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An NFL Viewpoint on College Players Skipping Bowl Games

NFLPA president Eric Winston applauds the moves by Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey as smart financial decisions. A look at that trend plus items on Tom Brady, the Jags’ vacancy and Week 16 players to watch

The thing former Miami Hurricanes lineman Eric Winston remembers most about Willis McGahee’s injury in Miami’s 2002 Fiesta Bowl loss wasn’t so much how the star workhorse went down, cut to the ground by diving Ohio State safety Will Allen.

It was waiting for McGahee to get up.

McGahee had emerged from the shadows that fall. After Hurricane teammate Frank Gore was injured in the spring, the redshirt sophomore stepped up to become a superstar, sparking talk, as Winston remembers it, that both he and Miami receiver Andre Johnson could go inside the top 3 or 4 picks of the draft. Big and strong, and now with a rep to match, McGahee frequently had been hit low late that season.

“I was thinking, All right, get up like usual, Willis,” Winston remembers, who was then a true freshman tight end. “And he didn’t get up. I was heartbroken.”

It stuck with Winston, now the NFL Players Association president, like it did with all the Hurricanes (and Buckeyes, for that matter) who witnessed it. It was the first thing popping to Winston’s mind when the stock of Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith crashed last year, a result of a similarly catastrophic knee injury suffered in a bowl game. And it’s part of why Winston was pleased with what he saw this week, as a few college players took matters into their own hands.

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll look deeper into what the Jaguars have to offer their next coach, what the league can learn from the Brock Osweiler meltdown, what keeps Tom Brady going, what to watch for during hiring season, and so much more.

Leonard Fournette (left) and Christian McCaffrey opted not to join their teammates for bowl games.

Leonard Fournette (left) and Christian McCaffrey opted not to join their teammates for bowl games.

But we’ll start with the big story of the last few days: The decisions made by LSU bellcow Leonard Fournette and Stanford Swiss Army knife Christian McCaffrey to skip their respective bowl games and start their pro careers a few weeks early. And while neither flat out said it, the truth in the reasoning for both is incredibly simple. Neither guy wants to get hurt.

So I figured there’d be few people better to speak about this subject—a complicated one, since the circumstances of each player are different—than Winston, because of his position atop the union and the ground-level perspective on the worst-case scenario he got at 19 years old.

As you might expect, Winston was happy to see Fournette and McCaffrey make the decisions they did. But for the Bengals tackle, the satisfaction wasn’t in seeing those guys leaving their college careers behind.

“This is really the first professional financial decision they have to make,” Winston said, over his cell from Paul Brown Stadium on Wednesday. “It’s whether to risk what they have to play in the bowl game. Take Leonard Fournette, because he’s a consensus Top 5 pick. You can put a value on that. You say, this is what the second pick of the draft is, this is what the seventh pick of the draft is.

“And what is the upside of going and playing in the bowl game? It might be a lot. It might be none. In his case, it’s probably not a lot, if not none, right? So you have to then ask yourself, ‘What does that mean to me?’”

As Winston sees it, the McCaffrey/Fournette news isn’t about college athletes leaving their program so much as it is those guys beginning to think as pros earlier.

In 2008, Winston signed a new deal with the Texans after just two years as a pro, knowing he was probably leaving money on the table in exchange for the financial security the new contract gave him. In 2012, he decided to finish a season playing with an elbow injury that needed surgery and had potential to worsen.

He used those examples of decisions hundreds of NFL players have to make every year. Those are business decisions. So are the ones the college kids made this week.

“I don’t say, ‘This guy’s right or this guy is wrong,’” Winston said. “I applaud them for standing up and making a decision, just like I applaud the guy from Texas A&M (Myles Garrett), who sounds like he’s gonna be a Top 5 pick and says, ‘Hey, I wanna play.’ There’s no right or wrong answer. I applaud both of them. The ones that I hate to see are guys that say, ‘Oh man, I never really thought of that.’”

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The math, like Winston said, is accessible and fairly simple. (Even I can do it.)

Say Jaylon Smith makes it through last year’s Fiesta Bowl, and goes fourth overall to the Cowboys, who clearly liked him a lot. He’d then be slotted a fully-guaranteed four-year, $24.96 million deal. Post-injury, he was taken 36th by Dallas and 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.

Smith will never get that back, just like McGahee would never get back the $20 million or so that separated him, as the 23rd pick, from his teammate Johnson, who went third in the 2003 draft, in rookie-deal money.

