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Is NFL Scouting Combine losing its relevance?

INDIANAPOLIS – Certain activities are synonymous with the NFL Scouting Combine, which has assumed its annual spot at the epicenter of the football world this week.

Start with the 40-yard dash, because of the ever-so-simple correlation between speed and money: the faster you run, the more you make. Add the broad and vertical jumps, three-cone drill, and bench press to the itinerary of college prospects wearing T-shirts and shorts, and you have what has affectionately become known as the “Underwear Olympics.”

As the years have flown past and the NFL game has evolved, however, that affection has waned. More and more teams are raising questions about the true benefit of such events, wondering whether they need to be revised or simply eliminated.

“There are some drills that are outdated, given the way we play the game today,” said Bill Polian, ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL general manager.

A formal review of the Combine is taking place, with player-personnel executives and coaches taking a hard look at everything being done in this phase of pre-draft evaluation. And nothing is getting greater attention than what happens with the players, in their respective position groups, on the field of Lucas Oil Stadium.

Beginning with the 40-yard dash.

“The 40 has been in the game for a lot of years,” Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert said. “Is it really necessary for an offensive lineman? Probably not.”

But because it’s such a focal point of the Combine and the results tend to greatly influence a player’s draft value, prospects (at the urging of their agents) treat it with the utmost importance. Agents invest heavily in sending their clients to trainers who teach them the nuances of how to maximize their speed. Little, if any, of what they learn is applicable to football, of course.

But that doesn’t matter. All they care about is running the fastest 40-yard dash possible.

“Shame on them if they don’t (approach it that way),” Carolina Panthers GM Dave Gettleman said.

For the record, the Buffalo Bills don’t have any particularly strong feelings on the subject. In fact, as far as GM Doug Whaley is concerned, the on-field portion of the Combine is far less important than two areas conducted off the field: medical examinations of all the prospects and the 15 minutes each club gets to spend with 60 players of its choice.

“What goes on the field, whatever they decide, that’s fine with me,” Whaley said. “For me, if we didn’t have any field work and just had the medical and the interview, I’m fine with that.”

Arizona Cardinals GM Steve Keim agreed.

“Through 19 years of doing this, I’ve evaluated when I’ve missed on guys and I generally have missed more on the person than the player,” he said. “You miss on the passion, their ability to process information, their smarts.”

Somewhere along the line, though, there needs to be something that measures athleticism as it pertains to football. And it needs to benefit the evaluative efforts of 32 teams.

“There might be value in (a particular drill) for the Steelers, but there might not be for another team,” Colbert said. “So we have to do what’s collectively best for the league.”

Said Polian, “If you talk to 10 football guys here, they’re going to have 10 different opinions, which is fine. You can reach consensus if you have enough people involved, and they do.”

Figuring out what stays, what goes, and what changes are made is much easier said than done.

“Are there different drills you can come up with?” Bills coach Rex Ryan said. “There probably are, but I kind of like the way it is.”

Others don’t, which is why significant changes could be seen beginning next year.

Two of the main areas NFL teams are addressing in their review is what can be done to help make the drills more germane to today’s game and how much stress do they place on the players in conjunction with everything else they do here?

For instance, defensive linemen are asked to put their hands on the ground and show how well they are able to move while bouncing off of tackling dummies. “People don’t do that anymore,” Polian said. “Everybody hits a gap or you come off a block standing up, not on the ground. You’re not trying to escape ‘trash’ (the combined collection of bodies of blockers and fellow defenders).”

About seven years ago, Combine organizers realized that all of its events were simply lasting too long and taking a toll on players whose days and nights were already jammed with medical examinations, intelligence and psychological testing, team-requested meetings, and media sessions.

It was also then that one of the more grueling drills underwent a major adjustment: defensive backs no longer were asked to turn and run for a simulated 60-yard bomb and then have to sprint all the way back.

Thanks to the influences of modern sports science, traditional thinking that prospects should be exposed to as much stress as possible at the Combine because it will only get worse in the NFL is proving to be flawed. On the contrary, the NFL is doing as much as it can to reduce stress by closely monitoring players’ training and sleep habits to help maximize their rest and recovery leading up to games.

“Here, they go to bed at 11, they’re up at 5:30 to take a drug test,” Polian said. “They go to bed at 12, they’re up at 6. That’s not enough (sleep) over the course of four days.”

The risk of making too many radical changes is that it could have an adverse effect on scouting. Talent evaluators are fond of using benchmark comparisons for positions and body types. With each prospect, they look for a corresponding current or former pro as a match.

Many of those comparisons include Combine performances.

“If you start going with a bunch of new stuff, what’s your measuring stick now?” Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman said. “So there’s a delicate balance between the two.”

The bottom line is that after this year, the “Underwear Olympics” might never be the same.


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