Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Behind the scenes at the combine
By Field Yates
The NFL combine has grown into a mega-offseason event. It's televised on the league-owned NFL Network and it serves as a grand opportunity for hundreds of coaches and scouts to descend upon a focused area of downtown Indianapolis, often using the downtime of the event to talk about many things -- some of which doesn't involve football.
2014 NFL SCOUTING COMBINE
The 2014 NFL scouting combine is Feb. 19-25 in Indianapolis.
The highlight of the event is the physical testing that takes place. The 40-yard sprint times, the bench press reps, the positional drills. It all adds up.
But those events take up only so much time of the day -- there's plenty more business to be done.
In an effort to bring the behind-the-scenes of the combine to life, here's a rundown of some of the goings-on at the event from a team-personnel side.
The combine runs for a full week (often Wednesday-to-Wednesday), but each player is there for only a portion of that time (typically a total of two or three nights, depending on travel arrangements). Players are broken up by position so as to manage the available space and resources (hotel rooms, hospital space for MRIs and other medical examinations, transportation, etc.).
One of the unique aspects about the combine is the location. It's held annually in Indianapolis, with Lucas Oil Stadium serving as headquarters.
But from a lodging standpoint, all players are housed at a local hotel that has some flavor to it, as many of the rooms are actually old train cars that have been transformed into bedrooms.
Within that same hotel, each NFL team has a room that serves as a home base and where they conduct player interviews at night (more on that later).
Players are assigned roommates from within their position group, and it's exciting to observe highly-touted players interact to get a feel for how they're examining the process -- some treat the players at their position as competition at the event, others develop fast friendships.
At its core, the combine is a workout showcase for the players. They've been training since the conclusion of their season to get into the best shape of their lives.
At last year's combine, Jamie Collins caught the Patriots' attention with his explosiveness.
Among the first orders of business for players is to be put through a thorough physical examination conducted by NFL team doctors. It's a collaborative effort that can take hours to complete.
The exams include MRIs, bone scans, basic physical tests (eye and ear checkups) and anything else the doctors deem necessary to fully understand the scope of a player's medical history. This is the first time teams will be able to conduct a medical examination of their own, and they can't afford to invest in a player whose physical state would preclude him from maximum performance.
Leading up to the 2011 NFL draft, Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers was widely considered a top- tier prospect who did not have an extensive history of injuries in his past. It was during the pre-draft process, however, that teams discovered a concerning knee issue that forced him to slide down draft boards, eventually landing near the top of the second round with the Buccaneers.
The medical examination process can be meticulous -- even cumbersome -- but it's critical.
The next step for players is their height and weight measurements, conducted first thing in the morning inside Lucas Oil Stadium in an auxiliary room with a bleacher full of NFL personnel. A precise scale measures weight, and height is recorded down to the eighth of an inch.
When a player's height is taken, it's listed in four digits. The first represents feet, the second and third represent inches, the fourth represents eighths of an inch. 6043 means six feet, four and three eighths on an inch, for example.
The premium events -- the 40-yard sprint, three-cone, vertical jump, etc. -- are well advertised and understood. One interesting note to add, however, is that many teams use their own personnel to record 40 times, rather than relying on the league-operated radar clock. Call it old school, but it's commonplace.
The portion of the event that is least visible for fans is the interview process, but in some ways it's nearly as important as the physical testing.
Teams have only so much access to the prospects face-to-face, but the combine adds plenty of time to get to know these players.
There are essentially three venues and forms of interviews, and two take place at night (often from 8 to 11 p.m.).
The first are the organized, scheduled interviews. Teams coordinate with the NFL and request players that they would like to meet with in private in their home base, and the NFL develops an itinerary for each player.
The combine is a good time for brothers Jim and John Harbaugh to compare notes and just hang out.
The interview process begins with the sound of a foghorn, starting a 15-minute window to interview the prospect. Some teams lean heavily on film study, others prefer to talk background, and some let the conversation flow naturally.
While some teams "decorate" their headquarters with flags, jerseys and other memorabilia (plus food and drinks), others prefer a simpler set-up.
The Patriots, for example, keep fewer bodies in the room for this process and have a fairly basic set-up. While some teams may have upwards of a dozen staff members in their room, the Patriots often have closer to half of that.
When the 15-minute window expires, the horn blows again, and a scramble ensues. Teams assign a runner to pick up the next prospect to interview from whichever room he was in before, and it's an effort to get him to their team room as quickly as possible.
This is perhaps the most impactful interview routine, as it is a controlled and quiet environment.
That stands in contrast to the second interview routine, which takes place in what was formerly a downtown Indianapolis train station and resembles something of a free-for-all.
Players enter the massive old station and simply wait for a team to find them. A runner for each team is assigned and he is responsible to track down the players a team has interest in speaking with. There are no rules on time and -- frankly -- not much etiquette on how players are tracked.
It turns into an every-man-for-himself situation quickly, as there are some players that nearly every team wants to speak with.
Once a runner tracks a player down, he brings that player to a table where he can communicate with coaches.
Two anecdotes from the 2010 combine, when I was working in the scouting department for the Kansas City Chiefs, that I won't soon forget: The first was a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps, as during the informal interview process the Broncos spent an awful lot of time with Tim Tebow, the player they would take in the first round.
The second was that Javier Arenas, now a Cardinals cornerback, was as sharp as a tack in talking X's and O's, something I grew to realize was commonplace among Alabama prospects, who all were exceptionally well-coached under Nick Saban. The Chiefs would later take Arenas with the 50th overall selection.
The third and final interview form was casual conversations with players during quiet portions of the day or night. There was no script, just whatever came to mind. Players were often their most relaxed during this time.
Catching up with others around the league
The last portion worth pointing out was briefly alluded to before, but bears breaking down more.
With virtually every coach and scout in the same area, NFL-ers use the combine to catch up with former colleagues, friends they've met along the way, and others they meet for the first time. At the higher level, GMs may brainstorm on trade ideas, etc., but the conversation can cover any ground.
When you put hundreds of people who live and breathe football in the same city, you can bet that the conversation often focuses around league-wide trends and what's in store for the next season, but some prefer to talk about other areas of interest to unwind from the daily routine.
The combine is different for each person, and there's more to it than is described above. Consider this rundown our effort to draw the curtain for a glimpse into some of the aspects not covered on the broadcast of the event.
The media routine differs from what goes on from the team side, but it's no less exciting to be a part of.