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Those straight-forward figures help to untangle these thorny decisions for the athlete (one solution Winston proposed is allowing colleges to buy players single-game loss-of-value insurance for bowls). And they explain why Winston takes umbrage with former players like Marshall Faulk and Donovan McNabb criticizing Fournette and McCaffrey – Because of how much is on the line for the kids, and how fragile that is.

“What’s been awful about this whole thing—it’s always ‘he’s right’ and ‘he’s wrong,’” Winston said. “I just don’t look at it like that. There are a lot of former players that are really going after these guys. You can’t always control what happens out there, and they know that better than anybody. And that’s what’s really been mind-boggling to me, the venom that’s come from some of the former players.

“Like they know what’s best for them? … I just don’t think it’s their place. Oh man, back in my day. C’mon. Your situation was different from these guys.”

And that’s where Winston emphasizes that he’s not pretending to know what’s best for Fournette or McCaffrey or Garrett. What he is saying is that there’s even a decision for them to make is a step in the right direction.

“I want to empower these guys to be able to look at a situation and say, ‘OK, this is what’s best for me,’” Winston said. “At the end of the day, that’s what we’re talking about. At this point, a lot of the decisions they’re gonna have to make in professional football, they’re gonna have to say, ‘What’s best for me.’ This is the first one.”

Or at the least the trend we saw taking shape this week seems to be making it that way.

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Are we watching the end of Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald playing together in Arizona?

Are we watching the end of Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald playing together in Arizona?

• Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson is back in action Thursday night, and we’ll get to see if it was just coincidence that Carson Wentz started to level off when Johnson departed the lineup in October.

• I’m interested to see how Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict plays out the string. Last year ended in ugly fashion. This season almost certainly will end next week. Will Cincinnati handle its finish better this time around?

• Ditto for Carson Palmer in Arizona. My sense has long been his future and Larry Fitzgerald’s are tied at the hip. And Palmer’s due a lot of money next year. So how he finishes 2016 will be meaningful.

• It’ll be an interesting Christmas Eve for Andrew Luck, going against Derek Carr, who’s now the hot young name at quarterback that Luck long was. These two last faced off in the Texas high school playoffs in 2007.

• Just because—James Harrison wraps up this week’s list. I love what the Steelers/Ravens rivalry was in year’s past. Let’s hope Christmas afternoon brings the intensity of Harrison’s heyday.

• PITTSBURGH’S OLD MAN OF STEEL: Tim Rohan goes into the world of James Harrison and finds flex-offs, drug tests and naked pull-ups

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Devonta Freeman and the Falcons will be trying to lock up a playoff berth Saturday at Carolina.

Devonta Freeman and the Falcons will be trying to lock up a playoff berth Saturday at Carolina.

1. Atlanta’s big hurdle.We know now the Panthers won’t win a fourth straight NFC South title, but that doesn’t mean the Falcons will take them any less seriously this weekend. In fact, the feeling you get is that Atlanta still views Carolina as the team it has to get past, even if that part of it is already in the books. And so here’s what I think is interesting about this one: There’s a little bit of the feeling in the Falcons building now that could be found last year in Charlotte—the team, from a personality standpoint, is well conceived. I brought that up to Matt Ryan the other day, and the MVP candidate didn’t disagree.

“I think there’s a real sense of accountability in the locker room,” Ryan told me. “I feel like guys not only want to do things to help us win, they want to do it to help the guy next to them. To me, that’s a different feel than other teams I’ve been on. I’ve been on some good teams before, and it seems like all the good ones there’s that feel, you’re a little bit closer, and not necessarily best friends, but professionally you’re closer. You care more about blocking for an extra count to open it up because you know Devonta Freeman is doing his deal and if you can hold on for a second longer, he’s such a good player he’ll make something happen. There’s that vibe that you get, that people are really all-in, and giving it everything they have because they really trust that everyone around them is going to step up and do their job, too.”

In a lot of ways, that’s what the Panthers had last year, and it showed in the results. And the best part for the Falcons is that really does seem to be what Dan Quinn’s been selling them for the last two years taking hold, which means that it stands to just be the start of something that could last a while. “The key to sustaining success to me is creating the right culture and getting the right players, and I think Q has done a great job of creating the right culture in this building,” Ryan continued. “It’s very clear what he expects from us as players, as teammates, the effort it’s gonna take to do our job successfully. And we’ve got a bunch of good players too. When you have that right combination of culture and talent, you can sustain success for a long time.” And the way the Falcons see it, winning at the home of the defending South champ—no matter what the Panthers’ record is—would be another good, positive step.

