By Dan Bernstein

Two scouts were on one show Tuesday, with each offering a different take on future top NFL draft picks choosing to not play in their teams’ respective bowl games.

“I’m all for it,” Matt Miller said. “If you’re a big-time prospect and don’t have anything left to prove, sit out. I don’t want to hear about insurance money or playing for your school colors.” Miller is the senior NFL draft analyst for Bleacher Report and a regular contributor to 670 The Score.

Greg Gabriel is too, he the longtime NFL scout and front office executive now doing draft analysis for the station and Pro Football Weekly. But he’s vexed by the idea of a player not following through on a commitment, and what that may tell a team about his dedication to the sport.

“It’s not just about the talent, it’s his football character,” Gabriel said. “It’s about his desire to be a great player and his ability to be a good teammate. Can you trust him as a player? If he’s quitting on his college team, what’s to say if things aren’t going exactly as he wants in the NFL, he’s not going to pull the same thing on his team down the road?”

When it comes specifically to LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Miller was unequivocal in his assessment of their call, saying “They are not quitting on football. They are making a business decision. They love football, and they want to play in the NFL.”

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Gabriel’s opinion, he admits, is shaped by decades being at least partially responsible for a team’s multimillion-dollar investment in a player and informed by history. “Most players who don’t live up to their potential or what you think was their potential when you drafted them, it’s because they lack a degree of football character,” he said. “That drive, that desire to be great, that work ethic that the good players have. You’re going to have to do more research to learn a little bit more about the player.”

While the organizationally protective angle is understandable to an extent, it’s easy to side with the player exercising individual power over an exploitative system. College coaches have made enough money on the backs of free laborers to buy their own airplanes, only to blithely skip out on bowls themselves on a whim when chasing the next paycheck. Scholarships are only good until they disappear to make room for the next recruit, and injured players are too often conveniently shunted away and run off.

When special abilities give one of these kids an opportunity to exert his own control, instead, it unnerves those who see a slippery slope, and the warning signs of how an old and reliable mechanism could crumble. Imagine top prospects willing to stop playing midway through a season, or opting out of even a national championship playoff game to ensure health when starting a pro career. It’s fun to watch the players claw back some authority from those who have long wielded it, forcing them to make more difficult decisions in a rapidly changing landscape.

Also going unsaid in the discussion is the increased understanding of how brutally destructive the game is, and how the notion of “football character” is changing as players learn what they are doing to their brains and their bodies. NFL teams prefer someone hard-wired to want to slam his head into things repeatedly and without asking why, with that scouting term now reading as a euphemism for a certain kind of stupidity, willful ignorance or insanity that makes someone chase glory at the potential price of reduced quality of life. If that breed is indeed becoming rarer across the board, that’s more of a threat to the game than a missed Citrus Bowl.

Dan Bernstein is senior columnist on CBS Chicago and co-host of “Boers & Bernstein” on Chicago’s 670 The Score.


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