It’s begun: the annual NFL convention/festival where rookies-to-be are injected, inspected, detected, and infected with hopes of getting selected—and the fear of getting neglected.
I have no idea who named the event the "combine", but it fits. I’m sure it was intended as a reference to the farm implement: a device that takes up crops, draws out the nutritious grain, and leaves the waste behind. The correlation is obvious: separating the wheat from the chaff; the men from the boys.
To me, the name “Combine” has darker correlations. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is narrated by a character who sees “the Combine” in almost everything. The Combine is his name for the engines of conformity that drive our culture: everything we experience, from children’s games to table manners, prepares us to slot neatly into our prescribed social niche. Behavior that does not fit is discouraged, and those who simply cannot fit into the larger whole are weeded out—medicated, institutionalized, imprisoned, lobotomized.
Nobody is going to institutionalize a small-school cornerback who cuts a 4.69 40, of course, but it’s the same idea. Athletes are weighed and measured in several dimensions; if they don’t measure up, their value falls. Athletes are given a thorough medical workout; if an old injury spells bad news for the future, their value falls. Athletes are interviewed day and night by journalists, scouts, coaches, general managers, even entire front offices; if they can’t handle the interrogations, their value falls. Finally, they’re made to do drills: real football drills, often against each other. If they make a mistake, or simply fail to impress, their value falls.
The NFL is a business–a BIG business. There are 32 franchises worth nearly a billion dollars each. The pressure for an athlete to perform isn’t simply from within, or from a coach he respects and fears—it’s from his owner and fans, demanding he justify their mind-boggling financial investment in him.
The combine, for athletes, is a five-day, full-body job interview; every step they take could be the one that costs them their chosen career. Do they fit? Can they hang? Are they wheat—or are they chaff?
As a television observer, the most information doesn’t come from the 40 or the bench press—these often have little bearing on game strength or speed. What I love watching is the drillwork. Seeing these players in nothing but very clearly labelled Under Armor workout gear, going through actual football motions, you start to understand the jargonized language scouts have developed to describe some of the ineffable qualities of athleticism that separate the wheat and the chaff: short-area-quickness. maxed-out. suddenness. stiff hips.
One of the most memorable moments of recent combines was watching Joe Thomas do drillwork. He was so phenomenally composed, so perfect in form and execution. Things other athletes were giving everything they had just to pull off, he executed with picture-perfect technique every time, maintaining balance and composure.
He was so plainly head-and-shoulders above every other tackle prospect there, I couldn’t believe it. When he quickly established himself as one of the better tackles in the league, I wasn’t surprised. It really focused how I think about the draft, and how fans latch on to “their guys”, many of whom they’ve never seen play. You can check out all the numbers. You can read all the magazines, websites, blogs, and forums. But until you watch these guys compete on a level playing field, you can’t see what they’re really made of.
Peter King recently wrote an article poo-poohing the importance of the combine. There’s a key bit of information in there, though: his source is a highly placed NFL exec, who notes that his draft board is 90% set before the combine, because they’ve already watched all the film. They’ve already watched all the tape. They’ve already scouted these players—in the case of top prospects, watched every snap they’ve ever taken. The combine is for confirming what’s already known, or uncover what red flags aren’t known, than about finding out whether these players are wheat or chaff.
Finally, a couple of interesting links: