The combine is the place where a prospect's dreams are made or crushed. However unfairly, a lot of teams and most fans judge these kids based on their 40-yard-dash times. With the already tough pressure of a single day being a large determination on your future, there is the added pressure of 24/7 media coverage from every angle. A website tracker that puts up your combine numbers for everyone to see, a network devoted to the NFL showing you run and jump live only to have your moments replayed over and over and over again.
If there was ever a comparison to be made, it is obviously a meat market. You are paraded in front of potential suitors, measured and tested to see how you will fare. Sadly, guys that will end up having a great career will be drafted well after guys that will end up being flops; simply based on how fast they ran 40 yards. We always hear and draw back to guys like Tom Brady and Jerry Rice that were selected late in the draft and ended up being superstars, while pointing out the Jamarcus Russel's of the group that were selected first and were out of the NFL completely within a few years.
So why is it that even the best of teams can be swayed by simple measurable stats instead of paying attention to a player's game tape? It makes complete sense for the layman fan to be enamored by a receiver that shows blazing speed at the combine only to be let down when they can't run a route or catch a pass, but the NFL is filled with guys that have dedicated their lives to the study of players and scheme and even they get fooled regularly.
Part of the reason is that game tape can only tell so much about an individual player. We hear it all the time, that football is the "ultimate team sport". So how can we judge a single player when there are so many factors around him that can skew the results either positive or negative? The combine survives as the only time we'll see a player fail or succeed on their own. A terrible showing at every workout could mean that a player is hurt or that they just can't handle the glitz and glamour of being viewed by millions of people on the world's largest stage. But then again, with so much riding on positive results, almost every player at the combine has been spending the last few months being trained by people specifically on how to better their workout results instead of real world talent. Guys are taught to keep themselves low out of their break in the 40-yard-dash to shave hundredths of seconds off their time. They are bench pressing weight that will never really translate to stiff arms or blocking ability. So can we really take any stock in anything the combine shows us?
Yes, we actually can. The biggest aspect of the combine has to do with the one-on-one interviews that each prospect will face. Every team has the opportunity to interview every single player, and while even those results are coached, there is little someone can do to turn a bumbling fool into a world class speaker overnight. Those results shine through and they say a lot about the player and their mentality at every level. For some guys, the interviews will be the absolute end or start to their careers. Guys like Dorial Green-Beckham can either make themselves an undrafted player or put them in the first round of the draft, just by how they answer some simple questions. Sadly for the fans, these interviews are locked away and not really discussed in the open. Even then, there are some guys like DGB that fans will hear rumblings about how they fared that can clue us into the momentum swing their career is having.
The Baltimore Ravens are one of the teams that really focuses on the interviews and it has done them well so far. For the most part, they have stayed away from the trouble that some of these kids bring with them. All while grabbing players that slid due to conduct issues, but that put it behind them. The biggest name to think of is Jimmy Smith, a player that many analysts had marked down a round due to some off-the-field issues he had during his college career. While a tough coach and veteran locker room certainly is to credit for Smith's clean nose in the pros, taking the time to research his issues and talk to him helped the Ravens glean a little more information that teams with higher draft picks, leading to Smith being the best corner selected in the first round of that draft. Can a team like the Ravens nab a player with issues that has turned their lives around, all for a bargain? That is the question that every fan should be asking instead of who ran the fastest.
On Friday, the NFL combine truly starts. Enough of the press conferences and shaking hands, the feet hit the track for the tight ends, offensive linemen and special teams players. The annual meat market starts, but we can be better than before by not taking as much stock in workout results and instead, paying attention to a full body of work and judging them based on those merits.