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2. Brady’s going nowhere.Quietly, the Patriots did something pretty unorthodox Wednesday. They used their IR-return designation on a third-string quarterback, bringing rookie third-round pick Jacoby Brissett back to the 53-man roster. The rest of the league can take that as a sign. The team explicitly put a priority on getting Brissett back to practice, which implicitly tells everyone the Patriots are readying him to be the backup in 2017.

So Jimmy Garoppolo is likely being dealt, which will serve as just another sign of how confident the team is that Tom Brady will be able to keep this pace as he moves into his 40s. (He crosses that threshold next August.) And considering that Brady became the league’s all-time winningest quarterback three weeks ago, it’s downright incredible that the NFL’s ultimate cutthroat operation would double down on him. It’s even more mind-blowing if you think about the state Peyton Manning was in at 200 wins or where Brett Favre was physically at 199. How’s Brady doing it?

Ask people around him, and you’ll hear a lot about avocado ice cream and eastern medicine and non-traditional training techniques. That’s all part of it, I’m sure. But I looked back on a few conversations I’ve had with him about it, and I think it’s way easier than the complicated training and nutrition regimen he’s undertaken. Many football players love playing in the games deep into their 30s. It’s the grind of the other 330 or so days a year that they grow sick of. Conversely, here’s what Brady said to Tom Brady Sr. before the Patriots opened training camp in 2012: “Dad, I never want to work as hard as you work. I get to go to work in sweats, the Patriots feed me, I hang out with my friends, I get to exercise, and I play games. Why would I ever want to do anything different?”

My belief is that Brady’s love of not just football, but everything around it is why he’s still at this absurd level in Year 17. He wants the hard parts of it. “I feel the same way I’ve always felt. I feel like I have to come out here and earn a position like everyone else,” he told me when I asked him what keeps him going. “I try to be the best quarterback on this team, the best quarterback I can be. I don’t think about the future, the past. You know, I’ve been really blessed to be on a great team with great teammates and develop great relationships and win a lot of football games. And that never gets old.” It sure has gotten old for the rest of the AFC, which could see Brady and his Patriots lock up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs for the fourth time this decade on Saturday. And it looks like they’ll have to deal with it for a while longer too.

3. Quarterback-needy teams need to look at the Osweilier situation. Coming out of last season, as I understand it, the Texans football people were under tremendous pressure from above to find a long-term quarterback solution after starting a combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick (12 times), Brian Hoyer (9), Ryan Mallett (8), Case Keenum (2), TJ Yates (2) and Brandon Weeden (1) over Bill O’Brien’s first two seasons in Houston. And on paper, that sounds great—Ownership wants a franchise quarterback now, let’s go get a franchise quarterback now. In reality, that’s where mistakes are made, and it’s actually pretty easy to understand how it happened in this case.

It’s hard enough to find one. It becomes even tougher if you’ve given yourself a single offseason to pull it off, and it gets even more difficult than that if you don’t have a high draft pick. Frankly, that’s how you wind up paying Brock Osweiler $18 million a year. Consider the Texans’ options. They had the 22nd pick. So they could’ve drafted Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, Jacoby Brissett, Cody Kessler, Connor Cook, Dak Prescott or Cardale Jones. (Though some in the building advocated for looking at the idea of trading up, it quickly became apparent before the draft that wasn’t happening.) They could’ve tried to trade for Kirk Cousins or Sam Bradford—the former wasn’t readily available, the latter didn’t become available til late summer—and given up at minimum a first-round pick. Or they could just sign Osweiler. Of the 10 names there, only Prescott and Bradford stick out as players who definitively would have put the team in a better position in 2016. Would a non first-round quarterback have satisfied the push for a solution at the position? Would it have been OK to wait until the Eagles were sold that Carson Wentz was ready to go, so they could go get Bradford?

See, there’s no question the Osweiler decision looks like a bad mistake now. And it was one. But the bigger mistake, to me, was forcing the overreach in the first place. The quarterback conundrum may have been frustrating to those above, but now it looks like they’d have been better off with a moderate veteran investment at the position (Matt Moore? Chase Daniel?) to come in and compete with Tom Savage, who’d shown progress going into his third year in the system, and carries tremendous size and arm talent. Then, if Savage succeeded, great. If he didn’t, the team’s options would still be wide open. Instead, the Texans are now in a position where they either need Savage to be the answer or to find a rookie in April, because of the economics of the situation (Osweiler’s $16 million in cash for 2017 is fully guaranteed). Just remember all this when you start screaming that this is the year your team has to find its Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.

