Commentary

At the combine, forget measurables

Prospects' interviews, position-specific drills offer most to teams

Originally Published: February 22, 2011
By Ross Tucker | ESPN.com

The good news for NFL fans in general and amateur draftniks in particular is that the NFL's annual scouting combine, which begins this week in Indianapolis, is covered in far greater detail than ever before.

At a time when not much else is going on in the league, that is absolutely a good thing. More credentialed media descend upon the gathering of scouts, coaches, front office executives, agents and draft-eligible players than ever before. Even better for those hungry for anything non-CBA negotiations related, the entire event is televised.

The bad news? The actual relevancy of the information garnered from the combine decreases every single year.

The greatest value the combine provides to the 32 NFL teams is actually the reason why it was started in the first place: the medical testing. The combine began in the early 1980s, when teams decided a one-stop centralized testing location would be the best place for all of their team doctors to poke and prod the incoming class of players.

That way, teams would know exactly who they might be investing in when drafting.

Shortly thereafter, and even more in the 1990s, the physical testing numbers that are generated became all the rage. Teams began to put a lot of stock, too much so in fact, into things like the 40-yard dash, short shuttle and bench press.

Eventually, the consensus this decade has been that the physical testing numbers are a very small part of the evaluation. Football players are best judged by what they do when they are, ya know, actually playing football.

But the obsession over the physical testing numbers gave way last decade to an increased emphasis on the individual interviews that take place with the prospects. As more teams -- led by coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots -- began to place a greater level of importance on football intelligence and passion for the game, attempting to divine that during these interviews became an emphasis.

Multiple league sources say that even the individual interviews have become more and more difficult. That's primarily because teams have only 15 minutes with each prospect. The players are so "coached up" on the questions they are likely to be asked, it is hard to know what is real and what has been taught.

That's not to say that a well-prepared team can't determine how a prospect reacts under pressure or his level of intimate football knowledge.

For example, if a player can't easily describe his responsibilities on a given play that he is shown from his college season, that is a huge problem. Ideally, players would know and be able to talk about what everyone else in their position group, and potentially even on their side of the ball, is being asked to do within the scheme on any given play.

But getting to know the character of a kid, and how much he really loves football during a 15-minute period in which he knows exactly what they want to hear, is not nearly as easy as it was 5-10 years ago. It still can happen, but it is clearly a much tougher nut to crack.

Teams actually get as much information as anything now from the position-specific drills that the players are asked to go through. That is when they can see the change of direction skills of an offensive lineman while working his pass sets or a cornerback's ability to break on the ball out of his backpedal. Unlike the three-cone drill or the broad jump, those are physical movements that those players are going to be asked to do on a daily basis.

So enjoy all of the combine coverage if you are so inclined, but take it all in with a grain of salt. Focus especially on the fluidity and athleticism of the players during the position-specific drill component of the process. That's what the NFL teams are doing.

From the inbox

Q. Your article about the offseason alluded to the tight, regimented schedule during the season. Yet we've all seen the articles and reports about players who don't put in the "extra time" or make the extra effort during the week in-season. How much independent time is there for players during a week? How much difference did you see between players and was there a strong correlation in the in-week preparation and success or is the off-season work the more critical separating factor?

Sean from Austin, Texas

A:
Sounds like a good idea for a column, Sean, and I may take you up on that. While NFL players' schedules are highly regimented during the season, there is always room to put in extra time, like most jobs I would guess. The first meeting for most teams usually begins at around 7:30 or 8 a.m. Does the player get there an hour early to work out or potentially put some extra individual film time in? Or does he stay for an extra hour or two at the end of the day to go in the ice tub or watch his practice film from that day in greater detail, say after 5 p.m., when most of the other guys have already left for the day? I have found that all of the guys who put in the extra time when "no one was watching" were the guys who most maximized their abilities.

Q. Can somebody explain to me how Cam Newton allegedly cheating on the NCAA and getting paid to play has now turned into a plus for him entering the draft process because "he can handle adversity"?

Shahar from Israel

A: I hadn't heard anyone say that, but it certainly makes sense to me. As an NFL quarterback, overcoming adversity and rising above it is one of the defining characteristics that separates the average from the good and the good from the great. Things like injuries and off-the-field incidents among teammates are common and both a team and a fan base looks to see how the starting quarterback reacts in those situations. Not to mention how he bounces back from a poor performance in the face of the heightened scrutiny that comes with being a franchise's starting quarterback. Newton certainly proved he could perform well in that environment at Auburn. On the flip side, all of that could be offset if NFL teams conclude in their background research work that he has an inherent character flaw as a result of some of the off-field incidents he has been associated with.

Q: What are your thoughts of the NFLPA colluding with the UFL, and rapidly expanding that league in order to encompass the entire NFLPA. Obviously there are huge hurdles to overcome, but at least getting the ball rolling would significantly strengthen the position of the NFLPA. Also, how crazy would a league-wide draft be?

Ryan from Calgary, Alberta

A:
That scenario is highly unlikely, as you mention, but I do think that, if there is a lockout that lasts into September, the UFL could stand to benefit greatly from that. The UFL needs to do whatever it takes on its end to make sure it's ready to take advantage. That scenario might be the UFL's only opportunity to show the American public that it is playing a much better brand of football than anyone realizes. The recent news concerning the financial difficulties that league is having is not promising.

Q: With all the talk about player safety, especially concussions, and the steps the league is taking to prevent them there seems to be one obvious precaution that has been overlooked. Why aren't mouth guards mandatory?

Eric from Fredericksburg, Va.

A: Mouth guards do help to prevent concussions, but based upon some of the experts that I have spoken to, their effectiveness in doing so is a bit overstated at times. Does it help? Yes. Does it make a significant difference? The answer appears to either be no -- or that it is debatable. I wouldn't be opposed to mandatory mouth guards, but I can tell you, a bit shamefully, that I never wore one in the NFL. Late in my career -- playing on the wedge on the kickoff return team -- I would put one in, but that was about it. Because I so often played center and because of the intense verbal communication required from that position at the professional level, it was simply not practical for me to wear one on a regular basis.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com. Tucker, who also hosts ESPN.com's Football Today podcast, graduated from Princeton.