Shortly after Chris Borland’s decision to end his NFL career after one season became public, the search for its deeper meaning began.
In some corners, this was seen as a game-changer that will lead other players to have similar thoughts about stepping away from the risks inherent to the sport before they have exhausted their careers.
But the most impact Borland’s decision might have on the future of the NFL – beginning with the upcoming NFL draft -- is how the players are scouted and evaluated.
Teams have always tried to gauge how much passion a player has for playing football during the draft process. But, now, teams might be more likely to not only place a lot of emphasis on a player’s love of the sport but also figure out how much he needs the sport.
Borland, who graduated from Wisconsin with a history degree, expressed his plan to return to school and pursue a career in academics or business. Clearly, he does not need football to make a living.
The complication in scouting Borland was that he played like somebody who loved the sport and whose future depended on it.
Borland was the classic football overachiever. There were dozens – if not, hundreds – of players at his position around college football who had better measurable of height, weight and speed. But Borland had something many of those other NFL hopefuls lack.
In fact, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke admitted that he made an “exception” when he drafted Borland because he did not fit the mold of the standard he has set for that position.
In a mid-November conversation with CSNBayArea.com, Baalke compared Borland to Zach Thomas and Dat Nguyen, other undersized linebackers who had outstanding NFL careers. Baalke said he talked to his mentor, Bill Parcells, specifically about Borland.
“We talked about that principle,” Baalke said. “Is this a guy you’re willing to make an exception on? And if so, why? And the reason you make exceptions is because they’re productive players at their position. They’ve proven they can overcome the limitations or liabilities that they have physically.
“So it was a good conversation and he put it all in perspective. We had a lot of discussions internally with respect to him. Could he play at the same level in the NFL, overcoming the limitations he has physically? And at the end of the day, our belief was that he could. And he’s proven through the first few games as a starter that he’s more than capable of doing that at a high level.”
There were no signs on the field that Borland was anything but fully invested in making himself an outstanding professional football player. He did a little too much free-lancing for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s preference in the exhibition season. But Borland exhibited an incredible knack for being in the right place at the right time to make plays.
Although he started just eight games, Borland led the 49ers in tackles. He was always around the ball. According to the statistics compiled by the coaches in their film reviews, Borland never had fewer than 13 tackles in any of his full games. He had back-to-back games with 22 and 21 tackles in games against St. Louis and New Orleans.
That accounts for a lot of collisions for player of his size. And Borland’s body certainly absorbed a physical toll. He missed the final two games of the season with an ankle injury, and he missed practice time due to maintenance required to his surgically repaired shoulders.
And with Patrick Willis announcing his retirement, the physical toll on Borland would only be greater this season as he was expected to step into a significant role on the 49ers’ defense. Borland said it was a hit to his head that he sustained during training camp that got him re-thinking whether a long-term NFL career was worth the risk.
“It triggered a change in thought for me,” Borland said Thursday on CBS This Morning. “And subsequently, I did a lot of research and ultimately came to the conclusion that, no, it wasn’t worth it for me, personally.”
NFL teams will try to figure out which players on their draft boards could potentially become the next Chris Borland. And Borland himself said he did not know he would cut short his own career after just one season at the time the 49ers selected him in the third round of last year’s draft.
“The 49ers drafted me, assuming I wanted to play more than one year,” Borland said. “At the time, I did, too. Things changed. They didn’t deserve to be undercut. And I didn’t want that to happen.”
The 49ers signed Borland to the mandatory four-year contract for a draft pick. He was awarded a signing bonus of $617,436 with the understanding that he would be under the team’s control for those four seasons.
The 49ers have not said whether they will attempt to reclaim three-quarters of the signing bonus, which is within the team’s rights under terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Borland has not been asked during his national media appearances whether he will return most of his signing bonus. His agent, Neil Cornich, did not respond to that question in an email from CSNBayArea.com.
It seems reasonable the 49ers will not want to set the precedent of, in essence, rewarding a draft pick financially for voluntarily leaving without fulfilling the terms of his contract.
Borland said finances never factored into his decision. He weighed the benefits against the risk that playing the sport could lead to long-term problems related to head trauma. In the process, Borland decided to walk away from his scheduled salary of $530,000 for the upcoming season.
All NFL teams will now spend more time than ever discussing each draft prospect’s family background and college educational experience to identify which players might be apt to follow Borland’s lead.