When the NFL sent out a memo two weeks ago to the 324 draft prospects invited to this week’s scouting combine in Indianapolis informing them that they were going to be restricted to a “bubble” during their stay in Indy, well, the sh*t hit the fan.
The agents for the players justifiably wondered why in the heck a league that had pretty much declared COVID-19 dead two months earlier suddenly felt the need to put restrictive protocols in place for their showcase scouting event just as most of the rest of the country finally was unmasking and trying to return to a new normal.
A group of them, led by Texas-based agent Ron Slavin, threatened to have their clients, who accounted for more than half of the players invited to the combine, boycott the workouts unless the league got rid of the bubble protocols, which included restricting the players to secure areas during their four days in Indy for medical testing, interviews and workouts, limiting their access to their support personnel and threatening them with expulsion if they violated any of the protocols.
Considering that the league’s television arm, NFL Network, already was committed to broadcasting nearly 50 hours of programming from the combine this week, much of it in prime time, the NFL realized it was in no position to play hardball on something that was a dumb idea in the first place. They quickly sent out an Emily Litella-like follow-up memo that said, never mind.
“It didn’t make any sense,” Slavin said. “I mean, I get it that it’s all about image and you have to act like you care about COVID. But when you showed your cards during the playoffs and Super Bowl that you didn’t care about COVID anymore, all of a sudden on March 1 COVID matters again? Very hypocritical.”
“The weird part of it was [the bubble] was only going to be for the players,” said Mike McCartney, an agent, former NFL scout, and personnel executive with the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears. “The coaches could spend all day at the combine, then go to Prime 47 (a popular downtown Indianapolis eatery) all night and show up the next day and interview players. It’s just unbelievable what they think they’re doing in the name of player safety sometime.”
“I think you probably would have seen a good number of them carry through on that threat and not done it, not worked out,” said the main face of the NFL Network’s combine coverage this week, Daniel Jeremiah. “I was glad to see everything get worked out. But I totally understand where the agents were coming from, just because you’ve been going forward with one idea in mind of how you’re going to get ready for this event, and then that changed late.”
Even without the bubble, agents still have a lot of issues with the combine. They have long insisted that the conditions the players are subjected to during their testing in Indy, particularly with respect to nutrition and rest, are not conducive to peak performance.
“In the days leading up to playing a game, NFL teams want their players well-rested, well-fed, at peak optimum levels,” said McCartney. “But the combine notoriously has been, let’s just wear them out for three days, then on the fourth day, we’re going to cram everything in as early as we can get them up.
“The food isn’t good. It’s not tailored to each individual player. And they’re not well-rested. That said, I think it’s gotten a little better. I think (combine director) Jeff Foster and his group have done a good job of trying to find a happy medium.”
“The experience compares much more to a boot camp than anything else,” said longtime agent Leigh Steinberg. “The players fly across the country. They’re weighed and measured. They’re moved through rotations with different doctors and with teams for interviews and testing. It doesn’t really give them much time to rest.”
Said Slavin: “I know the combine has said they’re going to make changes with the nutrition plan this year. But there are 330 kids that all have different diet and nutrition plans at their training facilities. I have five kids at the combine and all five have a different (nutrition) plan.
“The reality is, when the bloodwork is done, you have to know what people can and can’t eat. You have to know if people are lactose intolerant, if people have gluten issues. There’s so much more that goes into it than just saying, oh, we hired a nutritionist and he’s going to make things better for this guy.”
Former NFL executive Joe Banner said he is sympathetic to many of the complaints about the schedule and lack of rest players get at the combine. But he thinks it crosses the line into whining when agents start talking about things like nutrition, needing their personal strength coach, et al. “Some of this stuff, like, Oh my God, I can’t see my nutritionist for 36 hours, this is just an unnecessary stirring of the pot in my view,” Banner said. “Some of these players are incredibly disciplined about this stuff. But a lot of them aren’t.
“If you’re an agent and are crying over something like your guy isn’t going to be able to see his nutritionist for a day or two and you advise a guy who’s projected to be a third-round pick not to work out, I think the player should fire you.”
Conditions Not Ideal
The spartan conditions at the combine admittedly are much different than the ones most of the prospects dealt with the previous two months during their training for the combine and the other critical pre-draft workout, their Pro Day.
“All players go off to training centers now in January and February to prepare for the draft,” Steinberg said. “They have a team around them that consists of a nutritionist, a masseuse, a speed coach, a strength coach.
“In contemporary football, proper nutrition, training techniques, stretching and working with those experienced specialists has become vital. That’s why there was such an uproar over the bubble thing. It was overly restrictive.
“You’ve got players with heightened stress levels getting ready for a process that’s going to determine their future. You want to make them as comfortable as possible and provide them with as much support as you can.”
The league’s decision in 2020 to move most of the drills to late afternoon and evening and turn the combine into a full-fledged television event actually has benefitted the players, since it gives them an opportunity to rest in the afternoon before they have to work out, though scheduling the 225-pound bench press the morning they’re supposed to run has drawn objections from agents.
“(The evening workouts) gives them a chance to get some rest,” McCartney said. “Having the bench press on the same day doesn’t make the most sense. But at least the players have time if they want to take a nap or get stretched out or whatever they need to do to prepare. It’s a much better situation than in the past when they had to get up very early in the morning and go over to this cold environment (at Lucas Oil Stadium) and try to do their best when they’re exhausted.”
