A Difficult Thing to Decide, or Talk About

ATHENS – The throng of reporters surrounding him wanted answers Matthew Stafford simply couldn't provide.

The Georgia quarterback isn't surprised by the inquisition, he just doesn't entirely understand it. Sure, people are going to be curious whether he'll stick around in Athens for his senior season or head to the NFL where riches await, but why would anyone expect him to have his mind made up so soon?

"This is my first time doing it, believe it or not," Stafford joked with the inquiring masses huddled around him.

The junior from Dallas has a lot to think about, after all. At Georgia, he has made his mark as the SEC's most prolific passer this season – a season that, while his game took a step forward, his team fell far short of expectations.

On the other hand, Stafford's lifelong dream was to play in the NFL, and this spring he could achieve it by being the first player selected in April's draft.

In Athens, he's a hero, a fan favorite, and most importantly, a college student.

If he enters the draft, he'll be a millionaire – last year's top quarterback, Matt Ryan, signed a $72 million contract. He'll also be a rookie, a lightning rod for criticism, and most importantly, a professional.

In Athens, he knows his place, and he loves his surroundings. In the draft, he could end up anywhere from Detroit to Seattle or a half dozen stops in between.

"In the NFL, it's a whole different step," Stafford said. "It's the real world. It's business. In college, it's a whole lot of fun, and there's really not too many worries. At the same time, it's a dream that could possibly come true, and that's what makes it tough. It's not black and white."

Perhaps some solace for Stafford is the simple fact that he's not alone.

A handful of other quarterbacks, including Heisman winner Sam Bradford and Florida's Tim Tebow, are considering their NFL prospects as well, but Stafford doesn't even have to leave his locker room to find a healthy dose of empathy from someone squarely on the fence between NFL dreams and college heroics.

Georgia running back Knowshon Moreno is also a projected first-round selection should he decide to enter the draft after this season, and cornerback Asher Allen is also considering an early ticket to the NFL.

All three players – along with several other Bulldogs – have filed paperwork with the league to have the NFL advisory board review their draft prospects and present them with information on where they might be selected.

That's a start to the process, Moreno said, but there's a whole lot more to it.

"It really comes down to what you want to do personally," he said. "Any number of things – it's a tough decision is what it really comes down to."

Each situation is different.

Moreno is nearly guaranteed a spot in the first round if he leaves school. The third-year sophomore has build an impressive resume in just two seasons in Athens, becoming only the second player in Georgia history with consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

To achieve those numbers, however, Moreno has touched the football 522 times in the past two seasons, and most of those touches end with a bruising hit from a defender.

The typical career arc for a running back is a steep one. They take so many hits – particularly physical players like Moreno – that the end of their careers tends to come quickly and without warning. The opportunity to cash in on talent is often brief.

"That can be a factor," Moreno said. "It's a really tough position. You're getting hit every play, but that's a part of the game."

The situation is different for Stafford. While a quarterback's health can usually be maintained for a longer period of time, their transition to life in the NFL is a difficult one.

The track record for quarterbacks who leave school early is a dubious one, filled with names like Ryan Leaf, Heath Shuler and Tim Couch – cautionary tales of team-killing draft-day busts. More recently, Utah's Alex Smith and LSU's JaMarcus Russell chose to leave school after their junior seasons, and both have struggled. Meanwhile, players like Ryan – who completed his senior season at Boston College before entering the draft – have found immense success quickly in the pros.

"The numbers are staggering in terms of guys that make it and are effective in the league who came back for their senior season," said ESPN draft expert Todd McShay. "But how do you tell a guy to turn down tens of millions of dollars as a top-10 pick?"

That's the dilemma Stafford is currently wrestling with, and he doesn't have a shortage of people wanting to give some advice.

Stafford's review from the NFL's advisory board will no doubt be glowing. He is projected by dozens of experts as the best quarterback available should he decide to leave school.

Legends like Troy Aikman and Archie Manning have offered their opinions on the risks and rewards of life in the NFL.

And the fans – they make no secret of what they want Stafford to do.

"I hear it every day," Stafford said. "I get used to it, so I just smile and say, ‘OK.'"

At Georgia's recent end-of-season gala, awards were handed out to the players who turned in the year's top performances. Not surprisingly, Stafford and Moreno's names were called frequently.

Each time one of the two players would make his way to the front of the room, the same chant would rise up from fans in attendance. One more year! One more year!

Chalk it up to selfish passion on the part of the fans, but Moreno understands their plight.

More was expected of the Bulldogs this season – even if Moreno and Stafford did all they could to accomplish those goals.

Georgia was the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason, and its two offensive superstars were a big reason why. Losses to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech, however, thwarted hopes of a national title celebration that might have made saying goodbye to college life a little easier for the pair. Now, earning a dose of retribution makes the idea of a return engagement with the Gators and Yellow Jackets seem like an opportunity that's hard to pass up.

"We wanted to win the national championship, and we didn't have a chance to do that," Moreno said. "So coming back and doing that would be awesome."

The bitter taste of defeat still fresh in their mouths only underscores the challenge of the decision that lies ahead for Stafford, Moreno and Allen.

There are short-term goals – beat Florida, win the SEC, get invited to New York for next year's Heisman presentation – and there are long-term considerations – taking care of a family, ensuring financial stability, dealing with fame and fortune – that require a maturity far beyond the level exhibited by most 21-year-olds.

"There's a bunch of things in the pot you've got to consider. If it doesn't work out, what are you going to do? How are you going to get your education?" said Allen, who has been projected as high as the mid-second round should he enter the draft. "It's your life, really. It's not just coming to school. The decision you make is going to be a lifelong decision."

Georgia head coach Mark Richt has been down this path with players before. He has seen kids leave school early and find immense success. He has also seen them fail and have nothing to return to when it's over. Players have stayed for their senior seasons and helped their teams achieve new heights while enjoying the satisfaction that comes with being a senior leader in a program that honors its veteran players with immense reverence. He has also seen players whose stock has fallen, who may have lost millions by waiting an extra year to turn pro.

Each year, however, he sits down with potential NFL departures and has a conversation. Richt gives them the best advice he can, explains where to find solid information, and he tells them they'll be in his prayers. It's really all he can do.

"There are a lot of good reasons to stay, but the bottom line is I want them to get as much solid information as they can," Richt said. "Think it through, pray if that's what they choose to do, and go with your heart."

In the end, that's what it comes down to, Stafford said.

He hears the chants of the fans that desperately want another season with him under center. He has seen the draft projections that tell him his bank account could soon be overflowing with NFL money. He has talked to players who have treaded a similar path before him, and he knows the trials that will be in store.

In the end, it all comes down to what's in his heart.

"I think I probably take it all in and have a gut feeling about what's best," Stafford said, "but I don't have that feeling yet."

The same goes for Moreno, who insists he hasn't even given the decision much thought.

He has a bowl game he wants to win and time with teammates he wants to enjoy. There's fun yet to be had in college.

Moreno hasn't talked with Richt yet about his future, but the two did sit down at the beginning of the year to contemplate what might be in store for the New Jersey native who has won the hearts of the passionate Georgia fans.

Richt knew a tough decision was on the horizon for Moreno, and he wasn't there to offer his opinion. He simply offered a bit of advice: College is fun, so no matter what lies ahead for Stafford or Allen or Moreno, they should appreciate what they have right now.

"Coach talked about us enjoying the journey at the beginning of the season," Moreno said. "We're still enjoying it."

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