The college football bowl season will reach overdrive this week, and some of the sport’s best players will enjoy the festivities like the rest of us: from the comfort of recliners.

Players skipping bowl games to avoid injury and begin preparing for the NFL draft has become standard practice in recent years. Nearly 20 players this season have gone that route. That list includes Gophers linebacker Blake Cashman and offensive tackle Donnell Greene, both holdouts from the Quick Lane Bowl on Wednesday.

Ten years ago, a player voluntarily skipping a bowl game would have sparked outrage. Now, the reaction is more meh.

The College Football Playoff is the only postseason event that truly carries any significance. As a traditionalist who loves the history of college football, it feels heretical to devalue the importance of, say, the Rose Bowl. But viewed logically, non-playoff bowl games are merely exhibitions that extend the risk for injury and possibly damage the earning potential for NFL hopefuls, especially those projected as high draft picks.

Players who elect to skip bowl games are being pragmatic, not selfish. Criticism of their decision is shortsighted.

The case of Jaylon Smith shifted attitudes in this debate. The former Notre Dame linebacker was projected as a top-five pick. Then he suffered a devastating knee injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl and fell to the second round, costing him millions of dollars.

He became a cautionary tale.

“I think everybody has a certain case of why they should or shouldn’t do it, and I think every case has to be handled individually,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said.

Cashman was the Gophers’ best defensive player so his absence will have a significant impact. He’s not considered a high draft prospect, and he might not get drafted at all. But by skipping a low-tier bowl, he’ll avoid risking an injury that could kill his NFL dream altogether.

“I can give them advice, but I’ll never tell anybody what to do,” Fleck said.

For some, the decision is easy. Others probably wrestle with it, knowing not everyone will agree with their choice.

Former Gophers running back David Cobb would have been an interesting case study. Cobb was projected as a midround pick in 2014. Questions about his speed made it imperative that he perform well in the 40-yard dash for scouts in pre-draft workouts.

He suffered a hamstring injury that season. He recovered enough to play in the Citrus Bowl, but he admitted that “I wasn’t quite myself.”

I called Cobb this week to see if he might have skipped the bowl game had that trend been more prevalent at the time. He waffled.

“It’s hard because I just want to play,” he said. “I would want to show my stuff and just be out there with my teammates. That’s the biggest thing for me: Not wanting to let my teammates down.”

He paused.

“But also knowing that I wasn’t really healthy,” he said. “You have a lot of future goals that you’ve been working for your whole life. You kind of ask yourself, is it worth it? Of course you want to play that last game. But with the trend being how it is today and more acceptable … I mean, it’s hard for me to say that I would sit out. But I definitely would have had a little more thought to go into it.”

The Tennessee Titans drafted Cobb in the fifth round. He’s trying to revive his career in the new Alliance of American Football League, which begins its inaugural season in February.

Cobb sounded torn on whether he would skip a bowl game, but he said players shouldn’t be criticized for choosing that path.

“You don’t want to come off as being a selfish person or not caring about [teammates],” he said. “That’s not true at all. You’re trying to look out for your future.”

That future is potentially worth far more than any random bowl game.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com