Cardale Jones shows why money and the NFL Draft aren’t everything

College football’s most fascinating overnight hit, the Cardale Jones Show, managed to one-up itself yet again Thursday. As if the former third-string quarterback didn’t capture our hearts enough in his improbable three-game stint leading the Buckeyes to a national championship, Jones strode to a podium at his high school and made a matter-of-fact mockery of the entire sports media climate in 2015.

College football followers, draft pundits and a million armchair GMs spent three days debating whether a three-game career starter should leave for the NFL — and remarkably, a whole lot of people thought he should. When Jones called a press conference in his hometown of Cleveland, rather than at Ohio State itself, many of us understandably assumed he was leaving. Full confession: I had already written an entirely different column that included the words “Farewell, Cardale.”

Turns out the joke’s on me/us.

“My decision was very simple,” Jones, wearing a “12 Gauge Buckshot” T-shirt, told the assembled crowd (and several national cable network audiences) at Ginn Academy. “. . . I’m going to return next year for school.”

There you have it.

“Thank you guys for coming out,” he added. “I don’t know why you guys made it such a big deal.”

Touche.

Just as there was no precedent for Jones’ incredible postseason run, you would have been hard-pressed to find a template had Jones decided to bolt. Many brought up former Pro Bowl QB Matt Cassel, who never started a game at USC, but Cassel had no decision to make (he was a graduating senior) and nobody telling him how great he was like Jones has presumably heard countless times over the past month.

It’s certainly easy to see why NFL folks might have swooned over Jones already — he’s 6-5, 250 with a cannon for an arm and decent mobility — but no scout or GM could possibly know based off three games’ film whether he’ll be the next Ben Roethlisberger or the next JaMarcus Russell.

Credit Jones for wading through the hype and realizing the same thing. Throughout the postseason run, Urban Meyer marveled at how much the quarterback had matured over the past six months, and it was evident in his comments Thursday.

“It’s cool to say you were in the conversation for a first- or second-round draft pick after three games,” he said, “but you really have to think about your long-term future, not just jump to the NFL and get a lot of money.”

How is it that the 22-year-old seemed to be more clear-headed about his prospects than the 40- or 50-something pundits paid to talk about it?

Finally, there was this from a guy who, as recently as late November, was best known for a two-year-old tweet making light of his academics.

“One of the most important things for me is to graduate,” said Jones. “When I make that decision to play in the NFL, I want to be done with school.”

LEAVING SO SOON?

In today’s public-opinion climate, with its perpetual indignation over college athletes’ limited compensation and a heightened concern over football’s injury risks, a popular rallying cry has become: “Go get paid!” That drives me bonkers. Outside of the few absolute first- or second-round locks — this year, guys like Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Alabama’s Landon Collins — turning pro early is rarely the smart long-term option. NFL teams that don’t have a huge investment in a player don’t have a huge incentive to develop him. If he makes the team, great. If not, go hang out on the practice squad.

But Jones’ situation was highly unusual given there’s no guarantee he’ll keep his starting job at Ohio State next season. While I believe Meyer will ultimately find a way to get multiple quarterbacks on the field if both J.T. Barrett and/or Braxton Miller return to health, the fact is Jones is no more guaranteed reps with the Buckeyes in 2015 than he would had he jumped. He acknowledged as much Thursday, saying he welcomes the impending competition.

Had he left, Jones would have certainly gone out on top. He would have assured himself permanent hero status in Columbus for the role he played in lifting the Buckeyes to their improbable national championship. Now, even better, he’ll get to add another chapter to his riveting and still-unfolding story.

Welcome back, Cardale Jones. How silly of us to think you were leaving in the first place.