An NFL general manager stands in his suite at Lucas Oil Stadium watching the combine workouts. I’m not using his name; even though he’s merely admitting what everyone privately acknowledges, he worries about saying it aloud because the combine is such a growth industry for the NFL. After years of coming to Indianapolis, he now understands that his presence here — everyone’s presence — is simply to play a small part in a televised show, even if real futures are at stake. The players are running on the field down below, and they are running on the screens playing all around him, broadcast by the NFL Network. From his suite, this GM can barely read the names and numbers on their jerseys, so he watches on TV. Like most guys, he has an iPad where the stats and scores and results automatically update in his draft software. Except the results are always posted faster on the live television broadcast than in his own system. That’s what cues his sense of dull dread: If I can just watch this on television, and if I don’t even really care about the results anyway, then why exactly am I here?
That was ESPN’s Wright Thompson a year ago introducing his fantastic piece that laid bare the strange dichotomy on display in Indianapolis every year — a fantastic, choreographed charade that has become so popular that the performance draws enough attention to fuel what is essentially a week-long conference for the NFL.
The performance itself is largely purposeless.
The highlight is a 40-yard dash that resembles nothing of what any of these prospects will ever perform ever again. The bulk are drills in a controlled environment that at best flatten the playing field for everyone from the strongest prospect to the weakest and at worst force prospects into environments that do nothing to manifest the kind of cooperation that the sport of football actually requires. Instead of having offensive lines work as a unit, sure, have an offensive lineman out in the middle of the field by himself. Have a quarterback throwing to a receiver for the first time without any existing chemistry or established timing with no defensive backs.
There is the aspect of failure, though. There is value in having a marker on the calendar for the prospects to know that they will need to be prepared to perform here. And so for the first time being released from the yoke of oversight they’ve operated under in college, they’re expected to be in top shape and prepared to practice and be instructed and be, perhaps at times, uncomfortable. There’s at least the value not so much in seeing who can withstand that pressure (because nearly all of them can) but in seeing the rare prospect who wilts despite having known this was coming.
Overall though, the public side of the combine is a circus that is built more to pump oxygen into the NFL media ecosystem than the NFL football ecosystem. And it’s doing a fantastic job.
But the private side? The private side is unarguably more important, more determinative, more suited to contribute to the future of the teams, of the prospects and of the executives, front office members and coaches in tow.
The private side includes medical checks, the most important factor of all. Medical checks can lay low to a prospect’s draft stock regardless of his tape. Colleges aren’t required to submit injury reports. Players constantly play through a wide array of issues that aren’t made public. But to go from college football to the professional level where teams will be committing millions of dollars to these prospects and, for the most coveted, expected to lift their teams almost singlehandedly toward greater success for years to come? Yeah, they’re going to want to know the truth about that knee, that shoulder, that ankle.
The private side includes interviews, but even those are a bit blown out of proportion. NFL teams have hundreds of scouts in their employ. Throughout the year, those scouts are constantly working with college teams to expand their employers’ database of information on every single prospect so that by the time the combine rolls around, it’s more an exercise to affirm what they already know about a prospect and not to unearth anything new. I’d offer a full recommendation to this piece from the Athletic’s Bo Wulf that details a day in the life of Philadelphia Eagles Assistant Director of College Scouting Alan Wolking. It’s a fascinating piece that probes just how much of a scout’s life goes far, far beyond just “watching tape.” So when everyone gets to Indy, teams already know what they know about the prospects. The interviews can’t do a ton to get more outside of the small school guys who flew beneath the radar. But the prospects from the big schools of the FBS? NFL teams have known those guys for years in and out.
The private side absolutely includes what happens after the lights go out at Lucas Oil Stadium. Back in 2018, Dom Consentino detailed this aspect over at Deadspin (RIP...sigh) had a fantastic read on just how central this part of the combine is:
The combine is always in Indianapolis, which means the many bars, restaurants, and hotel lobbies within walking distance of the stadium and the convention center are always the places to glad-hand in a relentless hunt for information—or to just hang out and booze. And nighttime, from the evening into the wee small hours, is when a lot of this rapport-building and genuine merriment goes down.
The combine is basically one giant party. It’s not always the most hospitable place for women working in the industry. And it’s not all that rowdy. It’s just where everything happens.
It’s just where everything happens. It’s just where everything happens. Everything. Which means the rest of it is...well, nothing. Or something close to it.
It’s not surprising then that Rams Head Coach Sean McVay, who has shown a pretty strong willingness to buck tradition and forge a new way forward for the next generation of NFL head coaches, has opted not to stay for the on-field proceedings. It is, though, a bit of a shock to the system that he and much of his staff won’t be there after hours. Amid the hubbub of NFL Happy Hour where much of the bullshit subsides and so much of the NFL world actually talks shop. Remember that it was at the Combine that Rams General Manager Les Snead began the talks with Tennessee Titans GM Jon Robinson that would lead to the trade that sent the Rams the #1 overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft to use on QB Jared Goff. Of course, those talks came about not long after Snead took the podium during his media availability to proclaim that re-signing the members of the Rams’ secondary was Priority A...which amounted to exactly 0 extensions. But that might be the perfect example of the difference between the public and the private combine. The camouflage and the crucible.
The crucible might matter more for the actual ongoings beyond the curtain, but the camouflage? It’s the lie the NFL is selling this week that has become to powerful to stop.
Or to ignore.
Just before my plane boarded, someone sent me a tweet by an NFL reporter. In it, he wrote that next year the combine might be spread out over two weeks and the drills shown on primetime television. It doesn’t matter that most football decision makers say they don’t really get anything useful from those drills. As long as the combine exists, no matter what coaches and scouts say in private, the combine will matter. The results from Indianapolis create a narrative that can change someone’s life. The next day at home, I looked up Hunter Renfrow’s 40 time. The lasers clocked him at under 4.6, and some hand times had him at 4.53 and 4.54, just a fraction slower than the most recent Super Bowl MVP and in that strange limbo where nobody is sure how to tell if he should coach football in his hometown or play on Sunday for a decade to come.
The combine is a lie.
But sometimes I like being lied to.
Update at 11:04pm ET
There's something beautiful about the idea that this picture represents people trying to understand how well these guys can play the quarterback position in the sport of football pic.twitter.com/ffN5rhopb8— Bukayo Saka Liker (@3k_) February 28, 2020
P.S. The former TST team got a lil something cookin in the lab. Stay tuned...