Carolina Panthers first-round draft pick Christian McCaffrey flew to Charlotte last week to sign a lease and set up his new apartment.
On Saturday the former Stanford running back participated in Panthers coach Ron Rivera’s charity bowling event. By Sunday McCaffrey was on a plane back to Denver, a day before the Panthers began their third week of organized team activities (OTA) practices.
McCaffrey, the key component in the Panthers’ plans to re-shape their offense, has missed all of the team’s OTAs and will not attend the first day of next week’s mandatory, three-day minicamp.
McCaffrey’s absence is because of an antiquated NFL rule that limits players whose schools are on quarter systems to only rookie minicamps until final exams are finished.
The rule applies even to players who – like McCaffrey – are no longer enrolled.
It really only hurts the player because he’s got to come in, he’s got to learn and grow and fit in. And they’re missing that opportunity.
Ron Rivera, on the NFL’s rule that keeps rookies whose schools are on the quarter system out of offseason activities
Panthers coach Ron Rivera thinks the rule is unfair to players such as McCaffrey, who decided to leave school and prepare for the draft. Rivera says he’d be willing to share his views with decision-makers if asked.
In fact, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association – the group that pushed for the rule 25 years ago – has had preliminary discussions with the NFL about changing the quarter-system rule.
But there are other variables the AFCA must weigh, including the NCAA’s Academic Performance Rate, a metric that carries penalties for teams that fall below standards that include retention of players.
Given the small percentage of schools on the quarter system, tweaking the rule is not a high priority for the NFL. But AFCA director Todd Berry says he plans to continue the conversations with the league.
Meanwhile, McCaffrey will wait another week before beginning his NFL career in earnest.
Missed chance to bond
McCaffrey, the No. 8 overall pick, hasn’t taken a class at Stanford in six months.
He announced in December he was leaving school a year early for the NFL draft, then skipped the Cardinal’s Sun Bowl matchup against North Carolina rather than risk injury.
McCaffrey took part in the Panthers’ rookie minicamp the week after he was drafted. But since then, his only communication with the coaching staff and his new teammates has come via phone calls, texts and Skype – at least until his appearance at Rivera’s Bowl-a-Palooza.
Rivera checked with the league to make sure McCaffrey’s rolling a couple games for charity wouldn’t violate the quarter-system rule.
“It was good to see him, too. It really was. Because he got to spend time with his teammates more so than anything else,” Rivera said this week. “That’s the one thing you also miss is that chance to bond. He flew back (Sunday) and we won’t see him until the 14th when we’re here at minicamp.”
Stanford’s finals end June 14, meaning McCaffrey will be on the field for the last two minicamp practices before the Panthers break until the start of training camp in late July.
“It sucks,” McCaffrey told the Panthers’ website. “It’s really tough.”
Rule still practical?
The quarter-system rule, which falls under the NFL’s player personnel policy, was implemented in the early 1990s as a way to keep players from bailing on school after being drafted or signing with an NFL team.
But with so many players now putting their academics on hold to prepare for the draft, it’s worth questioning whether the rule remains practical.
“I just think that if a young man decides on his own not to enroll don’t hold that against us. Because you don’t know who you’re going to get through the draft,” Rivera said.
“It really only hurts the player because he’s got to come in, he’s got to learn and grow and fit in,” Rivera added. “And they’re missing that opportunity.”
With the vast majority of schools on the semester system, the rule impacts only a small percentage of rookies each year. Several Pac-12 schools are on the quarter system, as is Northwestern.
But as it happens, two of the Panthers’ past three first-round picks were affected by the rule. Linebacker Shaq Thompson had to return to his classes at Washington shortly after Carolina drafted him in 2015.
Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said the missed OTAs forced Thompson to play catch-up.
“I think one of the things that sort of put him back a little bit is just being on the quarter system, where he wasn’t here during the process of OTAs,” Wilks said. “If I recall correctly I think he finished like the last three days. It was a lot of phone conversations, those kinds of things.”
Wilks said Thompson’s intelligence allowed him to get up to speed during training camp, and the Panthers are confident that McCaffrey’s nightly phone conversations with running backs coach Jim Skipper will ease his transition.
Still, Rivera said he believes players like McCaffrey are being punished unnecessarily.
Berry, the former Louisiana-Monroe coach and current AFCA director, met with NFL officials at the owners meetings in Phoenix in March.
They discussed creating a window when rookies from schools on quarter systems could take a brief hiatus from school to attend OTAs in mid, but return in time to take their finals.
The idea would have to be approved by the NCAA, which could be a considerable task.
Berry says he thinks the current rule hurts lower-round picks and undrafted free agents more than it does players like McCaffrey. But he thinks tweaking it would be beneficial to all.
“I think we can find some common ground here. With the guys that are high draft picks, maybe the impact is minimal because they’re going to find a way to get (on the roster),” Berry said. “We need to work within this and find some common ground the NFL’s pleased with and our collegiate coaches and collegiate presidents are pleased with also.”