From Top-Secret to Must-See-TV
The combine has been held in Indianapolis since 1987. For the better part of the first two decades, the league ran it like a CIA operation. They discouraged the media from attending – they would often remove the furniture from the hotel lobby where the players stayed so reporters couldn’t sit down — and treated the 40-yard dash times and other test results like classified secrets. The Eagles actually fired a scout once that they believed divulged 40 times to a reporter.
That all changed after the NFL Network arrived in 2004. At that point, the league finally realized the combine was the perfect vehicle to generate offseason headlines and interest in the game after the Super Bowl.
They began televising the drills, although at first, they wouldn’t give the results to their own broadcasters. They opened the combine doors to the media and gave them access to the prospects, as well as most of the league’s coaches and general managers. They even started letting fans in to watch the workouts.
Now that they’ve turned the combine into must-see early-March TV, the league now has decided to put the event out to bid beginning next year, much like it now does with the draft. Los Angeles and Dallas appear to be the frontrunners, but according to NFL sources, the league is leaning toward keeping the medical examinations in Indianapolis, which is not going to please the agents.
“I’m not sure I’d be excited about making a guy get on two flights rather than one,” McCartney said. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The Combine’s Future
Many people on both sides of the fence feel that the combine, with the exception of the medical exams, has outlived its usefulness.
They think the league should just turn the workouts into a separate TV event with cash prizes, get the medicals and the measurables separately and focus on the Pro Day workout closer to the draft, when players typically perform better anyway.
“The original premise was to get the medical information, have it done under one roof, and have it done as efficiently and completely as possible,” said Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian. “That’s the reason for the existence of the combine.
“If you gave every personnel director in the league sodium pentothal, they would tell you that the drills mean nothing. It’s part of the television show. So, if we just had the medicals and measurables at the combine, it would serve its purpose.”
Slavin completely agrees. He points to last year, when the combine was cancelled because of COVID.
“Last year showed that just bringing people in here (to Indianapolis) to do the medicals, it works,” he said. “Everybody had their Pro Days and got a chance to work out there under more optimal conditions than Indy. They were in familiar surroundings. They were at their school. They slept in their own bed the night before. They were in their comfort zone.”
Said Steinberg: “When I first got into the agent business in 1975 representing Steve Bartkowski, players played their season, had a chance to play in a couple of all-star games and then the league had the draft in January.
“For much of the history of the NFL, teams have relied on game film to evaluate players. Somehow, football survived. Someone needs to prove to me that, with all of the modern scouting techniques, with the character studies, with the analytical information and the combine and the Pro Days, that they’re drafting any better than they did 40 years ago. With much more limited information, they drafted as well as they do today with an arsenal of research and testing information.”
Jeremiah: Combine Still Has Value
The NFL Network’s Jeremiah, a former NFL scout, still feels the combine has a value to teams beyond the medicals. Not so much the 40 time or vertical jump or three-cone drill, but the position drills.
“I think it’s still valuable from the standpoint of watching these guys all move around on the field together,” he said. “When you’ve got four corners that you’ve got the same grade on and they’re all out there at the same time doing the same drills, it helps you to be able to separate them and evaluate them in terms of how they move.
“I think some people would say, Well, you see everything on tape so you don’t need to have the combine. You have all this technology. That’s true, but you know what? If you watch a corner and he never plays press, I want to see how he moves when he gets up in there. I want to see how he pedals.
“Or you may have a 230-pound defensive end that you’ve got to write up as an off-the-ball linebacker. I sure as heck would like to see him do some linebacker drills. It helps with context.”
Once upon a time, many agents discouraged their clients from working out at the combine. Advised them to wait until their Pro Day. Told them a poor performance at the combine in front of most of the league’s coaches, scouts and GMs would cause irreparable harm to their draft stock, even if they had a better performance later at their Pro Day workout.
At one point, the league even changed the running surface used for the 40-yard dash after players complained it was too slow.
Combine v. Pro Day
The league tried to convince the players to work out by using the two-bites-of-the-apple argument. Insisted that working out both in Indy and at their Pro Day gave them two opportunities to impress and that the league would only consider their best performance.
Said Slavin: “I don’t believe that at all. In Indy, a kid is running in front of all 32 GMs, all 32 owners, all 32 coaches. Everybody is there. If you’re not right and you have a bad combine, it can really hurt you.
“I had a player years ago who had the flu the night before. He wanted to push through it and work out. He didn’t have a good 40. He went from being a guy that was considered a late-first, early-second rounder to a third-rounder. He had had a great senior season and an awesome Senior Bowl. Everybody was loving the kid up before the combine. Then he got sick at the combine, tested poorly and fell on draft day.”
McCartney, who spent nearly a decade working as an NFL scout, disagrees with Slavin. He said if a player performs poorly at the combine, but then does well at his Pro Day, his combine performance will be discarded.
“I see the value of the combine for a player because it gives you two bites at the apple,” McCartney said. “If you do everything well at the combine, you don’t have to worry about your Pro Day. Some guys take a risk by not doing anything at the combine. What happens if you wake up sick the morning of your Pro Day?
“I worked as a scout in the league. I believe the teams just want the best time. That’s what we did. I know because I was the guy who entered the data for six of the nine years I worked in the league.”