffered a severe knee injury. Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, a projected top-10 pick, famously blew out his knee against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, costing himself an estimated $20 million when he fell to the second round in the 2017 draft. That same year, Michigan’s highly touted tight end, Jake Butt, the Mackey Award winner, dropped from a likely second-rounder to the fifth round when he tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl.
Obviously, there’s a difference between skipping the Gasparilla Bowl and a storied event like, say, the Rose Bowl. Husky All-American safety Taylor Rapp sat out Washington’s Rose Bowl appearance last year prior to coming out for the draft as a junior but said afterward it was because a hip-flexor injury made it impossible for him to play. Rapp was a second-round pick of the Rams.
Seahawks linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, a former teammate of Bryant and Adams at Washington, said he understood the dynamics of their decision.
“It’s a weird thing that’s happening more and more,’’ he said. “I guess it’s just kind of how college football is going. Personally, I wouldn’t do it. I like playing football too much to want to skip the last game. I can’t imagine skipping my last college football game. That would be a really hard decision to make.
“But I’m not them. … You see guys get hurt. A tight end (Butt) tore up his knee and missed a year. When you see stuff like that, it becomes pretty clear why people are making that decision. You don’t want to jeopardize your career for one game.
“I think if you’re in the College Football Playoff, you’re not seeing anybody skip that. If you’re playing in one of those lower-tier bowls, it’s probably a little easier decision to make than skipping the Rose Bowl or being in the playoffs or something like that.”
Defensive lineman L.J. Collier, the Seahawks’ first-round pick this year out of TCU, made the decision to play in his team’s bowl game, even though it was the lowly Cheez-It Bowl. But it was a business decision of sorts, mixed with loyalty.
“At the time, I didn’t know I was going to be a high draft pick,’’ he said. “I needed the bowl game to play in. I had to play. And my team, there wasn’t any depth behind us, so I made the decision. Hey, my team needed me, so I was going to play.”
Oregon safety Ugo Amadi saw his Ducks’ teammate, running back Royce Freeman, sit out the Las Vegas Bowl the previous year and sign a $4 million contract as a third-round pick of the Broncos. But Amadi chose to play in the Red Box Bowl and was chosen in the fourth round by Seattle.
“I’m a team guy,’’ he explained Thursday in the Seahawks’ locker room. “I started with my guys, and I was going to end with my guys, too. I didn’t want to feel like to my brothers I was selfish and it was all about me. I was just being a team guy.”
But Amadi also understands the money at stake. The NFL has shown no inclination to hold it against players who sit out bowl games. To the contrary, the list of lucrative contracts given to such players after being picked high in the draft is a powerful incentive to skip bowls. McCaffrey, whom the Seahawks face Sunday, was selected No. 8 overall by the Carolina Panthers in 2017, received a $17.2 million contract that included a $10.7 million signing bonus, and has become a superstar.
“For me, I’m able to sleep at night every night knowing what I did,’’ Amadi said. “Probably Royce does, too, for sure. Like I said, everyone’s circumstances are different.”
But those who chose to protect their future shouldn’t be looked down upon.