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The NFL combine: The joke that’s no longer funny

02.23.10 at 10:35 pm ET
By

Editor’s note: WEEI.com guest columnist Matt Chatham is a former Patriots linebacker. The University of South Dakota product played in New England from 2000-05 before concluding his career with two seasons as a member of the Jets. Chatham now is working toward his MBA at Babson College.

Matt Chatham

Matt Chatham

The NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis is scheduled from Feb. 24 through March 2. More than 600 NFL personnel will sift through this year’s pool of prospects with that same ol’ set of tools: the 40-yard dash, the bench press, etc. The most pressing question, in my opinion, is which organization has the guts to not show up?

The draft process is an industry in itself, helping to keep the NFL a top-of-mind entity for fans on a nearly year-round basis. From a league revenue perspective, as well as for those poor guys at NFL Network who are starved for something … anything … that’s live TV, the addiction is a very good thing.

Few people educated beyond eighth grade argue that running and jumping competitions have anything to do with football. No matter, phenomenally irrelevant metrics continue to shape multi-million dollar football decisions, and the NFL combine persists as the Shangri-La for this methodology.

But imagine if someone cut the music and flipped on the lights on a group of middle-aged buddies at a club caught frozen in a regrettable dance gyration. Some NFL club needs to be the first in a similar moment of extreme clarity and sobriety to look around and say, “What the hell are we doing here?!”

Some organizations have in recent years publicly bragged about their level-headedness, declaring combine numbers as only a small part of what they consider. My question is, why even look — especially given the chance that you become biased about a player beyond repair?

To claim that no bias creeps in when you see a “WOW!” combine performance means you’re either crazy or lying. Or maybe both if you’ve drafted Darrius Heyward-Bey into an average of $7.65 million annually based largely on an OK college career and the temptation of “measurables.” I mean this kid no ill will, but as a thieving point of reference, his annual salary averages are about four times that of Wes Welker, the league leader in receptions in ‘09 at the same position.

THE NO-B.S. NFL COMBINE EVENT BREAKDOWN

40-yard dash:

• Vital for knowing how a WR might perform when running go-routes without being covered, provided they still don’t throw him the ball.
• Extremely valuable for predicting performance for a kickoff coverage member if he’s unblocked and allowed to run in an unfettered straight line due to the ball being kicked out of the end zone for a touchback.
• Other than these two examples … this test is useless track-porn.
• The most egregious character is the fat fella who boldly goes not only shirtless but also strips down to nothing but tight compression shorts. Some misguided soul inevitably does this every year, as if putting a spoiler on a UPS truck does anything except look ridiculous. The millisecond in drag it may shave off your time seems eminently less important than unveiling an empty chasm where common sense should reside.

225-pound bench press:

• If the lineup for lucrative boxing title fights (and the subsequent big guaranteed payouts) were decided by a shadow box-off, then the 225-pound bench press would start making sense for the NFL.
• On a personal note, I’d like to kindly thank the weight bar for never hitting back and staying right in front of me for an extended length of time just like, you know, a regular opponent would. I’m especially appreciative to scouts who thought doing it 25 times meant jack about whether or not I could play.

Vertical jump:

• Some say vertical leap is one of the greatest indicators of speed. I’m one of those crazies who think speed is the greatest indicator of speed.
• This is a basketball metric if there ever was one. Not just the wrong measure … it’s the wrong friggin’ sport.

Broad jump:

• Not worth the characters wasted in this line of text.
• Maybe as an intermission to all this other nonsense, a “broads jump” could be held.

20-yard shuttle, three-cone drill and 60-yard shuttle:

• Two tests of agility and a good change-of-direction conditioning drill … all relevant skills.  But why can’t somebody design a simple drill that mimics something that actually happens on the field?
• The 60-yard shuttle, for example, feels like five changes of possession on one play — which has never happened.

WHAT ALL THIS MEANS

I believe at the end of the day this is just a simple business problem of abysmal asset allocation. In the ongoing contentious CBA wrangling between owners and players, the claims of spiraling team costs take on a whole new light considering the tremendous resources allocated both in team dollars and staff for this glorified week of gym class. Forcing team medical and training staffs to canvas every eligible player is an annual eye-rolling exercise that would make your average efficiency consultant burst into flames.

You don’t shop for a wife at the local plastic surgeon’s office, nor should you pick football players from workout farms. But that’s the reality of today’s system. There’s even now a cottage industry in which instructors prepare players for these tests — pre-combine programs created to teach beating the test. They do a tremendous job, so more power to them for now.

If teams are stupid enough to care about combine results, then athletes are forced into the ridiculous cycle of spending precious time and money not getting better at their craft, but getting better at the tests. Big money is at stake, and teams too often are swayed. As an athlete, you’d be dumb not to play along. It’s as if the National Spelling Bee winner were immediately shuffled off stage into a vital management position in a multi-million dollar company.  The achievements are miles apart, but nobody’s stepping up to save all sides the cost and hassle.

Today there are so many touch points with players throughout the draft process, from all-star games, to college pro days (similarly ridiculous), to personal visits and workouts, that the gala in Indy is little more than glam redundancy. At least in these other cases the efforts are a bit more targeted, and they avoid the “cuz everybody else is doing it” coercion. A one-stop shopping argument might become legitimate if the Indy process ever involved anything truly football-related.

Of the 10 best workout guys I played with over the course of my career, nine are most likely guys you’ve never heard of. That’s no coincidence. If on the first day of offseason workouts the most impressive weight room guys on the team are also your new draft picks, the collective “uh-ohs” should shake the franchise. Those most responsible for the new arrivals would be wise to start scouring their network of contacts for future work to begin approximately two years from that day.

WHY DID THE CHICKEN CRO…

On one hand, there’s something sporting in watching a workout wonder be fawned over by a drunken franchise — like a group of friends at a bar gleefully pulling back as one of their own stumbles from the pack toward the curvy, mysterious figure with the turtleneck-covered golf ball in “her” throat. That being said, the joke is getting old.

To be clear, my argument isn’t to discredit the importance of bigger, faster and stronger. The true value of these metrics is found once you’ve secured football players onto your team, then you should be free to measure players’ progress through any unrelated tasks to reflect work ethic and invaluable measures of growth within your organization.

I believe organizations would be best served to simply not know these specific measurements at all to avoid being persuaded one way or the other from what they see on game film, information gained through personal contact with the athlete, and what they learn through reliable third-party insight. Most importantly, in the absence of any compelling evidence that truly good talent evaluation can somehow be usurped by simply blanketing the process with irrelevant information in the name of “more is always better,” organizations simply need to see this as a tired situation with an unverifiable return on investment.

AN UNLIKELY PROPOSAL

This might sound a little bit unrealistic, but please, play along. Teams obviously are too invested now, but imagine a league-wide experiment next year in which not a single scout or team personnel member is allowed to look at a combine-style drill and must evaluate on football-only metrics such as … I don’t know … how they play football. I’d bet that this trial undoubtedly would result in significantly better draft pick retention on a team-by-team basis, and the league-wide cost savings would be so enormous the profitability stresses would be eased considerably.

I sat in a team meeting late in my career in New York with Jets coach Eric Mangini waving combine numbers at an underperforming player begging him to start playing faster as his “measurables” supposedly indicated he should. Mangini meant this to be a wake-up call about playing up to one’s ability, but the greater lesson he didn’t see in that particular moment, and many never see, is that the information on that piece of paper in his hand truly wasn’t worth a damn thing.

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