THE National Football League (NFL) combine is winding down and it’s clear the annual scouting event that’s evolved into a made-for-TV spectacle continues to be a required stop on the road to a pro football career amid concerns it can be a demeaning process with diminishing value.
The combine, which launched in 1982 mainly to bring prospects to one location so teams could gather medical information, now unofficially kicks off the upcoming NFL season and puts football back on center stage just weeks after the Super Bowl.
The event is a moneymaking machine for the league, another interview/audition for players and a job fair for unemployed coaches. But opinions vary on how necessary it is today.
NFL Players’ Association executive director DeMaurice Smith strongly opposes the combine because he views it as intrusive and says it’s intended to point out negatives about prospects.
“As soon as you show up, you have to waive all of your medical rights and you not only have to sit there and endure embarrassing questions, and I think that’s horrible,” Smith said last month. “I don’t wanna pooh pooh any of that, but would you want your son to spend hours inside of an MRI (machine) and then be evaluated by 32 separate team doctors who are, by the way, are only doing it for one reason? What’s the reason? To decrease your draft value.”
During interviews at the combine, players have been asked to play putt-putt golf, darts or rock-paper-scissors to measure their competitiveness. Over the years, there have been instances where players were questioned about their sexual preference or whether their mother worked as a prostitute.
NFL executive Troy Vincent has sharply criticized the process and was instrumental in implementing rules to enhance the experience for players and ensure prospects are treated with “dignity, respect and professionalism.”
“Sometimes they share things with you and you scratch your head,” Vincent said about conversations with prospects. “Other times, you’re embarrassed. These are things we can fix.”
Now, teams would forfeit a draft pick between the first and fourth round and be fined a minimum of $150,000 for “disrespectful, inappropriate, or unprofessional” conduct during an interview.
A few coaches and general managers skipped the combine this year—including Les Snead and Sean McVay from the Los Angeles Rams—and are relying on reports from their scouts and assistants.
But most of their counterparts were in Indianapolis along with a record 1,625 media members accredited by the NFL to cover the weeklong activities.
The number of credentialed media is up from 628 in 2010 and NFL Network carried six days of live coverage highlighted by the individual on-field drills.
The attention the combine received just two weeks after the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in a thrilling Super Bowl is a reflection of the NFL’s popularity.
But while fans enjoy watching the sprints and weightlifting, Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell doesn’t care much about the 40-yard dash times, bench press numbers or any of the other drills. He’s there for what the masses can’t see: the interviews.
“You grade them off the tape. You don’t grade off somebody out here in pajamas running around a 40 with no defender around,” Campbell said of players. “But the meetings are great. The meetings are really pivotal. All the other stuff, whatever.”
Even Campbell’s sound logic comes into question with teams having plenty of access to players at pro days and top-30 visits, their medical history readily available and an abundance of film to properly evaluate prospects.
Still, proponents say the combine is a crucial part of the draft process.
“One hundred percent necessary in my opinion,” Cincinnati Bengals general manager Duke Tobin said. “You want the right fits for your football team and the players want the team that drafts them to be the right fit for them because they’re dependent on finding a good fit early in their career. And this is a chance for all 32 teams to come together and start to really get to know these guys.
“If we start drafting without thorough knowledge of these guys, you’re gonna find that it hurts the players as much as it does the team. And this is a vital part of what we do in the offseason. And again, it’s something that we all look forward to.”
It’s almost become tradition vs. innovation.
While technological advances make information-gathering and communication easier, traditionalists aren’t going to want to mess with what’s been successful.
“It’s got to start with players and their agents understanding that the combine today has nothing to do with how fast you run, how high you jump, and how much you can lift,” Smith said. “We’re now in an era where we know exactly how fast these guys can run, how much they can lift, how far they can jump, do all of those things.
“Why do we insist on them showing up in Indianapolis?” the NFLPA executive director continued. “It’s not for anything physical, right? It’s for the teams to be able to engage in intrusive employment actions that don’t exist anywhere else.”
Leigh Steinberg, one of the original super agents who has represented the No. 1 overall pick a record eight times, considers the combine the “Super Bowl of scouting events.”
“There are certain dehumanizing aspects of the NFL combine evaluative process that need changing and everything that is tested at the combine can be replicated at pro scouting day on every college campus later in March,” Steinberg told The Associated Press. “There is also a need for injury protection insurance covering the event. Having said that, a potential draftee who is invited would be well advised to continue attending the combine unless there is some collective action to modify it’s format.”
The format of the combine may change and the ongoing scrutiny of the process will likely continue, but the combine doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
Image credits: AP