Kelley L. Cox/USA Today

What Drove McCaffrey To Succeed At Stanford Drove Him To Leave

The same qualities that made Christian McCaffrey so good led him to his decision to skip the Sun Bowl.

Adversity reveals character, but so does disappointment.  There is no question disappointment has been the dominant sentiment in the wake of Christian McCaffrey’s decision on Monday to skip the Sun Bowl and move straight into NFL Draft prep.  Many have taken this as a stunning reversal of character, a betrayal of both his teammates and who people thought Christian was, but the truth is that this the most Christian McCaffrey move of them all.

The issues of health, loyalty, and precedent have all stepped to the forefront in the wake of McCaffrey’s announcement.  Unsurprisingly, much of it has been couched in anger. No one really has an argument against the notion that were McCaffrey to be seriously injured in the Sun Bowl, it’d be an absolute tragedy. It hasn’t stopped questions about whether or not McCaffrey would make this choice with regards to the Rose Bowl or the College Football Playoff.  It’s a totally fair question and one to which we will never definitively have an answer.

Then there is the issue of loyalty.  Former players have come out almost unanimously against McCaffrey’s decision, condemning it as a slight to his teammates.  There has even been a slippery slope argument that hypothesizes what would happen if every draft eligible Cardinal made the same decision?  The fact that Leonard Fournette and now Shock from Baylor have now sandwiched McCaffrey’s choice has still not produced a circulated quote from either Ed Orgeron, David Shaw, or Jim Grobe on this hypothetical.

What does McCaffrey “owe” his teammates?  The truth is that is ultimately for him and and his teammates to decide.  Trenton Irwin came out in full support of Christian’s decision and he claimed that 100% of his teammates did as well.  Michael Rector did as well and it’s interesting to the extent the older the ex-player the less understanding the reaction to McCaffrey’s decision.

We have McCaffrey’s teammates (at least the ones one the record) offering total support.  We have former Cardinal Ben Muth, who played back in the Harbaugh Era, weighing in with this:


We also have Danny Kanell here:


And, quite compellingly, we have Ezekiel Elliott tweeting the following:


This is fun, because Elliott stayed to play in the National Championship Game in part because his draft stock was not as high as it was after he starred after that game.  Also, Elliott left after three season, just like McCaffrey, so we are really talking about four quarters where the stakes are not nearly as high as the championship for which Elliott played. However, we have finally arrived at the reveal…

Christian McCaffrey currently sits as ESPN’s Todd McShay’s 29th-rated potential draft pick.  That puts McCaffrey right on the edge of slipping out of the first round, which is a very significant slip financially.  This is where you may be thinking that I bring in the whole “If he’d been paid he’d be playing in the Sun Bowl” argument.  Wrong.

There have been some trying to dovetail McCaffrey’s decision into the debate over whether the players who generate literally billions of dollars in revenue by playing college football should be entitled to some of said billions.  Let’s not.  No matter what stipend he’d be getting right now, McCaffrey was still leaving. Here’s why.

If there has been one consistent and acknowledged theme running through the Coach Shaw Era, it’s been the mileage the team has gotten by playing with a chip on its shoulder.  Coach Shaw has acknowledged it time and again.  Any slight, perceived or actual, is fuel, and the Cardinal has used it time and again to reach great heights under Coach Shaw’s tenure.  It started with Coach Harbaugh, but that disrespect card sits up the sleeve of seemingly every Cardinal player.

No player has so gleefully used the chip on the shoulder more than McCaffrey, and this is where his decision becomes utterly emblematic of who he’s been ever since he got to Stanford. Fournette stands right now as McShay’s top draft prospect.  It is literally all about the money. he’d be jeopardizing by playing in LSU’s bowl game for Fournette. Money is playing a role here, as well, but not quite the same way.

McCaffrey has been a calculating and professional operator from the moment he arrived on campus.  Neither of these are meant to be negatives here. He came to Stanford with the goal of being a professional football player, and he has been systematic and unflinching in the pursuit of that goal since his arrival.

Even after McCaffrey tore up the all-time single season yardage record in 2015 and set Stanford’s single-game rushing record in three quarters against UCLA, there were questions about his ability to be an every-down between the tackles back.  McCaffrey addressed those this year.  Playing behind a significantly less effective offensive line than last year, McCaffrey actually surpassed his yards after contact this season.

McCaffrey had ground to gain by playing this season, so he did. In the last two seasons, he had more carries by far than any other player. As he said after announcing he’d be declaring for the NFL draft, there was nothing left for him to put on film.  In retrospect, that should have been a tip to where he was heading, even if he himself didn’t know for sure he’d be skipping the Sun Bowl when he released that statement.

McCaffrey is acutely aware of the running backs ahead of him in the draft ratings.  And while I doubt he expects to leapfrog above them all by the time the draft comes, this is about being systematic and calculating the best possible trajectory for him to maximize his draft status.  That’s always been the plan, and the plan of every college player who considers himself a prospect to play at the next level.

So you have a perceived slight dovetailing with a clear agenda combined with real stakes.  The Sun Bowl could play no role in this goal but to detract from it, and that’s how it adds up.  McCaffrey weighed the price he’d be paying with his teammates, of that I have no doubt.  But he also weighed what was the best possible way to attack his goal.  This is how he and the coaches agreed to have a no-contact spring practice.  

Christian McCaffrey is a young man who made the best possible decision for his future from his perspective.  Begrudge him that if you like, but don’t mistake it for a loss of identity or a betrayal of character. Single-minded and fueled by slights. This is who he’s been all along, and the traits which made his decision are the same traits that fueled every great moment he had while he was here.  Throw them away, and those go too.

I for one prefer to cherish the 152 quarters he played for Stanford, not begrudge him the four more that he won’t.



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