INDIANAPOLIS – For Christian McCaffrey, the only thing harder than skipping the Sun Bowl was having to inform his teammates.
He stood before them to say he wouldn’t be suiting up for his final game at Stanford to avoid risking injury on the cusp of his NFL career. Then, he braced for the blowback.
Instead, he got goosebumps.
They gave him a “little ovation” and a “lot of love,” McCaffrey recounted Thursday.
“And that was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I was just real lucky to have a bunch of guys that had my back.”
Outside the locker room, McCaffrey has drawn plenty of praise and criticism alike for his decision, which he didn’t address publicly until meeting with the media at the NFL scouting combine.
Teams are also peppering him with questions about bypassing the bowl game, he said.
“I just tell them how it is when they ask,” McCaffrey said. “I’m extremely honest with them and then we move on to now and playing football.”
What he tells them, he said, is “it was a career decision … to try to protect my dream of playing and succeeding in the NFL.”
Running back Leonard Fournette missed LSU’s Citrus Bowl matchup with Louisville to rest an injured ankle, a decision he announced three days after McCaffrey, the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up, said he’d sit out the Sun Bowl against North Carolina after dealing with a bruised hip in 2016.
“As a Stanford fan, I wasn’t a huge fan of that. But they did all right without him, too,” new 49ers general manager John Lynch said, adding that while he understands the bowl boycotts, “I know people here that that really bothers.”
Lynch has known McCaffrey, whose father, Ed, had a long NFL career as a wide receiver, for many years. “So, I would never question his commitment to team and all that,” Lynch said. “But other people will. So, it’s something that these kids have to weigh. I think it will affect football going forward for many years to come.”
Broncos boss John Elway, who also has known McCaffrey since he was a youngster, didn’t initially agree with his decision but has come around, he said.
“You know what, I understand it now. Obviously, when I thought about it, kind of the old school in me wanted to come out saying, `Why not play? It’s your last game,“’ Elway said. “But I tell you what, when you look at where the league is now and the value of these contracts for these kids coming out now, and the risk that they’re taking, the old salty guy in me got flipped back to saying I understand why they didn’t play.”
The decisions by McCaffrey and Fournette came a year after Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith cost himself millions by blowing out his left knee in the Fiesta Bowl. Smith was projected as a top-five pick before his injury, and instead went to the Dallas Cowboys in the second round with the 34th overall pick. The difference in guaranteed contract money is about $19 million.
The Cowboys used their first pick, fourth overall, on Ezekiel Elliott, whose spectacular rookie season restored value to first-round running back prospects like Fournette and McCaffrey.
Elliott, however, was among those who didn’t like Fournette and McCaffrey bailing on their teammates, tweeting, “I would do anything to play one more time with my brothers in that scarlet and gray.”
When others pointed out he skipped his senior season to enter the draft, Elliott tweeted: “there is a difference between not coming back for your last year and not finishing your last season.”
Tell that to Jake Butt. Michigan’s star tight end is this year’s cautionary tale after tearing an ACL in the Wolverines’ 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
Even fellow running back prospects have differing points of view.
Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara said, “I was going to play the bowl game regardless of anything. I think (it helped me). Just being there my last game with my teammates and my coaches and my fan base, I think that was the most important thing.”
The other question McCaffrey faces is whether he can have similar success in the NFL as an all-purpose back. At Stanford, he reached the end zone 33 times on rushes, receptions and returns.
“I don’t think there’s anybody else that can do all the things I can as far as run between the tackles, outside pass protect, play X, Z, slot, and do a lot of bunch of stuff in the return game, also. I think that’s what sets me apart,” said McCaffrey, who plans to run routes at his pro day later this month.
Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, whose son, Luke, played high school ball with McCaffrey, is a believer.
“I heard the people question whether he’d be able to go from the high school level to the college level and now the questions will come out, `Can he go from the college game to the pro game?“’ Del Rio said. “And I think you’re going to see the same thing.”
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