Just how big is the NFL combine? Later this week and into next week, it'll seem like the festivities in Indianapolis are the be-all and end-all for the league's 32 teams as they prepare for April's draft. Get sucked into the propaganda and you soon may be believing that Super Bowls are won or lost during three-cone drills and 40-yard dashes and team interviews with prospects.
Keep in mind, the NFL Network alone will be devoting more than 50 hours of coverage to the event with more than 20 analysts chiming in.
And without the ability to step back and realize that the combine is only a small part of the draft research process, it's easy to be fooled into thinking every hundredth of a second on a stopwatch will be career-defining for a player. Which is part of a much bigger if under-discussed problem. The hype surrounding the combine and its closest relative, the on-campus pro day, has mushroomed so much in the recent past that players have taken to investing heavily in ways to get an edge, looking for that little extra that aids their testing results.
That's why you've been reading a lot about players who have spent ample time since the college football season ended in programs designed to help them master the combine drills. Players like Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, a defensive end/linebacker, and Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III have logged significant time at the Athletes' Performance Institute in Arizona, adjusting their diets and improving their techniques for the drills they'll be asked to perform at the combine and subsequent pro days. At IMG Academies in Florida meanwhile, players like Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu and Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly are getting into even more detailed work, including vision training adapted from training for fighter pilots.
But as Michael Lombardi of NFL.com writes, things can get tricky nowadays for scouts and general managers as they try to analyze results from the combine and pro days. For one thing, the heightened preparation by players can confuse the process. Lombardi also says teams should keep a closer eye on players who opt out of drills at the combine, preferring to perform for teams later in a more comfortable setting on their own college campuses. Could this be a potential warning sign that a prospect will use performance enhancing drugs to aid their pro day efforts?
This brings us to one of my biggest pet peeves: For years I've wished the NFL would require every player who does not take part in the workout portion of the combine to come back and resubmit to another drug test. Some of the biggest mistakes made in the draft can be traced back to a player being on a performance-enhancement program without a team being aware.
The basic chain of events begins when a player comes to Indy and does not work out, but he is required to take a complete drug test. After his drug test, he can begin a highly intense performance-enhancement program for 4-6 weeks that will allow him to perform at a high level. Sure, he passed the mandatory test at the combine, but 4-6 weeks later at his pro day, there is no way of knowing if the player is clean. Not only would a second test help eliminate the potential for this to occur with non-workout players, but it might stop some of the non-workouts at Indy in the first place. So, this spring when reading that a player had an awesome on-campus workout, be sure his tape backs up his athletic testing skills.
Lombardi also says teams should be on the offensive when they're performing interviews at the combine, alert that players have been coached and polished and may not be providing a true revelation of their personalities.
The best evaluation work should have been done on the player's college campus last spring or in the fall, by a scout who does not announce his arrival, or wear team colors. The team that comes to the combine with the ability to know every true answer to every question asked will be the team that is most prepared, and most likely to be successful -- in spite of the player's preparation.
Any time I interviewed a player, I opened with this simple statement: "From this point forward, every question I ask you, I already know the answer. Therefore, this is not a question-and-answer session, but a test to see if you will tell me the complete truth." You'd be surprised how quickly the player changed from his standard answers to the real answers.