The NFL Combine Relevance Debate – Relevance Still Exists For the Combine

February 25, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan and Babe Ruthless.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in one of my arguments that several sporting events are over hyped. The Kentucky Derby came to mind, as did National Signing Day for college football as basis for that particular argument. The NFL Scouting Combine could be lumped into that category as it has seemingly grown in stature over the past few years. Many of the time trials and drills are actually televised by the NFL Network. However, I recognize the fact that NFL teams want to do their homework and their due diligence on the players. Does that make the combine still relevant? That is the focus of this debate.

Babe Ruthless openly questions the validity of the combine, stating that the activities at the combine do not truly evaluate the ability of a player to play football. The Wonderlic test, which has gained more awareness in recent years, does not escape the wrath of Babe Ruthless. I happen to agree that this test really does not test an athlete’s football ability and has no place in football, as evident by the fact that a punter is the only player to ever score a perfect 50 on the test.

I will admit that Bleacher Fan went an entirely different direction than I initially thought he would, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. In addition to the field activities, one of the things that the teams do with the players is talk to them individually and get an indication of how their “football” mind works. Bleacher Fan chose to highlight Chris Johnson. We all know Chris Johnson now, and he has helped many fantasy football owners, including me, in his first two seasons in the league. But coming out of college he was a relative unknown, at least to the casual fan anyway. He parlayed an impressive overall performance at the combine in 2008 to a first round selection, something that most definitely would not have happened otherwise.

I can see both sides of this. On one end, how much can we really tell about a player because of a 40-yard dash time? There are some fast NFL players who are not necessarily good football players… just as there are strong some NFL linemen who are just average at blocking. However, I also realize that the combine is essentially a job interview. The players, or future employees, are there to impress the teams, or their future employers. The teams will be spending millions of dollars on these players over the coming years, so they definitely have a right to gather all the information necessary. As Bleacher Fan wrote, scouting is an inexact science. So, every bit of information, no matter how minute it may appear to be, can provide some insight to the organization. Taking all of that into consideration, I am declaring Bleacher Fan the victor.

It is up to the organizations to decide how much value to put on a player’s performance at the combine. But it is the job of the scouts to come up with the best possible evaluation, and watching a player go through tests and watching how the player interacts is a part of that evaluation. That makes the combine still relevant.

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The NFL Combine Relevance Debate – Is the NFL Scouting Combine Still Relevant?

February 24, 2010

Read the opposing arguments from Bleacher Fan and Babe Ruthless.

Surely you knew The Sports Debates could not go too long without a football debate, right?

The NFL Scouting Combine begins in Indianapolis today, with 329 players set to be put through the ringer by NFL scouts and assorted “front office personnel.” Obviously, the NFL Network will have wall-to-wall coverage. I have friends who will be watching hours and hours of coverage over the next few days. I will watch some it, and catch a peak at how some of the players do. It is an opportunity for pre-draft favorites to cement their status as one of the draft’s elite players, and give other lesser regarded players a chance to shoot up the draft board. Obviously, it gives ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr. and Todd McShay something to talk about on air, too.

Players are also interviewed by the teams as they are poked and prodded about their past and present and how they envision their future. Many psychological tests are administered, and let’s not forget about the infamous Wonderlic intelligence test. What it boils down to is the fact that the players are undergoing an extensive job interview. In fact, here is a list of all the things that each of the 329 players will have to go through in the coming days.

But is the NFL Scouting Combine really necessary? Is it relevant? That is where your favorite sports debate website comes in to settle the score. Summoned to the courtroom today are Bleacher Fan and Babe Ruthless.

Bleacher Fan will argue that the NFL Scouting Combine is relevant and that, among other things, it gives the prospective employer a chance to interview players and see, in person, the various skills that each player brings to the table. Since Bleacher Fan has been in the position of hiring people over the years, it will be interesting to see the thought process.

Babe Ruthless, on the other hand, will argue that the NFL Scouting Combine is not really that relevant and is both overrated and overhyped.

The stage is set, the stopwatches are ready, and this is in fact your Wonderlic Test! Let’s see how smart you are!

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The NFL Combine Relevance Debate – The NFL Combine Stinks

February 24, 2010

Read the opposing argumens from Bleacher Fan.

Football is a perpetually evolving sport. Football teams are constantly searching for the next breakthrough that will give them even the slightest advantage. The introduction of sabermetrics style data driven decision making, the wildcat formation, and the emphasis of the two back rushing attack are just a few examples of how NFL teams are leaving conventional wisdom in the past throughout the last decade in search of new, innovative approaches. So that is why I am shocked that NFL teams are still putting so much stock in the NFL’s Scouting Combine. The combine is not a relevant tool for gauging player’s future performance in the NFL.

How does anyone make an argument for the validity of the combine? Really, I want to know. The combine activities are designed to measure the readiness and successfulness of potential NFL players. But, do they really? While the tests provide basic information about the health and athleticism of players, none of the combine activities demonstrate a player’s actual ability to play football. The standing broad jump and bench press are not actual parts of the game. Yet, for some strange reason, scouts, coaches, and general managers flock to the combine to compare notes on just such statistics. There are even less relevant aspects to the combine like sprints, shuttle runs, and intelligence tests.

