Taking the Combine and its Results In Stride

I just want to re-iterate how much I love the underwear Olympics. Forget the weird innuendo in which one enjoys massive dudes moving at amazing speeds in tight Under Armour clothing. The Combine encompasses both the love we have for the sport of football, as well as our need as a football society to critique and scrutinize every aspect of a player, despite none of us having ever dawned the professional football field.

I must say though, please, take the Combine in stride. Often, we overreact to an amazing or underwhelming 40-yard dash time. Even worse, is seeing a big lineman post sub-par bench press numbers as if the latter is an integral part of the game of football.

There is no doubt that you can take aspects of the Combine and use them to evaluate a player. Should it be your end all be all? Absolutely not. The conclusions that some analysts are making such as Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel  declining to perform in drills is preposterous. As if Clowney going through a gauntlet of blue pillows with swim and strip moves will prove anything. Analysts and fans alike fail to consider the amount of pressure agents put on their players to skip combine drills in order to preserve their “draft stock” (players who are already penciled in as high first round picks have very little to gain and more to lose).

In fact, the late Derrick Thomas, who’s pass rushing prowess landed him in Canton, Ohio, never attended the combine. He forced players to come to his pro day (an annual event hosted by individual colleges to showcase their own players to scouts and player personnel). For Manziel and even Teddy Bridgewater, who did not participate in any of the combine drills (including the 40-yard dash and passing drills), showcasing their passing acumen at their pro day allows them to control the elements of the drill. Being able to throw to their own receivers, run their own plays and practice in an environment they are accustomed to is a monumental advantage. In an era where people overreact to combine results, a bad drill, a bad 40 and an overall poor performance could cost a player millions. Why not control as many aspects as possible and limit your ability to, well, lose money. Many players are now opting to showcase more of their skills at their respective pro days and less at the combine.

As for Clowney, yes, there have been players in the past who lacked motivation in college, which then translated itself to the pro’s. I, on the other hand, have a different take on it and it is due to the exploitation of being in college, where the NCAA, a multi-million dollar industry is pumping out cash at the expense of these players. Who gets motivated to play for the Gator Bowl, or the San Diego Credit Union Bowl.  Conversely, we put far too much stock in the 40-yard dash as well. Lets we forget players like Jerry Rice and just recently, Keenan Allen who had 40-yard dash times above the 4.60 mark – a number that most current linebackers can easily reach.

When you get enamored with 40-yard dash times, like the way the Oakland Raiders did with Darius Heyward-Bey, teams get burned, no pun intended.

Don’t get me started on those Wonderlic tests either, or the interviews during the combine. They ask questions that employers in most “normal” jobs would be fired for. For the Wonderlic, a score of 50 is considered phenomenal as the highest possible mark, whereas a score of 10 or below would suggest a player is illiterate.  Frank Gore, Dan Marino, Julio Jones and A.J. Green scored 6, 15, 15 and 10 respectively. The outcry once these scores are released is downright crucifying for a player, yet once their game on the field is displayed, we never hear of these scores again. Only when player screw up their careers royally, like the way Vince Young did, do we go back to the Wonderlic. Is anyone mentioning Blaine Gabbert and his 42 score? Nope.

The Combine should be used to validate what you see from a player in his game tape. You will often hear Mike Mayock – who is by far and away the premier draft analyst in the business, talk about “checking off boxes”. What does that entail exactly? Well, generally, you rate a player based off his production and the ability he shows in his game tape. You study how he reads coverages, how he dissects players and how his skills pertain to his position. None of these can be seen via the combine, unless you are validating what said player does in his game-tape. Does X player show plus athleticism running a go-route? Does player ‘X’ show the ability to move fluidly? Well, his combine performance will allow you to validate what you see on the game tape and allow to check off those boxes. If not, then you need to go back to the tape. Maybe said player possesses better in-game speed and explosiveness than in a Combine like setting. Maybe the player is injured and simply having an off day. Or even, he was playing against poor competition.

The point here is to not put too much stock in the underwear Olympics. We simply cannot make conclusions based off a 4-day event where players are not even in their pads. I don’t want readers to come away thinking that watching this event is fruitless – that is not the case. I love the combine and I love the ability to do my own scouting of players’ raw skills. What I don’t love is the armchair general manager in all of us, drawing grades of players, we likely never seen because:

a) They record enough repetitions on the bench press. Just a small note, Warren Sapp recorded 16 reps in the bench press in 1995, five shy of the total fans are scoffing at from Jadeveon Clowney

b) A defensive back or receiver has a poor 40-yard dash time. Again, the Heyward-Bey’s and Taylor Mays’ of the world, who were workout warriors, have burned us enough times. Players who are athletically gifted, with limited skills at their respective positions, will be like Dee Ford said about Jadeveon Clowney, “playing like a blind dog in a meat market”.

That is why “checking the boxes” is so important. The validation of what you see of a player on tape, vis-a-vis his combine performance, confirms any assumption you may have of him. If you’re viewing tape of a player who gets consistently pushed around in the trenches, but then racks up 30 reps on the bench press, may have been cursed with poor coaching and developed bad technique. Good tape, but a poor combine performance, means you have to go back to other game tapes of the player.  On the flip side, poor tape, but a good combine performance forces a talent evaluator to re-assess what he sees on film and find out why a certain player, based on scheme or other factors, doesn’t shine during game time.

The NFL draft is the best part of the off-season and the combine encompasses all that is great about talent evaluating. No other professional sports league promotes it’s respective grand daddy of talent evaluation like the NFL. But let’s remember that it is not the mecca for judging players, nor should solely determine a players’ draft ranking without taking all factors into consideration.

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