The 2011 NFL Scouting Combine has nearly come and gone, leaving behind only images of spandex fancy and a number of NFL personnel executives probably realizing the limits of such an event. Although the Combine is presented to an NFL Network audience as an offseason replacement for actual competition, there is only so much insight that can be gathered from a set of glorified gym class exercises. Yet despite most of us already realizing this inconvenient fact, we still play along.
In a sense, the Combine is only the first step in a savagely probing evaluative process – one that will extend to dozens of college day workouts over the next couple months. Perhaps the true meaning of the event lies behind the closed doors of team interview rooms, as NFL executives can begin to shape their impressions of 21-year old players who will soon receive some life-changing money. After all, there are some intangibles more important than half-inches of broad jump height or Wonderlic scores.
But still, it's football – and the Combine is not without its' own merit. While it's unlikely that any teams' draft boards were significantly altered in the past few days, the Combine at least provides a starting point. The synthesis now begins, as NFL teams can take the bits of information provided in Indianapolis and begin the real work of preparing for the draft.
On this note, there were some intriguing developments that occurred in what is too often referred to as "The Underwear Olympics."
While Alabama's Julio Jones, Washington's Jake Locker and Oregon St.'s Stephen Paea appeared to raise their draft prospects based on their Combine performances, it was clear who dominated in Indianapolis over the past week. Simply put, the collective media who gathered for the event owned the likes of high profile players such as Auburn's Cam Newton and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett.
Newton, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and BCS Champion, in particular was shredded by the media a day after proclaiming himself as an "entertainer and icon." After reading a prepared opening statement, Newton continually referred to himself in the third person and appeared to already carry the kind of self-inflated persona that could cripple an NFL franchise. Mallett, on the other hand, simply refused to answer questions relating to rumors – probably unsubstantiated - of past drug use.
While on the surface, both examples can further prove the insatiable desire of the American media to destroy athlete's images before they are even constructed, one of the major points of the Combine is for NFL prospects to show the type of grace and preparation necessary to play at the next level. Answering today's questions is simply practice for dealing with the frenzy of NFL life – both on and off the field. In Newton's case, it's understandable that he has already reached a sort of impenetrable level, at least based on his tumultuous run at Auburn. However for Mallett, his unprofessional tone didn't help his cause.
MVP of CLICHES
I'm starting to wonder about the personal lives of NFL draft analysts. Over the past week – on virtually all media outlets – the following phrases were repeatedly and lavishly uttered:
"I'm in love with ________."
"I'm not in love with _________."
I realize the likes of Todd McShay and Mike Mayock have devoted their careers to performing a Herculean effort in covering all things draft-related, but sometimes it's worth stepping back for a momentary life analysis. Maybe these guys just need a hug….or maybe that's exactly not what they need.
THE Joe Haden EFFECT
This time last year, Florida's Joe Haden left the NFL Scouting Combine having registered a disappointing 4.57 second finish in the 40-yard dash. Entering the Combine as the consensus top cornerback prospect, Haden exited to a chorus of doubts regarding his NFL potential. Haden's value – at least according to draft analysts and mock experts alike – plummeted to the lower depths of the first round. Despite Haden's consistency against some of college football's elite talent, his apparent lack of speed shown at the Combine suddenly tarnished his NFL potential.
Of course, after turning in a brilliant rookie campaign in 2010, all thoughts of Haden's Combine have vanished. As the Combine wraps up on Tuesday, a similar fate could await either of this year's top two cornerback prospects, LSU's Patrick Peterson and Nebraska's Prince Amukamara. Currently, Peterson is being considered as a potential top 5 pick, while Amukamara is perhaps the draft's most complete defensive back. Of course, in a nod to forgotten history, all could change if either player clocks in a fraction of a second slower than expected.
THE NEXT A.J. GREEN
Remember when Georgia's A.J. Green was being called "the next Calvin Johnson?" Or how about at least "the Browns' first round draft pick?" After what some draft analysts are characterizing as a disappointing 40-yard dash time (4.50), Green's momentum has seemed to slow. Thanks in part to Julio Jones' blazing Combine numbers, suddenly Green has some competition at the top of the draft. Of course, when analyzing future NFL wide receivers, it's worth remembering such names as Matt Jones, Charles Rogers, Troy Williamson and Chad Jackson.
Or on the other hand, perhaps the Combine performances of Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin, TCU's Jeremy Kerley and Oregon's Jeff Maehl should be taken with a grain of salt.
TRACK AND FIELD STARS
Speaking of speed, the post-modern version of the NFL we are addicted to rewards the league's fastest players – at least on draft day. Not coincidentally, draft prospects train specifically to stand out at the NFL Combine. While the logic here is a bit skewed, especially considering that on NFL Sundays most players rarely have the chance to run untouched in timed intervals, the point is that draft prospects have exclusively focused on the Combine's unique sort of testing.
Having said this, what are we to make of the following players' performances?
These four running backs posted the fastest 40-yard dash times over the past few days, yet can any truly be considered as draft-worthy? With the exception of Tennessee's Chris Johnson, rarely does such a Combine performance ensure future NFL success. In fact, when evaluating a potential NFL running back, perhaps a better test would be some kind of futuristic genetic analysis – preferably one that pinpoints the exact second when an athlete's knee cartilage is about to shred into tiny fragments.
Of course, the most amusing stories to come out of any NFL Scouting Combine are the results – leaked or otherwise – of the infamous Wonderlic test. The Wonderlic, a cognitive ability test designed to show a potential draftee's capacity for learning, has been reduced to a football punch line. Stripping away any sort of athletic talent or even hand-eye coordination, the test is seemingly designed to see how fast a player can process information. Of course, considering the speed of an actual NFL game, perhaps the test should be taken while the players are being chased around the field by 330-lb. linemen.
Anyway, Alabama's Greg McElroy is reported to have scored a 48 on his Wonderlic test. This is an impressive number, at least until you realize that McElroy rivals Ken Dorsey in terms of arm strength. Also, Dan Marino's Wonderlic score of 16 didn't seem to affect his NFL potential.
THE HARVEST TRADITION
If anything, the NFL's Scouting Combine is just that – a combine – or a chance for all the league's scouts and personnel to gather in one place and pour over the newest crop of incoming league talent. In this sense, what actually occurs is mostly inconsequential. Very little new information will be learned and what was previously known will likely just be reinforced in the eyes of the beholder.
Beyond all of this, what remains is simply an NFL offseason tradition. And despite the history that has already rendered the Scouting Combine as a less than necessary component of the draft process, the tradition will continue. After all, one never questions why we follow traditions. We just do.