Blog & Tackle: Combine not just another meat market

February 20, 2008 | Chris Pika

The National Invitation Camp, better known as the NFL Scouting Combine gets underway in Indianapolis on Wednesday. The Combine is a crazy mix of physical exams, workouts, media interviews and a major introduction to the world of the NFL.

For the players, it’s an intense four-day gauntlet that is a job interview at its core. Each position group’s schedule goes like this: Day 1 — Travel to Indianapolis, registration, hospital pre-exam and X-rays, orientation and team interviews. Day 2 — Measurements, medical examinations, media interviews, psychological testing and team interviews. Day 3 — NFLPA meeting, psychological testing and team interviews. Day 4 — Individual workout (timing, station and skill drills) and departure from Indianapolis.

I covered the Combine last year for the Falcons’ web site and it’s amazing to see how the players can perform under the kind of scrutiny they get from head to toe. The physical exams take about three hours as team doctors from each club in groups examine the players. One change in recent years is that the exams happen two days prior to the on-field drills since players complained that the exams and strength testing took too much out of them.

The players also go in a room in just a pair of shorts in front of an auditorium full of GMs, coaches and scouts. A club employee (each team sends a group of scouts, doctors, video crew to share the administration of the Combine equally) measures the player (height, weight, reach, etc.) and calls out the numbers to the waiting officials. No “media guide” heights and weights — just the true numbers.

When the players finally take the floor of the RCA Dome, they are not met by cheers or boos by a sellout crowd. They are met with silence as they go about their business.

There are about 200 club employees in the stands, each seemingly armed with a stopwatch and a clipboard. Position coaches watch their groups, while head coaches and GMs watch those groups they are most interested in.

The only sound during the individual drills and the 40-yard dash is the beep of stopwatches started and stopped in unison. Then, heads drop to write the time down on their clipboards and wait for the next man up.

During the Combine, the NFL Players’ Association holds its’ yearly meeting for certified player agents. So, every Rosenhaus, Segal, etc. roams the halls to “hypothetically” speak with GMs about “hypothetical” free agents, since March 1 is just around the corner and official discussions can’t begin between clubs and free agents until then.

The media — almost 400 strong this year, including WNST’s own Nestor Aparicio and Casey Willett — also have a chance to talk with the agents in the hallways about where their clients might go and who will represent the top players at the Combine.

The media also gets to hear from several coaches and GMs at the media podiums during the Combine as well as more informal and off-the-record discussions in the hallways about 2008 plans.

The over 300 Combine invitees also have to survive one of the biggest parts of the trip — the team interviews in the evenings. Each team submits a list of players they want to interview and the Combine staff set up each player’s interview schedule over the three nights they are available.

Clubs try to get an idea of what a player is like personally — “looking them in the eye” as one GM put it. Players are well-coached by their agents about how to interview, but team employees have the advantage of many years of practice along with the results of the psychological tests like the famous Wonderlic.

Remember, the Combine is not make-or-break for the players. Each one has been evaluated by every team on their season in-game tapes over both their junior and senior seasons, any postseason all-star games (and the workouts leading up to them), interviews with college head coaches and position coaches and a background check with local law enforcement in the players’ college towns.

Don’t get hung up on the measurables and 40 times given out. The major thing that hurts any individual player’s draft stock is if they come in worse shape to Indy than they looked either in-season or at the all-star games. Even those who show up for interviews and don’t run or workout are not hurt since they will do both at their college Pro Days which take place after the Combine and before the NFL Draft.

The Combine is just one part of the overall evaluation made by potential employers, who have a lot to digest in the few remaining weeks before they enter their draft rooms in late April and go “on the clock.”