4. Jaguars job is better than you might think. In early 2013, Atlanta’s Dave Caldwell had a decision to make. He could take the Jets GM job, and work in the media capital of the world. Or he could go to Jacksonville, and toil in the league’s smallest market. He chose the latter, and his reasoning then has come true, and should mean something as the Jags set out to sell themselves to coaching candidates after firing Gus Bradley on Sunday night. Close confidants of Caldwell told the young executive back then that in Jacksonville he’d get stronger ownership and a chance to build a team the right way, something that he was far from sure to be afforded with the Jets. Four years later, the man the Jets picked after Caldwell shot them down—ex-Seattle cap chief John Idzik—is now in his second year working under, you guessed it, Caldwell in Jacksonville. That should count for plenty with coaches who have options (like, say, Dan Quinn had two years ago, or Adam Gase had last year).

What else do owner Shad Khan and Caldwell have to sell? To me, it’s not unlike where Oakland’s Reggie McKenzie and Mark Davis were in 2015, when their search turned up Jack Del Rio. There is a talented young core in place. Jalen Ramsey looks capable of anchoring a secondary; the defensive line, led by Dante Fowler, has potential; and there’s offensive skill talent on hand. There is, of course, plenty to be fixed. Internally, there was a feeling in some corners that this youthful group couldn’t handle the freedom that Bradley gave them in setting up “Seattle East”, and so a more forceful hand may be necessary. The offensive line is still a mess.

And the million-dollar question for everyone will be easy: What do you think of Blake Bortles? The third-year quarterback was open with coaches over the summer with his disbelief that his mechanics—overhauled between the 2014 and ’15 seasons—had regressed, and that step back has shown in his play. Can he be fixed? That’s a big question for the organization in general, and will be the central one for the next coach. But there’s plenty to like here, and that starts with ownership that’s proven to be the kind that football people want to work for.

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Jon Gruden has been off the sidelines for eight seasons. Will he ever coach again?

Jon Gruden has been off the sidelines for eight seasons. Will he ever coach again?

• The Rams’ coaching search is underway—and yes, Jon Gruden’s name is on the list. And while his name has been and will be on plenty of lists, this one would be worth paying a little more attention to, just because of the natural front-office connection. (Gruden and COO Kevin Demoff worked together in Tampa.) But I’ve been told the smart money remains on Gruden sticking at ESPN. He makes as much money as many head coaches now to work a lot less than any of them. And I’d imagine that after decades in the bunker of NFL coaching, the eight years of sunlight that he’s experienced would be hard to walk away from.

• If the Broncos are going to save their season Sunday night at Arrowhead, there’s no question they’ll need more than the 18 rushing yards they got from the offense against Tennessee, or the five consecutive three-and-outs that unit turned up against New England. And that’s why reporter Mike Silver’s story about the defensive players confronting the offensive guys was pretty notable coming out of the New England loss. We’ve seen this before—an edgy, tough defense getting fed up with its offense. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens if the Denver offense struggles early against a tough KC defense.

• The whispers about how sideways the Buffalo organization has been over the past two years, from a structural standpoint, have persisted. And that’s why the rumblings about Rex Ryan’s shaky standing have surfaced. But consider that the Bills get Miami at home on Saturday and then close with the Jets. Wins in those two would have Buffalo matching its best record of this millennium, with Ryan having done a better job in Year 2 than Year 1. Suffice it to say, Ryan has a fair shot at making this a harder call for the Pegulas.

