When the NFL Combine in its current iteration emerged, it was a great idea. But in 2008 the Combine has outlived its usefulness and relevance. Kind of like punk rock. I love musical analogies, so hang with me for a second.
When punk rock came to the forefront in the 1970s, it was a much-needed cold slap in the face. The Clash, The Sex Pistols, early Billy Idol and his Generation X, the New York Dolls, Devo, and others provided a refreshing and angry alternative to the scrubbed-clean, corporate and over-produced sounds of disco. It was edgy and counter-culture and gave people something that they were starved for.
However, other, non-punk musical artists caught on to the opportunities to rip-off punk riffs and sounds, and as a result the “alternative” offered by punk became perverted and misused by the mainstream, while becoming the mainstream. And as happened with the disco movement that was all the rage before punk – and hair bands, grunge and rap since – punk became meaningless as it assimilated into the pop mainstream.
Except for the Police, and maybe Billy Idol, that had the foresight to move on, the other punk bands were relegated to the scrap heap of musical history. And I know there are some punk anthems that still resonate to this day, they still don’t have the impact they had back in the day. Ostensibly, punk was ruined by popularity.
Billy Idol gave us “Day by Day” with Generation X, but he also gave us “Eyes Without a Face,” “Cyberpunk,” and the title song for the movie Speed.
The NFL Combine is like punk rock and has followed the same evolutionary path.
Back in the early 1980s, the “Tower of Babel” approach taken by NFL personnel people was streamlined and packaged to help provide talent evaluators with meaningful “measureables” by which to evaluate talent. It was a great idea and a necessary move to better-quantify the clues that were part of the talent hunt that culminate in the NFL Draft.
The Combine helped to standardize some things that needed to be standardized.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Indianapolis, which is now the home of the NFL Combine. What started out as a simple exercise to get some uniform medical info from the top-level draft picks – 163 guys in Tampa in 1982 – has morphed into a muscle-mill of NFL prospects. What started out as a somewhat obscure clerical effort, the NFL Combine is now marketed as “a vital step in achieving the dream of playing in the NFL,” and is now considered “must-see TV” by football fans and a “must-be-there” event for any kid with aspirations of playing in the NFL.
Now, the NFL Combine is pretty meaningless, a big waste of time and effort.
The Combine of the early days that gave us Auburn’s Bo Jackson running a 4.12 40-yard dash in 1986 also gave us the fastest time ever in Indy, Rondel Melendez’s 4.24 time in 1999. Yeah, I know, who?
For every Jerry Azumah from New Hampshire, who got his shot as a result of his performance at the 1999 combine, there have been many more guys like Mike Mamula, Adam Archuleta, Robert Gallery, Kyle Boller, and David Carr. Great at the Combine and in workouts, not so great in NFL games.
For all the time and effort spent on the Combine, teams would be better off drafting guys based on how they finished in the voting for year-end awards like the Heisman, Outland, and Butkus trophies.
Any football freak remembers watching the crazy, plyometric, ballistic training craziness endured by Archuleta and seeing the video clip of Boller throwing the ball 80 yards (I’m pretty sure it was 80 yards) from his knee, through the goal post. Scouts, fans and general managers alike were all seduced by these physically impressive, but football-meaningless feats.
Boller, or Broderick Bunkley who bench pressed 225-pounds for 44 reps last year, might impress at Frank Costanza’s Festivus celebration but not so much on the tundra of the NFL.
In the early days of the Combine, there were young guys who really were raw, undiscovered talent. Real examples of diamonds in the rough. Today everyone knows what to prepare for. As a result of all the emphasis on the drills featured at the Combine, a whole cottage industry of experts has cropped up and every kid who plays football from the 9th grade on knows what the drills are at the Combine. Just like “American Idol,” has become a forum for ringers and singers with past show biz experience – and usually failure – the NFL Combine has become a by-the-numbers event that as a result has lost its luster and relevance.
There are football conditioning experts that just teach to the test, as if they are preparing kids for the SATs. It should be so obvious to the powers that be in the NFL personnel business; if you take the best group of athletes that play football, and devise any series of physically demanding tests, the best athletes will perform the best. Great athletes will always perform better than lesser athletes, but these great athletes aren’t necessarily better football players.
Now you have young men who have been working on these drills for 8 or more years. Of course today’s athletes are going to be perform better on these tests than the athletes of a decade ago.
But it doesn’t always mean that they are the best football players. It shouldn’t mean that they are the best football players. Hell, it doesn’t mean that they are the best football players, or are better than guys who can’t do the 3-cone drill in 6.7 seconds. There are kids in training facilities all across the country that are working on 40 times, the vertical jump and pro-agility drill. This doesn’t mean they can play football or that they will be better at football.
Maybe the Combine would be more interesting if they sprung surprises on the “contestants” as if the Combine were a reality show. But now that there are no surprises in store for prospective NFL players, the Combine is a boring exercise in the obvious. It would be way more instructive and interesting to see these guys try – and fail - in attempting to finish the course on Ninja Warrior.
Is it really any surprise to anyone that Arkansas’ Darren McFadden turned in the best performance of all the big-name, big school backs at the Combine? Look at the quarterback results from the Combine and tell me that you’d pick the guys who scored in the top-5 for the 40-yard dash, vertical jump or broad jump.
And I’m not even going to go into the likelihood that guys who stand to make millions of dollars playing football would be willing to use performance-enhancing drugs to move up the ladder or to get attention. Don’t fall prey to the logic that since the league tests for drugs that these NFL prospects aren’t using. Remember, HGH, designer steroid drugs and other high-tech PEDs won’t show up in drug screening.
The bottom line is that all good Division I football players can run the 40, jump and move explosively over a short course while under control. Guys who weigh 300 pounds are going to bench press three-quarters of their weight a bunch of times just like a fit 200-pound guy can bench 150 pounds a bunch of times. Shocker.
Of course the NFL Combine isn’t going anywhere. As a matter of fact, this secretive 4-day event in which fans aren’t allowed to attend will surely grow to be an even bigger revenue-generating event than it already is when the league starts selling tickets to various events. Guaranteed.
But bigger isn’t necessarily better, and a more popular NFL Combine won’t result in better draft decisions made by personnel people.
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