With the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine set to kick off a whirlwind of NFL Draft hype this weekend, legions of cameras, reporters, coaches and NFL executives will descend upon Indianapolis. There, they'll watch over 300 athletes perform various Feats of Strength—each arbitrary in their own special fashion—for their prospective employers.
Chicago Bears’ GM Phil Emery will be in attendance, and although he's a combine veteran, it'll be interesting to see if he buys into the spectacle as a whole.
Our general fervor for football fuels a year-round news cycle in the National Football League. The NFL Draft is a season all to itself, and with the immediacy of the information age, we continue to clamor for anything we can find on the game's young potential stars.
This crave has led to the popularity of the NFL Combine, which the NFL Network will cover for four days this weekend and leading into next week. Meanwhile, that coverage will continue to shape the sport's obsession with measurables.
And while there's no questioning the relevance of athleticism in football, these measurables often lead to misrepresentations of what makes a real player. Athletes who have proven at every level that they're capable of making plays will be marginalized by their 40-time or their standing broad jump.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, people will become enamored with a kid who hopped off the bus and ran a 4.34, choosing to ignore entirely that he spent three unproductive seasons at State University buried behind the kid who ran a 4.6.
It's an injustice of minimal importance, but an injustice nonetheless.
The idea behind this week-long production, which looks like Westminster on two legs and steroids, is that these numbers give tangible meaning to the word athleticism. Instead of saying something simple and subjective like, "This kid's an athlete," you can authoritatively say, "This kid runs this fast, jumps this high and lifted that bar this many times." Afterward, you can make some semi-erotic comment about how good he looks with his shirt off.
And it is true that the measurables themselves are objective; however, their practical application toward playing football are anything but.
Combine freaks can be great football players. They can also be very bad football players.
Players who are simply bigger, stronger and faster than other players—who can actually play—will ultimately identify themselves on the football field. So, in essence, the Combine is really just an opportunity to distort what the tape already tells us. Not to mention the fact that the entire process is reminiscent of a Drago scene in Rocky IV—a public exhibition.
To be fair, front office executives are far-less infatuated with 40 times then the average fan. That's because their talent evaluators are still taught to trust their eyes and tape is still the most valuable commodity in the scouting industry, at least until football's statistical analytics catch up with those of Major League Baseball.
Phil Emery's background is in scouting, so he knows the territory well. He spent six years as a scout in Chicago at the turn of the century and went on to take executive scouting positions with the Atlanta Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs before coming full circle and becoming the general manager of the Bears last season.
Because of that experience, Emery isn't likely to be sucked into the vortex of such a futile process. However, in some instances it's almost impossible not to be captivated by the combine freak. See Dontari Poe.
The verdict is still out on Poe, who was plagued by mediocrity throughout his career at Memphis, but if I were a betting man (I am), I'd be willing to say that one won't pan out. However, in the interest of fairness I won't include him on the list of combine freaks turned busts.
But that list is already plenty long.
Mike Mamula, Taylor Mays, Darius Heyward-Bey, and Vernon Gholston are just a few off the top of my head. And who could forget Matt Jones, perhaps the ultimate example in getting
combined carried away?
Jones was a quarterback at Arkansas who was drafted as a wide receiver despite limited-to-no experience because he put on one of the greatest combine performances of all-time. A substance abuse problem eventually led to his demise and he was out of The League in just three years, although not being any good certainly didn't help his cause.
This weekend, there's bound to be a Matt Jones in the crowd—someone who does things that make us say "Wow!" in shorts and a t-shirt—but has never truly produced on the football field. Somebody will take a flyer, but that somebody had better not be the Chicago Bears.
A new coaching staff gives Emery an opportunity to slowly begin to leave his watermark on this page of Chicago Bears’ history. However, the roster is in a transitional phase where they have to get younger while remaining competitive. That means they need football players in this draft who can add depth and contribute immediately, not a long-term project.
Not a combine freak.
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Filed under: Combine