Before you get all defensive about that last statement, let me admit that speed and intelligence are a large part success in the NFL. But these tests are not an accurate assessment of either trait. Players do not run undefended routes without pads in game situations. In the NFL speed is not measured against a stopwatch, but against mean, bone-crunching linebackers and defensive backs. Similarly, intelligence is a positive attribute in the NFL. But I have never seen Peyton Manning take a paper and pencil test to the line of scrimmage. In fact I would argue that the intelligence testing is truly invalid because it measures academic knowledge and not football knowledge. For example, the Wonderlic test, a 50 question intelligence measure, is given to each combine participant. The test asks questions ranging from “Which of these don’t belong” type questions to solving volume equations (you know, the usual football stuff.) In general, combine participants usually score in the average range, and thus far only one NFL player has ever scored a perfect 50 out of 50 – former Cincinnati Bengals punter Pat McInally (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that he went to Harvard.) So, what does a test that measures academic knowledge that only a Harvard grad can ace tell us about a player’s football ability? Nothing!

Combine supporters argue that the event is needed to classify players, but that is not true. Most of the time teams have already classified players (in terms of speed, hands, agility, etc.) based on observations from scouting and film breakdown. Just this week Sports Illustrated writer Peter King reported that one of his highly respected sources in the NFL – who wished to remain anonymous – pointed out that this season his team’s draft board is already “90 percent set.” It seems that the only legitimate football purpose of the combine is helping indecisive scouts and football personnel further classify players. To think the NFL combine is the only – or even the most effective – way to make these classifications is wrong. Teams can still invite players for a workout, and scouts can still observe players speed in actual game situations… both of which are far more accurate measures of ability than the combine’s pad-less drills offer.

It stands to reason that the old fashioned method of scouting players and watching them actually play football is far superior to the combine.

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The NFL Combine Relevance Debate – A Little Extra Research Goes A Long Way

February 24, 2010

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

Imagine a college football player who has just wrapped up his final year in the NCAA ranks. Here is the rundown for this “anonymous” player:

  • He is small in size at only 5-feet 11-inches and does not even weigh 200 pounds
  • He played for a program that is traditionally considered mid-level within a non-BCS Conference
  • Although he started as a true-freshman for this mid-level program, he amassed less than 3,000 total rushing yards over a FOUR year career (that is only 750 yards per season) and has less than 35 touchdowns (less than nine TDs per season) against other mid-level defenses such as Tulane and the University of Alabama-Birmingham

Does that sound like a first-round draft pick to you?

Well it did not to the NFL scouts, many of whom placed East Carolina running back Chris Johnson as a second-round draft pick at best for the 2008 NFL Draft. That was, of course, before the NFL Scouting Combine.

During the NFL Combine, Johnson came in with a class that included other more highly-touted running backs like Darren McFadden, Johnathan Stewart, Felix Jones, and Rashard Mendenhall. Clearly not your prototypical running back, Johnson arrived in Indianapolis as the runt of the litter.

Then came the 40-yard dash.

During the dash Johnson turned in what is generally regarded as the fastest 40-yard dash time ever, clocking in at an astonishing 4.24! That was faster even that the speedy McFadden (4.27), who was considered the marquee running back in the draft class.

Ultimately, Johnson’s performance at the NFL Scouting Combine helped to impress the Tennessee Titans, who bumped him all the way up to the top of their draft board… where they selected him as the 24th pick overall during the first round of the draft. Despite his impressive showing at the combine, many analysts were still negative toward the Titans’ choice, claiming the team went too high for a running back who lacked the size necessary to compete in the NFL.

It is the Tennessee Titans who are laughing now, though. After just two years in the NFL, Johnson has already rushed for more than 3,200 yards, and last season became only the sixth running back in history to gain more than 2,000 yards in a single season. As for those other running backs from his class, Johnson is the only one from that group to have reached the Pro Bowl at this point in his very young (and still promising) career.

That example shows what the NFL Scouting Combine offers. It is not intended to be a litmus test of how the players can handle in-game situations. They do not evaluate a player’s ability to shed blocks, read pass protection, or properly read the quarterback’s eyes in order to anticipate the pass. It is instead an opportunity for scouts to consider the football readiness of a player.

Additionally, it presents NFL Scouts with the very unique opportunity of seeing all of their prospects in one place, to evaluate them on even ground. While it may be impossible to recreate in-game situations during the combine, there are still certain tests that may make a difference in how to evaluate one player compared to another.

Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King cited an NFL source as saying that most NFL teams view their draft board as being 90 percent ready BEFORE the combine, because 40 times and vertical jumps “have nothing to do with football.” While that may be true, this NFL source is nonetheless acknowledging the fact that 10 percent of decisions are still undecided, which makes all the difference in the world.

For example, an NFL scout may be evaluating several prospects for their offensive tackle position, a position he intends to fill after in the third round. In-game performance for each of the prospects has been taken into consideration, and has helped the scout to essentially prioritize his targets. During the combine, however, one of his targets significantly underperforms in several different tests. His bench press is sub-par, as is his 40-yard dash time.

While those measurements have no direct correlation to whether or not this player will be successful as a pass-blocker in the NFL, they do provide some critical insight that this player may lack the strength and speed necessary to protect a quarterback against the extremely athletic defensive linemen in the league. Without the strength and speed that many of his peers have, he may find difficult to properly execute the blocks necessary to keep his quarterback upright.

Will the combine bump a player all the way to the bottom of the list? Probably not. It does, however, serve as a tiebreaker in evaluating talent that would otherwise seem comparable. Before an organization from the NFL potentially invests MILLIONS of dollars into these players, don’t you think they want to know EVERYTHING about them, including how fast they run, how strong they are, and how “smart” they are?

Scouting is an inexact science, and scouts need all the help they can get. This is just one more very important tool that the NFL organizations can use to gauge the football readiness of each potential draft pick.

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