• MONDAY MORNING QUARTERBACK: Peter King on the Titans, Packers and playoff possibilities coming out of Week 15

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Texas A&M wide receiver Josh Reynolds

Texas A&M wide receiver Josh Reynolds

1. Indiana guard Dan Feeney (vs. Utah, Foster Farms Bowl, Wednesday, FOX, 8:30 p.m. ET): The NFL is nothing if not—here comes the cliché—a copycat league, and so the success of Dallas and, to a lesser degree, Miami this year figures to have some clubs looking at investing heavily in the offensive lines. And that means there’s added value at the interior positions, where so many teams in the past have paid tackles and filled in the blanks from there. Feeney has started every game he’s been healthy for at Indiana, 45 in total, and will get one last shot to impress scouts against a game opponent from the Pac-12. There’s a pretty decent chance that, when all’s said and done, Feeney slides into the bottom of the first round. “He’s tough and he runs well, plays hard and is a solid athlete all around,” said an area scout who covers the Hoosiers. “I think center will be his best position, and it’s a little hard to project what’ll be there. But he has the size and athletic ability you want.” So if you want to use the Dallas example, Feeney could well become a piece for a building team like center Travis Frederick or guard Zach Martin were for the Cowboys.

2. Texas A&M wide receiver Josh Reynolds (vs. Kansas State, Texas Bowl, Wednesday, ESPN, 9 p.m.): As a junior college transfer, Reynolds has outperformed a lot of ballyhooed recruits at his position. He’s topped 800 receiving yards in each of the past three seasons, and has 28 touchdown catches over that time. His length (he’s 6-foot-4) also is intriguing and one reason he’s a Senior Bowl invitee. “He’s really tall and productive,” said an area scout assigned to the Aggies. “And he’s got good hands. But he’s skinny and a little weak. So he has to show he can beat the press.” The Wildcats defense tightened down the stretch, and should give the Aggies a good test. And, of course, Reynolds should be tested plenty in Mobile in January. As it stands right now, with the expectation that he’ll run well when he’s tested, Reynolds is seen as a potential Day 2 prospect similar physically to Buffalo’s Justin Hunter.

• THE COLLEGE COLUMN: Emily Kaplan examines UNC’s Mitch Trubisky, the best draft-eligible quarterback in college football

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Seattle’s John Schneider and Pete Carroll are a good example of how a GM and head coach can work well together without having a prior relationship.

Seattle’s John Schneider and Pete Carroll are a good example of how a GM and head coach can work well together without having a prior relationship.

In just over a week, a whole bunch of teams will be looking to start over with a new general manager, new coach or both. When those hires are made, inevitably, you’ll hear what a perfect match the GM and coach are.

Be careful about counting on that.

It’s easy to say it on Day 1. It’s harder to sustain it past that. And if you need proof, there’s a laundry list of teams where sniping and backbiting turned football operations into a battleground. San Francisco two years ago. Indianapolis last year. Los Angeles this year.

So last week, when I talked to Korn Ferry vice chairman Jed Hughes—the point man for the search firm that ran the process for the Chiefs in 2013, the Texans in 2014, the Falcons in 2015, and the Browns last year—there was something very specific I wanted to ask him. And that’s why it seems to be so hard to find a head coach and head scout who can work amicably together.

“It’s the most difficult thing to attain, but when you attain it, you can go for a long time,” he said, over the phone. “The Spurs are a great example. They have alignment with [Greg Popovich], with the owner, and with R.C. [Buford]. The Steelers have found a way to make it work over the years. … The key, when you go into a new situation, do your due diligence. There are four or five key questions to answer on strategy and value system.”

Hughes laid out the important ones: 

• What do you value and want to preserve about the organization?

• What are the challenges inherent to the organization?

• Who are the key constituents internally and externally?

• What barriers do we face?

• What constitutes success?

And as Hughes sees it, a failure to clearly define the answers sets up the whole operation to go sideways.

“Let’s talk about the Jets with Rex (Ryan) and (John) Idzik,” Hughes said. “Idzik’s there two years, Rex was there longer, and Rex had control of the media in New York. Idzik came in, because they had huge cap issues. So Idzik cleared the books, and Rex felt like he was being sacrificed, and then the media got involved. As a result, both went down. That’s the alignment issue you need to avoid.”

So Hughes sees his job is to find not only the right people, but also the right mix.

In that regard, the headhunter sees the pairing of Pete Caroll and John Schneider as his firm’s finest work. The two didn’t know each other, but the Seahawks and Hughes gathered what Carroll was looking for in a partner, and looked at Schneider, because he worked under Ron Wolf (who was very open with his lieutenants), as someone who’d been exposed to a lot of different elements of the job.

“Pete wanted a collaborative and someone who was willing to do things differently,” Hughes said. “That matched with John, who had different experiences in Green Bay and Kansas City and Washington, and had high energy and high intellect like Pete did.”

The results, of course, speak for themselves. But as we see every year with the number of these partnerships that go the wrong way, getting there isn’t easy.

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