Mike Mamula is the poster boy for the “workout warrior”, a player credited with wowing the scouts by performance in the workouts and combine. It’s also more than a bit unfair to Mamula that he is so widely associated with such a phrase. In the overall scheme of things, Mike Mamula was a lot closer to an average 7th overall pick than an outright bust. He had 26 sacks in his first four years. He is 13th out of the 29 defensive ends selected in the top ten in total sacks, even though he was forced to retire due to injury after five seasons.
Here’s another surprising thing about Mike Mamula. While he was much discussed as a potential reach at the time, the term “workout warrior” was not used to describe Mamula in any articles searched on Lexis in 1995. It did not become regularly attached to him until after his retirement.
The term “workout warrior” is often used in a derogatory manner. I went back through the history of articles through 2008 where a player was specifically associated with that term (fine print: a search using the terms: “workout warrior” & “draft” or “combine”), before he ever took a snap in the NFL. It’s the kind of term that is subject to a lot of hindsight when applied after the fact, to explain why someone failed. How much foresight, though, does it provide?
Now, let’s first clarify this. A player doesn’t have to have the phrase “workout warrior” attached to him as a direct phrase to embody the idea that a player is seeing his draft stock shoot up based on what he does in shorts and during the measurables, beyond how he played on the collegiate field. It would probably be impossible to come up with all the search terms to objectively isolate all such candidates. Chances are, you point to a bust when you try to think of one.
For example, before I found any usage of Workout Warrior, I found this description of combine results from 1988.
“Gained fame at the combine by jumping 35 inches and running a 4.68 40. Strong enough to bench 430. Great athlete who needs more experience as offensive lineman.” [St. Petersburg Times, "NFL Draft '88," April 24, 1988].
That would be a description that would match our “workout warrior” ethos, though. A raw offensive lineman who had freakish measurables. That was Hall of Famer Randall McDaniel, by the way.
Let’s turn, though, to the actual term “workout warrior” and how it was used on player’s before their careers began. I found only 41 cases where a player was specifically referenced as a workout warrior around draft time. Beyond that, you had a bunch of general references to avoiding workout warriors, lots of articles on Mike Mamula and others after the fact, and others noting a player was “more than just a workout warrior” (As in, “Courtney Brown is more than just a workout warrior.”)
The first reference to a specific player was actually in regard to Mike Croel, drafted by the Broncos with the 4th overall pick in the 1991 draft. Newsday’s “Countdown to the NFL Draft: Linebackers” had the following: “Easily the best athlete at the position. Speed, range and hitting ability make him likely top-four pick, but college stats (12 sacks, 17 pressures, 142 tackles) suggest he’s a workout warrior. 40: 4.56c; 4.44s; V: 36 1/2.” Croel, like Mamula, would have his career shortened by injury, but started with 10 sacks and was selected the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Mel Kiper never called Mike Mamula a “workout warrior” in the lead-up to the 1995 draft, but he did break the phrase out a few years earlier. Here was Kiper in 1993: “A workout warrior who didn’t play up to his numbers. A fifth- or sixth-round pick.”
That was Jessie Armstead, who went even lower than Kiper projected, at the 207th overall pick. The workout warrior would play in five straight pro bowls. In 2005, Shawne Merriman was declared “this year’s winner of the “Mike Mamula workout warrior” award”, before becoming the winner of the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Plenty of top players were mentioned as workout warriors. Edgerrin James (remember, people were upset when he jumped past Ricky Williams), Troy Polamalu, Brian Urlacher, Thomas Jones, and Vernon Davis are others that were workout warriors.
There have also been plenty of busts. Dimitrius Underwood was labeled a workout warrior before he went AWOL for Minnesota and never played a snap for the organization. Vernon Gholston is probably the most famous recently, and he was a massive bust for the Jets. Chris Henry, the running back from Arizona, was heavily debated as a workout warrior when drafted by Tennessee (though the other one from that draft, Brian Robison, is still starting at defensive end for Minnesota after being drafted in round 4).
To measure it objectively, I took Chase Stuart’s draft value by slot for the first five years of a career, and compared it to the value for each player during their first five years in the league.
The combined result for all 41 players combined (listed below): the average actual first five year value was exactly in line with the expected five year value by draft position. It’s almost as if a random reference that someone is a “workout warrior” has no effect on whether they will pan out, and teams are reasonably good overall at balancing upside and measurables with past production.
If you are a workout warrior and you become a bust, then you become a “Workout Warrior.” If you are a workout warrior and become good, well, did you ever hear of Mike Mamula?