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Friday, Mar. 04, 2011

Andy Bitter commentary: NFL Scouting Combine has become a useless carnival

- abitter@ledger-enquirer.com
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For a solid week every winter, we all turn into junior Mel Kipers, reacting to every rep and scrutinizing every slip-up at the NFL Combine, the annual meat market where pro scouts, coaches and GMs kick the tires on draft prospects and take them for a test drive.

It’s a brief, fleeting look at what players can do, a starting point for teams to get a look at potential future employees two months before the draft.

But in the Internet age, when instant analysis, even if it oversteps its bounds, is preferred to no analysis, it’s become a bit of a carnival, out-growing its usefulness.

What was once done in obscurity in Indianapolis is now a major event, with live ESPN updates throughout and over 715 credentialed media members in attendance. What occurs on the field -- and it’s not much -- is given enormous weight in a player’s future.

One afternoon of drills in a sterile dome environment begins to take on an equal weight to whatever a player did in a season’s worth of games, and it shouldn’t.

Teams wary of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton having only one productive year at the college level draw conclusions on an even smaller sample size. After completing 66 percent of his 280 passes in, you know, actual games, suddenly Newton isn’t accurate enough because he completed only 11 of his 21 passes in one afternoon.

Scouts express concerns over defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s size, as if at 6-foot-3 7/8 he’ll suddenly have trouble getting on the rides at Disneyland.

Alabama running back Mark Ingram runs a 4.58-second time in the 40-yard dash and he’s considered slow. Nevermind that his game has never been built on speed.

Greg McElroy, the Crimson Tide’s near-Rhodes Scholar quarterback, scores a 48 out of 50 on the Wonderlic exam and -- get this -- some people view that as a negative, saying being too smart can be a threat to coaches who want to command the locker room.

And what do the numbers we pore over even mean? How does a timed aptitude test that measures problem solving relate to football?

Someone may not be able to tell you when two trains traveling at different speeds from different cities will meet, but he can read a defense to know where the blitz is coming from. The test has no correlation to football success.

Even the physical tests leave a lot to be desired. The next time Newton broad jumps his way to a first down will be his first. I don’t recall any situation last season in which Fairley ran 40 yards in a straight, unimpeded line. And in a league where drive and lower body strength is key, wouldn’t scouts be better served having players do squats instead of the bench press?

The numbers matter little anyway. The draft’s history is littered with players who have been over- or underrated based on their combine numbers.

One great example was the 2000 draft: the 49ers liked the 4.7-second 40 time and 36-inch vertical of Hofstra quarterback Giovanni Carmazzi, making him the second quarterback taken at the top of the third round.

Three rounds later, the Patriots took a quarterback whose 40 time was 5.23 and could only jump 24.5 inches. His name: Tom Brady.

But it’s easy to cherry pick. The fact is, the combine numbers don’t tell teams how much effort a player will put into his game. JaMarcus Russell and Matt Leinart didn’t fail in the NFL because they didn’t have the physical skills. They failed because they didn’t put in the work.

How you can tell a player’s drive to be the best after a weekend of quiz questions and jumping jacks, I’m not sure. But it won’t stop everyone from trying.

Andy Bitter, abitter@ledger-enquirer.com

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