With the closing of the annual meat (and meet) market that is the NFL Combine on Tuesday, the reigning king of American sports has successfully given its millions of fans a brand new set of talking points to debate. Who helped his draft stock the most, and which guys underwhelmed at Lucas Oil Stadium? Which impending free agents does your favorite team want to sign? Good Lord, is anyone from my alma mater even going to get drafted!?
One thing that I feel confident that nobody is discussing at the barbershop or over beers, however, is how much fun it is to watch the Combine (despite the fact that it’s directly producing something like 60 hours of programming for NFL Network). For an entity that has successfully staked its claim to sports fans’ attention throughout the offseason by making changes to its major events (e.g. three days of the Draft, including two days in primetime), they have done a pretty terrible job of making the Combine a fun event for casual fans to consume.
The Combine has been around in some form since the late-1970s, but it wasn’t until the NFL Network launched a decade ago that it became a true media event. It still serves its original purpose of centralizing player evaluations and serving as an unofficial league convention, but if the league wants people to watch on TV or online, they have a couple of major issues they need to overcome:
- There is an enormous gulf between the drills that players perform at the Combine and actual football. This hinders the opportunity for true evaluation as well as fan appeal, so I see it as the biggest challenge to tackle.
- The focus on individuals’ performance in separate drills lends no natural narrative to the proceedings. The announcers do their best to contextualize the results as they come, but there are only so many times you can listen to someone espouse the importance of the 3 cone test for defensive backs before you want to pull a Vincent Van Gogh.
With these problems identified, all that’s left to do is come up with some potential solutions. I hereby present the following ways that the NFL could improve upon its National Scouting Combine:
Sure, every guy with afterburners is gunning to beat Deion’s flat 4.2 in the 40, or at least be the fastest in his position at the Combine. But as many people have pointed out, a solo 40 yard dash basically doesn’t exist in the game of football. You on every play players compete head-to-head; why should the Combine be any different?
I propose that the 40-yard dash be replaced by a series of 2- or 4-man races among players of similar expected ability. The competition might result in better scores for players who are hyper-competitive or all-out hustlers. In any case, I think you’d learn more from a player’s performance in a race against an opponent than by himself (I should mention that there actually is something similar to this – the Quicken Loans All-Star Challenge, which has been around for 15 years – but it features only a handful of players and it’s not all that well-known by fans nor relied upon by scouts.)
Also, what about having people run in pads? As most football coaches will tell you, there is a big difference between track speed and game speed. Some people just can’t run in pads, they don’t weigh that much, but mechanically they do change a lot.
Make it more scientific
I read somewhere that the “official” times the NFL publishes are not even really official. Most teams apparently still rely on their own hand-clocked times for most drills. Track & Field events such as the Olympic Games and IAAF World Championships have official times for every runner. The NFL needs to figure out how to replicate that setup for the benefit of every team and the reputation of the league as a whole.
Flip the calendar of events
Every year, many of the best players forgo taking part in the individual positional drills at the Combine in favor of performing for scouts at their own private workout or their school’s Pro Day. I love Pro Days because they allow the attention paid to the “best” players to their former teammates, but virtually every one of these Pro Days happens after the Combine. They should move the Combine much closer to the Draft, so that all Pro Days would be held before the Combine. This would give players the same two shots at a good performance, but if anyone fails to impress on his own terms he’ll have that much more incentive to do so at the public spectacle that is the Combine.
Widen the focus to the entire Combine system
Not everyone knows that the NFL runs regional Combine events in addition to the National event. The lack of attention paid to the four Regional Scouting Combines is disappointing. The benefit of holding those regional events before the National event is the natural evolution of story lines that could evolve from that progression. The best performers at the regional level could be invited to the National event, where they would have an even bigger stage on which to make a name for themselves. Plus, the whole process could produce a ton of content that could come in handy for Day 3 of the Draft.
If the NFL were to implement any or all of these ideas, or at the very least come up with some alternate solutions to the problems that I’ve highlighted, I think the Combine would earn its stripes among fans and better serve the league’s front offices.