When Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette decided to skip their bowl games last December, nobody really knew how it would impact their NFL draft status, or that of future players considering the same choice.
We found out very quickly Thursday night -- with a rubber stamp of approval from the NFL. All those who thought perhaps league executives would frown upon players abandoning their teams to get a jump on their NFL careers got a resounding answer.
Fournette and McCaffrey went early in the first round, anyway. And that could have a far-ranging set of consequences that go beyond a few players. It's a reality some coaches across the country confronted Friday as they weighed the potential fallout.
"The reality is that the NFL doesn't care," one Power 5 college assistant coach said. "At the end of the day, it's about taking the best player, and they don't see that as a big negative the way a college coach sees it."
Another Power 5 head coach summed it up this way: "For players who are going in the first round? This is just a start."
Indeed, it does not seem advisable for most draft-eligible players to skip bowl games. In fact, bowl games might mean more for those players who have third- or fourth-round grades -- another high-profile game on tape to prove how valuable they could be to a team.
But for players who are near certainties to go in the first round, there is a real understanding this could start becoming commonplace. How did we get to this point, where college coaches are now preparing for more players to follow a similar path? The dynamics of the game have changed so dramatically over the last decade, leaving clear warning signs along the way.
Start on the high school level, where players are being groomed for their NFL futures and touted as future saviors with every throw, juke or tackle; where they achieve status through recruiting rankings or All-America game honors. As they go through college, they come to understand they are involved in a big business. And sometimes they have to protect themselves to get ahead -- especially when head coaches are doing the same thing themselves, bouncing between programs for millions of dollars.
McCaffrey and Fournette also battled various injuries during their final collegiate seasons. McCaffrey sat out the mid-October Notre Dame game with an undisclosed ailment, while Fournette missed four games, including the regular-season finale. After watching Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith -- a projected first-round choice -- severely injure his knee in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl and lose millions of dollars, their decisions were understandable. Neither were scheduled to play in a College Football Playoff game. Neither had anything left to prove. When Michigan tight end Jake Butt got hurt in the bowl game, those decisions were essentially reinforced.
There are other factors to consider: The richest NFL contracts are no longer tilted toward rookies. So, players must prove themselves in the earlier part of their careers and work toward the more lucrative second contract. To a player, it makes far more sense to save the wear and tear on their bodies and get into the NFL as quickly as possible. The younger you are, the better prepared you will be to cash in. Perhaps that explains the rash of underclassmen who have declared in recent years.
"When I was playing, I just never thought about it as a business the way these players do now," one Power 5 assistant said. "I really can see both sides. As a college coach, I'd ask them why they want to abandon their teammates. But I also know how much of a business the NFL is."
Now here we are, trying to figure out whether two players have the ability to flip the entire college football system as we know it. Because if more players decide to follow suit, what does that mean for bowl games?
Already, postseason coverage has been tilted heavily toward the College Football Playoff teams. The other bowl games rely not only on marquee teams, but marquee players to promote their matchups. The Hyundai Sun Bowl last December, for example, featured No. 2 overall pick Mitchell Trubisky and No. 3 overall pick Solomon Thomas (on the same team as McCaffrey by the way).
What happens when surefire first-round picks start deciding bowl games just aren't worth it anymore?
"I can envision a time where you're a first-round talent, your team went 9-3 and is going to play at the Belk Bowl and his agent says, 'You don't need to play,'" a Power 5 assistant said. "It's not going to hurt you. You're guaranteed right now if you don't play another game, $15 million and now you're going to go play in a meaningless bowl game?"
Start knocking these dominoes down, and you come up with another eventuality: Does that mean the playoff has to expand to more teams to keep making bowl games relevant? Commissioners vowed earlier this week during their playoff meetings that was not going to happen, but speaking in absolutes is no longer advisable.
Because at this time last year, nobody thought players would start skipping bowl games to protect their NFL futures.