Heisman Trophy-winner Reggie Bush was scheduled to announce his decision about entering the NFL draft Thursday at 10:30 a.m. PST on the USC campus. As I write this the announcement hasn't been made, but here's a preview: He's going.
Yes, there's the occasional Matt Leinart, surprising everyone by returning for his senior season even though he could have been a top pick. And let's remember that a big part of Leinart's decision to stay at Southern Cal last year was that he needed elbow surgery and had what turned out to be a sports hernia. He didn't want to face the draft combine and rookie camp as damaged goods.
But for the most part, if you're an underclassman who's projected as a high draft pick, your decision is easy: Go to the pros.
That's why it was so funny to listen to all the speculation about whether Texas quarterback Vince Young was going to declare for the draft or return for his senior season. Young needs a lot of work on his throwing mechanics before he can become an effective NFL quarterback, the pro-return thinking went, so he'd be better off working on that for another year at Texas.
Young gave that idea all the consideration it deserved and declared for the draft.
Let's look for a second at the options Young faced and then we'll get back to Bush.
If Young turns pro he can work with NFL coaches whose interest is in developing him as his team's quarterback for the future. If he stays in college he works with the same college coaches -- that is, minor-league coaches -- who have failed to correct his mechanics over the four years he's spent in Austin already.
The priority of coaches at a big-time program like Texas, where a single loss can scuttle a season, is to win every game, at whatever cost. Vince Young's future means nothing to them. If running him on endless naked bootlegs is the Longhorns' best bet to win one Saturday, they'll run him out there on play after play.
And if he gets smeared and is lost for the season? They weren't going to win the championship without winning that game anyway. And if he hangs in there and just takes a yearlong pounding that damages him for the future? Hey, he's somebody else's problem after the bowl game.
If he turns pro he can learn from the other, more experienced quarterbacks on the team, and work with and against NFL-caliber players in practice, in exhibition games or even in real games, if he doesn't have the luxury of a full year of learning, as Carson Palmer did in Cincinnati. If he stays in college he's the best quarterback around, and he can beat college defenders with pure athleticism.
If he turns pro he gets a seven- and maybe even an eight-figure signing bonus and will become eligible for the potential big money of unrestricted free agency one year sooner than if he played his senior year at Texas.
If he goes to college he has a chance to increase that bonus by playing well and giving his stock a boost. This is not true for guys like Bush, who's projected at or near the top of the draft anyway. It's unclear if a team is going to take a flyer on Young at the top of the draft or if he'll go a little later.
What he risks by staying is getting injured and losing all or most of that bonus when his draft stock plummets. There's the cautionary tale of Adewale Ogunleye, a projected first-round pick who returned for his senior season at Indiana, got hurt, and went undrafted. Ogunleye's a star for the Chicago Bears now with a big contract, but that injury cost him millions that he'll never get back.
And Ogunleye's one of the lucky ones. His college injury didn't end his playing career.
So that brings us to Bush, whose backfield mate LenDale White declared for the draft Wednesday. Bush doesn't have the same issue as Young, needing to change a fundamental part of his game to be ready to play in the NFL.
He's not a lock to be the top pick, but he's the favorite, so his stock can do nothing but fall. He can also get injured while playing for room, board, tuition and big-man status at USC. And he'll delay his potential free-agent contract by a year.
And while quarterbacks are more vulnerable to injury on any given play than running backs, running backs take a greater beating, and they tend to get old in a hurry. And Bush is no Jerome Bettis. At about 200 pounds, he's a relative pipsqueak in both college and pro ball.
He's only got a certain number of plays in that little body, and it's safe to assume the number is smaller than the number Bettis came out of high school with. Bush used 283 of those plays this year, just counting the times he touched the ball, not the who-knows-how-many incomplete passes or play-action fakes where he still got hit, or the plays where he blocked somebody.
Without LenDale White or Matt Leinart, USC would figure to lean more heavily on Bush in 2006. Have to win every Saturday or the season's a failure, remember? So Bush is looking at putting himself another 300-plus plays closer to his expiration date without getting paid.
Considering that Bettis, who is a marvel of longevity and durability, has 3,679 career touches in the NFL, 300 plays is probably significantly more than 10 percent of Bush's remaining career.
He'd have to be crazy or stupid to donate them to USC.
The hidden factor in the decision of Bush and the many other underclassmen who are flooding into the draft this year is the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. It expires after the 2007 season, but if it isn't extended this year -- negotiations are stalled over the sharing of local revenue -- there won't be a salary cap in 2007.
Nobody knows what that would mean for the league or for most of its players in the short or long run, but one good bet is that it would be a bonanza for the top players negotiating new contracts after 2006.
Here's a better bet: It's not going to happen.
There have been rumors that an NBA-style rookie salary cap would be a part of any CBA extension, meaning 2006 would be the last year for rookies to cash in without a specific limit beyond each team's overall cap obligations.
The rookie cap may be nothing more than an idea cooked up by agents to persuade college stars to come out this year rather than next, preferably after signing with the agent who's doing the talking. But here's a rule of thumb I've picked up over the last 20 years that they didn't teach me in journalism school: Rumors that make sense usually turn out to be true.
Now, young scribblers, I'm not saying you should run with any rumor that makes sense. What I'm saying is, if you're a betting man -- and underclassmen weighing the decision to declare for the draft are betting millions -- you'd be wise to bet on a rookie salary cap over a no-cap season.
The record of sports players unions protecting the interests of future rookies is pretty much nonexistent. If there's a chance to get something in exchange for a rookie cap, the NFLPA will jump at it.
Reggie Bush was going to jump anyway. But the threat of a rookie cap just gives him one more reason. As this column hits the Web, Bush has 90 minutes left in his USC career.
Update: At 10:35 a.m. PST Thursday, Reggie Bush stepped up to a microphone at USC and said, "My education is extremely important to me." Then he announced, "I have decided to forgo my senior season and declare myself eligible for the 2006 NFL draft." He promised that he would still get his degree from USC.
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