ARLINGTON, Texas — Don’t blame Denzel Ward.
Blame the system.
The Ohio State cornerback made a business decision Friday night, make no mistake about that. For him, it obviously felt like the smartest move for his financial future with first-round money at risk — and in his mind, not enough reward in a Cotton Bowl that didn’t have any national-title implications. Honestly, there is nothing wrong with his decision, and it was entirely his to make.
That doesn’t mean it’s not surprising to see this latest postseason trend arrive so quickly with the Buckeyes, particularly after a month of stressing how their bond of brotherhood would dissuade anybody from skipping the matchup with USC at AT&T Stadium. Again, this also isn’t an indictment of how close these Buckeyes are on and off the field, because not every situation is the same.
Billy Price didn’t want to miss his last chance to put on a scarlet and gray jersey. That moment was priceless to him and the rest of his teammates heading for the NFL in the spring.
Ward went a different direction. Maybe he’ll regret that choice in the future. Maybe there was far more to the situation than initially met the eye when he got off the team bus but never emerged from the locker room for warmups. He’ll have his chance to address that in the future and explain his motivations, but it feels unfair to criticize him no matter what they are.
Those weren’t my millions of dollars at stake, and I’ve obviously never been faced with the kind of decision Ward had to make with his chance to secure his family’s financial future.
Could he have boosted his stock by playing against another NFL-ready player in USC quarterback Sam Darnold? Maybe.
Will the rest of the Buckeyes be so understanding of his choice after stressing all month that the entire team would play? Perhaps.
Is Urban Meyer going to like that this developing pattern of projected draft picks skipping the bowl game has spread to Ohio State? Almost certainly not.
But the College Football Playoff has dwarfed the importance of every other bowl game, including matchups between conference champions. Without diving too deeply into the value of scholarships and the debate about paying athletes, there’s no question Ward had far more to gain by making sure he was healthy heading into the draft than taking a chance against the Trojans.
The schools are getting richer than ever with the CFP format. There’s nothing wrong with Ward trying to do the same.