The NFL Combine bugs me. There’s the clammy homoeroticism and the disturbing parallels to a slave auction, but the Combine’s basic flaw is that it disseminates valueless, often redundant, information. Stories it emanates feed the mindless groupthink of the 24-hour NFL news cycle. The combine sticks fresh in the mind. The need for instant, definitive analysis sparks overstatements that make everyone involved look really stupid, within a matter of months.
Let’s look at the major storylines from the last two days.
Cam Newton’s 40: Cam Newton ran a 4.59 second 40-yard dash, meaning he’s very fast for a man his size. We already knew that. We spent all last season watching him run by and through SEC defenses. What does him running 40-yards unimpeded, in a straight line, in shorts, add to the knowledge pool?
Stephen Paea’s Bench Pressing: He set the combine record, lifting 225lbs 49 times. Great, but what does this directly mean about his ability to play football? He won’t be the strongest guy ever to set foot on an NFL field, tearing off limbs. The lifting is as much about form and timing as it is about brute strength. He has been training specifically to do that lift for the past two months.
Defensive Linemen 40 Times: Marcell Dareus and Nick Fairley running sub-five second 40-times at 300lbs is superhuman, but why are defensive linemen running 40-yard dashes? Because everyone else does? Even the 10-second splits off the mark are only indirectly helpful.
An NFL contract is a marriage. The combine gives you hairstyle, eye color and cup size. Treating the battery of tests as definitive can lead to false conclusions. Look at how the combine treated Ray Rice. He was a productive back behind an unimposing Rutgers offensive line. He averaged a consistent 5.5 yards per carry. He ran for 3,800 yards his last two years. He was one of college football’s best running backs, until the NFL Combine got to him.
Rice was small (5’9” and 195lbs) and did not run an electric 40 Scouts killed him for it, dismissing him with definitive judgments based on those two facts. He had “obvious size concerns.” He “lacks prototype breakaway speed, especially for a runner of his size.” He “lacks the size to consistently hold up against NFL pass rushers” and he “has lost some tread on his tires.” Rice, consequently, fell to the latter part of the second round. However, he ended up being a really damn good running back, as he was in college. He wasn’t a surprise. The scouts were just wrong.
Ray Rice wasn’t a knockout. Scouts weren’t sweating and breathing heavily when he entered the room, but he ended up being the ideal mate.
The NFL Combine is treated as the ultimate arbiter. Functionaries measure things with little direct correlation to the football field. They lean on stereotypes and check boxes on their clipboards. The process confirms elite prospects as elite. The second-tier “workout warriors” get dramatically overrated and tend not to pan out. The guys who were productive college players but a little too short or too slow fall to lower rounds, becoming steals.
It happens most prominently with quarterbacks every year. Teams prioritize the workout over the track record. The Jake Locker types with “top ten talent” and all of the “tools” skyrocket up draft boards as analysts talk themselves into the workouts. Some team will find a solid starter later in in the draft with a guy who was merely accurate and smart enough to break down coverage schemes, the two qualities that translate directly to NFL success.
More effort and manpower goes into the NFL Draft than the other three major sports combined, yet those doing the drafting have arguably the worst success. The task is hard but part of the problem is the combine isolates and fetishizes agency in the sport most dictated by structure. It doesn’t tell teams what they need to know. It’s the one thing coaches see live. It lingers in the mind. It fosters groupthink about players that becomes counterintuitive and detrimental.
[Photo via Getty]