INDIANAPOLIS — Former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo is laughing. Ridiculous, he keeps saying.
Think about this: the NFL Scouting Combine used to be spontaneous. It used to be a place devoid of structure, of media, of hype.
Back in the old days of the combine — the ’80s and ’90s — interviews with players weren’t organized. Angelo and other scouts and team executives grabbed players in the lobby, in the hallways, and either talked to them on the spot or set up interviews in hotel rooms later.
“Catch-as-catch-can,” former agent Leigh Steinberg put it.
Naturally, that led to run-ins. That’s why Angelo is laughing. It was the Wild West of player evaluation.
“Guys would go after each other,” Angelo said. “‘He’s mine next! No, he’s mine!’ It was ridiculous. You would get people screaming in the lobby. It was just ridiculous. Hey, these were big men now. And the biggest guy usually won the conversation if you know what I mean.”
As he walked into the combine this year, Patriots coach Bill Belichick thought about his first combine at Arizona State in 1985. That one, he said, was held outdoors and didn’t finish until dusk. The lasting image for Belichick was William “the Refrigerator” Perry doing the vertical jump in near darkness.
“Now we have the banners on the streets,” Belichick said. “We have the NFL Network and this is a huge media event. And fan event.”
There are two on-site television sets, ESPN and NFL Network. There are more than 900 credentialed media members. There is a public focus on the results of the 40-yard dash and bench press that was unimaginable 20 years ago.
“The way they have it now is so organized,” Angelo said. “They took all of that funny stuff out. Everybody kind of gets it. Everything is scripted. Everybody understands the drill. There are no glitches now. In fact, they’ve made it very sterile. The only excitement you’ll see is maybe at night you’ll see somebody in a bar.”
The most discussed part of the combine is whether it has much value or if it is an event to keep the NFL’s name in the news. Two former general managers — Angelo and longtime Colts executive Bill Polian — both agreed the combine is a huge asset to teams. Just not in the way the average fan might think.
“Regardless of what you saw during the year in terms of a player’s tape, whatever work that you did, it can’t be authenticated until he goes through the combine,” Angelo said.
The combine’s greatest value is allowing teams to give physicals to a large group of players. Angelo and Polian said each team usually sends between three to six doctors to evaluate a players injury history and health. Teams will often ask players to get X-rays or MRIs and then pass or fail them physically.
“You need the medical,” Polian said. “(Former Giants general manager) George Young used to say: ‘If everything else went away but the medical it would still be valuable.”’
The other valuable parts of the combine are learning the players’ real measurables: height, weight, 40-yard dash time, hand size, wing span.
“It’s the scout’s bible,” Angelo said.
Those also are the most scrutinized aspects. Not only do fans and analysts scour through times and measurements (Johnny Manziel’s height was the most talked about portion of the combine’s second day), but they are brushed off by skeptics as inconsequential. Running the 40-yard dash or bench pressing are not specific to playing football, and there are enough examples of guys who either had poor outings at the combine or were never invited in the first place to rip apart the importance of the ballooned event.
Quarterback Russell Wilson went in the third round after being overshadowed at the combine. Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith wasn’t invited to the combine. Neither were receivers Doug Baldwin or Jermaine Kearse. Both scored touchdowns in the Super Bowl.
Baldwin, in fact, took to Twitter on Friday to express an opinion shared by many when it comes to the combine.
“Don’t be sucked in to ESPN, NFL Network and all these money-making media outlets,” Baldwin tweeted. “Their singular purpose is to entertain you. Make you think something is important when it really isn’t. It’s not for news, it’s for ratings. They want you to be sucked into their opinions. Why? That pushes their brand and eventually makes them money at some level. I’m asking you, the fans, to be informed. Do your own thinking. They will say a guy is too short to play QB . . . he’ll win a Super Bowl. They will say he’s too small to play linebacker. He’ll make an interception for a touchdown in this biggest stage the game has to offer. They will say he is too tall to play corner, not quick enough, not smart enough . . . and become the best corner in the game.”
And yet the measurements do matter. Polian and Angelo said teams compare the results of guys currently at the combine to those from Pro Bowlers. Did player X fit in line with how other successful players at his position performed at past combines?
“That’s a benchmark, and you know what the benchmark is,” Polian said. “I can get up at 2 o’clock in the morning and recite what the benchmarks are for every position on our team.”
But the results matter. The combine is a piece of a very large and complex puzzle, not the final image.
“Look at it this way: Say you have three levels,” Angelo said. “This is what we did. The A level, that’s the first and second round. The B level is the third and fourth round. And the C level is rounds five through seven. You have guys graded on those levels. To keep them on the highest level, they have to produce the workout.
“If you have a guy targeted as a wide receiver and you think he’s going to run really fast and he runs a 4.58, you’re taking that guy from level A and putting him in level B. And then there might be a guy on level B who you have pegged as average and he lights it up. He runs a 4.39 and now he moves up a level. That’s what teams do.”
But Polian also offered caution for other aspects of the combine.
“The biggest misconception about this is how a player performs throwing the ball or catching it means something to his draft status,” Polian said. “It doesn’t. It’s all what he does on tape. And then the measurables.”
Steinberg, the former agent to some of the game’s biggest names, also laughs at the evolution of the combine over the years. It has grown into a hulking production while maintaining some of the core reasons why it was founded.
“It’s evolved and morphed into an inside football event into the Super Bowl of draft assessment,” Steinberg said.